Getting everyone on the same page is the first step to ensuring the new Brainerd Public Schools equity advisory task force will be effective.
School board member Charles Black Lance, who sits on the task force, updated the board on the group’s early stages Monday, Oct. 12.
The committee was formed after district administrators issued a letter of commitment to equity in June. The letter came after a Forestview Middle School teacher resigned following racially charged Facebook comments that inspired backlash throughout the community. One of the actions included in the district’s letter was the creation of a multidisciplinary advisory task force with representatives skilled in cultural competency and racial equality to bring forth prioritized recommendations for board consideration.
That group now consists of parents, teachers, students and administrators, including Superintendent Laine Larson, Assistant Superintendent Heidi Hahn, Director of Teaching and Learning Tim Murtha and Riverside Elementary School Principal Sheila Eller. Black Lance is also a member, along with Mary Sam, who is the diversity and equity and tribal relations director at Central Lakes College.
“We’ve just got a really nice team of people on this committee,” Larson said Monday.
Board member Bob Nystrom asked how many people of color are in the group, and Black Lance said at least three, maybe four, including himself, which he feels is a good percentage for the Brainerd area.
That team has met three times so far to lay the groundwork and make sure everyone has the same ideals.
“Some of the areas that we really need to be looking at from where I sit … is just really looking at making sure this particular task force is on the same page on basic items such as equity and inclusion,” Black Lance said. “... What does that mean? What is that to you? We need to make sure we’re all pulling in the same direction.”
It’s also important to make sure board members and the rest of the administration are on the same page, too, he said.
“Because this task force isn’t going to be able to really grab the traction that they need if they don’t have us pushing appropriately and encouraging them from our particular seat,” Black Lance said of the board.
Next, the group needs to figure out what the first steps will be in working to create a safe landing space in the district for not only students of color and with different ethnic and religious backgrounds, but extending that to staff as well to make sure everyone in the district can feel safe.
“It’s really important for my children to have somebody on board professionally — either a teacher or an aide or a person in the cafeteria — that looks like them,” Black Lance said of his three kids, who are of American Indian heritage. “And that’s some of the more basic stuff that we need to be looking at as a school district. And those are some of the items that we’re really kind of mulling over right now. I don’t have all the answers. We don’t have all the answers, but I do believe — like Laine has said about the COVID crisis — that we’re starting to get the proper players in place to be able to start moving this forward.”
One big obstacle the group will have to overcome going forward, he said, is recognizing similar initiatives in the district’s past that maybe didn’t pan out and moving past the idea of “starting over.”
“We’re going to have to name that, own that and then move on,” he said. “It’s an effort that can really be disheartening at times when you feel like, ‘I’ve been to this spot in the woods already. I’ve been here before.’ And it’s really important, I hope, that the board realizes that but also encourages us.”