Letter to Blair Admin from a Class of 2020 alum

June 30, 2020, 8:01 p.m. | By Adiba Chowdhury | 9 months, 2 weeks ago

A call to change the underlying issues at Blair.

Dear Blair Administrators,

My name is Adiba Chowdhury, and I’m reaching out because as an alum of the Class of 2020, I believe that support for marginalized communities in our school system is long overdue. I know in these last few days, many survivors of sexual violence have bravely come forward to share their stories and call for action. My heart goes out to them; like many others, I am lucky to have only experienced street harassment in a world that does not hold perpetrators of assault accountable and that blames their victims.

That luck may not last when our school directly contributes to the normalization of abuse, and especially so towards people of color. In my opinion, this last week highlights once again that Blair upholds a culture in which only the most privileged flourish, on both an individual and structural level.

There are individuals who should receive blame in racist and abusive situations; those who commit abhorrent acts of sexual violence are undeniably at the top of that list. They should receive the right consequences, but I would also highlight those that contribute to the development of such situations. These include staff that demean their female students, students and teachers that implicitly and explicitly doubt the abilities of Blair’s students of color, and a principal that blocks students on Twitter for speaking out. (My thoughts on that are available here.)

However, I believe true accountability only begins when we first recognize the culture and a system that enables such individual actions, and when we address the ways in which we have harmed each other. The trivialization of sexual violence - as in, rape culture - is a part of this. So is the continued prioritization of the choice programs at the expense of students of color. As a OneBlair organizer, I’m incredibly familiar with how Blair continues to give Magnet and CAP students resources, education, and social superiority while hindering the success of Black and Latinx students.

I meet students who have never met people outside of the programs, and some who don’t want to. I see ESOL students segregated from the rest of the building, relying on Chromebook carts and the bare minimum of resources for their education. I know that Black students - and Black women especially - hurt when teachers ignore them in class, refer carelessly to significantly racialized topics, and fail to support them altogether. They have also had to act as teachers themselves, constantly pushing for change and accepting that they may never be heard. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the work that Black women have done at Blair, including as leaders of OneBlair, the Student Government Association, the Minority Scholars Program, GirlUp, and other clubs. As a Muslim woman and organizer myself, I can personally relate to having to act as the representative of an entire community of people of color, and never getting enough support in return.

In that same vein, the response to such calls for action is deeply disappointing and disheartening. I don’t just mean Principal Johnson blocking students, although that is as well. I mean the way some Blair teachers and students are so used to superiority that they ignored the valid points of a Silver Chips article calling into question the privilege of the choice programs (referring to “Do Cap And Magnet Benefit The Student Body?”) in favor of brushing it aside and leaving it to myself and other OneBlair organizers to attempt building a dialogue. I mean the way sexual harassment and rape culture has been overlooked for years, when female students get catcalled, assaulted, ignored, demeaned, and devalued, as well as failed by a counseling and reporting system that claims to protect them. I mean the way that in the last week, survivors’ requests for change and real improvements to education were ignored in favor of involving the police; while I acknowledge that the Blair administration has rules to follow, and have my own opinions on how police often exacerbate or cause survivors’ trauma, the demands for teaching and creating a culture of consent were completely missed. I mean the way that Magnet teacher Eric Walstein was allowed to retire without having faced consequences for the treatment of women in his classroom. I mean the way Black students’ activism against racism has often been limited or rejected completely. These examples are simply part of a whole environment that left the most marginalized students to suffer while trying to learn.

That leaves one final question: what does fix the issues at hand?

The first and foremost solution I can offer is listening to students. Here are just some of the changes that Blair can implement, based on an MCPS-wide letter that over 1000 students have signed:

  • “Create safe spaces for survivors to talk about their experiences and receive support from the counseling services. This includes students and staff.”
  • “Train staff and administrators on how to deal with sexual assault victims and victims of abuse. The current training on reporting and prevention are not working and need to be completely re-imagined.”
  • “Require education for all [Blair] students on Title IX and its process of reporting. This could be through school assemblies or be a part of syllabuses to ensure that all students receive this information.”
  • “Amend Health Education curriculums to include more topical areas on consent, LGBTQ+ sex education, Intimate Partner Violence, Healthy Relationships, Trauma, and Sexual Assault through a lens of Intersectionality.”
  • “Have the health curriculum elaborate on safe sex and consent and how consent can be revoked at ANY TIME.”

Additionally, though in recent days and weeks the issues and concerns of LGBTQ+ survivors and students haven’t been addressed, their struggles too must be realized. I’ve heard my peers use the f slur without shame, even shouting it in the hallways. That goes to show just how few actions have been taken to address homophobia. Intersectionality is a key part of the solution.

Listening to students also means responding to and giving them space to share their opinions on racial injustice.

In regards to the aforementioned injustice and the choice programs:

  • Prioritize empowerment for students of color within the fine arts program, including:
  • Extend show dates for Sankofa to 2 weekends to match the fall play and spring musical.
  • Develop additional funding, support, and publicity for Fiesta Blair, to allow Blair’s large Spanish-speaking population to express their pride for their culture to a larger audience.
  • Emphasize the importance of plays and musicals that incorporate minority students in an empowering way (like In the Heights and Rent) rather than in an appropriative way (like Blair’s rendition of Tales of 1001 Nights, and Kismet), and hold the directors accountable for casting people of color in roles meant for people of color.
  • Provide more educational resources for ESOL students, from better technology and increasing the teacher-student ratio to hiring more paraeducators and supporting the Conexiones program.
  • Encourage and open a dialogue regarding the mental health impact of school, including and especially by emphasizing the importance of mental health in ALL classes and better publicizing and expanding mental health services.
  • Hold staff accountable for prejudiced actions, instead of leaving it on the student to go to the counselor or speak out in general and then doing nothing in the face of repeated and ongoing racial bias.
  • Acknowledge and address the way the school-to-prison pipeline and in-school disciplinary actions disproportionately affect Black and Latinx students, while Blair’s security staff and teachers allow white and Asian students to do the same actions without consequences.
  • Hold the uncomfortable conversations required to address the culture and structure of privilege given to the choice programs, as well as racial injustice in general, through Study Circles and school-wide events.
  • Address the unacceptable use of the n word by white teachers and the need for diverse book choices in the English department.
  • Actively bring together Magnet, CAP, and Academy students to strengthen student unity.
  • Expand and publicize access to AP and Magnet classes to students not in either program.
  • Can be done by individual actions, like within meetings with counselors.

I hope you read this letter as a sincere request for change. I must also acknowledge that I reach a wider platform because I am often perceived as more eloquent (and Black people are stereotyped as "ghetto-sounding"); I would expect that the people of color who know the aforementioned examples better than myself be asked for their opinion before my own. Lastly, I know that the current pandemic may make it harder to address all of these issues, even as the impact of the coronavirus exacerbates inequality in education, but that does not serve as an excuse. I’ve had experiences, taken classes, made friends, and gained memories from Blair that I will always cherish. I hope, however, that Blair will be transformed - not just reformed - to match the basic qualities of education that true justice demands.

In solidarity with all marginalized students and communities,

Adiba Chowdhury

Class of 2020

Last updated: July 1, 2020, 9:51 a.m.

Tags: Blair administration
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