Decolonize Your Classroom, Organize Your Community: An Interview with Celia Gottlieb
By: Cerissa DiValentino
Celia Gottlieb is a junior at Middlebury College, majoring in political science, and minoring in Sociology, and Women and Gender Feminist Studies. She is the Director of Highland Students Organizing Against Racism (HSOAR) and the Education Advisor at Next Step Hudson Valley (NSHV). On Tuesday, January 12th, I had the privilege of speaking with Celia about her advocacy work. With only a couple interruptions, including the “beautiful red-tailed hawk” that landed in her yard and caught her attention, Celia spoke with relentless ferocity and pride for the activism she has been doing to decolonize and improve classrooms near and far. Throughout our interview, she provides a vivid account of her experience as the ceaseless “squeaky wheel” in fighting for a more diverse and inclusive education system and prepares our readers with the essential first steps in mobilizing their own community. She also discusses the resources she is currently providing for students and educators, including educational webinars and a forthcoming organizers’ guide for beginning advocators, all free of charge. “Even one mind changed, or one person exposed to these ideas,” says Celia, “is one more person who is going to be on the right side of history.”
Could you start by telling me about your background?
I’m really interested in the intersection of state and local politics and empowering communities to make change through local grassroots advocacy. Organizing, educating and giving communities the tools to do what’s right by them, and pioneering a world that is more equitable. So be it through local policies related to the environment, education, affordable housing—what have you—enacting that change locally, and at the state level. The way that you create real progressive power is on the state and local level.
So, teaching and engaging people in how we do that, and studying how to do it is really my goal with my education at Middlebury. Other than that, I grew up in the Hudson Valley. I went to Highland Central School District K through 12. When I lived in the area, I was very involved with the outdoors. My parents were both small business owners, which led me to really take seriously the way that we empower small business owners. Not only shopping locally but also considering how we get small businesses to buy into solar; how we get small businesses to support each other; to hire locally, but also make sure that they are hiring in a diverse and equitable manner.
In your biography on Next Step Hudson Valley’s website, you say you experienced the shortcomings of our public education system firsthand but also saw the power a quality public education can have. Do you want to elaborate on how this work is personal for you?
The first time that Judaism showed up in the classroom for me at Highland was in the form of anti-Semitism and even before that, the way it showed up was in anti-Semitism ingrained into my classmates. I remember in third grade I was eating lunch with somebody, and their friend wouldn’t sit with us. The reason: “Oh, no, my mom says I can’t eat with her because she’s a Jew.” That was the first time that I knew that I was Jewish, and that it was a dividing factor.
We never learned about Jewish holidays, and I never had an openly Jewish teacher. I learned a lot about Christmas—a holiday my family didn’t really celebrate—the holocaust, and dreidels—and that stuck with me from a very young age. It conditioned me very early on to hide my differences and assimilate into the community there, and that worked for me. I was able to do that pretty easily as a cis white woman—a cis, closeted white woman; that made it even easier, but as I grew older, anti-Semitism began to show up in the classroom, be it through jokes that my teachers made about me being stingy because I was a Jew, or jokes being made in the classroom by students and teachers laughing at them. And then all I learned in class, I mean, do you remember when we watched Schindler’s List?
Yes, I do. I remember that very vividly.
Exactly. All we did was read Boy in the Striped Pajamas and watch Schindler’s List. That was my education on Judaism. Moreover, I saw so many of my classmates, who were deemed unteachable at some point, somehow, fallout. Really though, the school was unbearable because of the racist, homophobic, transphobic, anti-Semitic (you name it) school climate and unengaging because of how exclusionary the curriculum was. I will never forget the day my peer got suspended for “”starting” a fight after being harassed with racial slurs daily in class. The teacher did nothing, one day the harassed student snapped and got punished—that left a lasting impact on me. Throughout my schooling experience, I never felt comfortable in my school, for many people it was unlivable.
In high school, I think I just believed that the world was cruel and I couldn’t do much about it. I was never taught of my power to be an advocate for change. Now, in college the wake-up call wasn’t that the rest of the world is a beautiful place, it is very cruel. The wake-up call was many people across these communities have identified similar issues and want to join you in changing these realities. You’re not alone in the adversity you face, which means you’re not alone in this fight.
I think my first year in college, there was a lot of denial surrounding the things that had happened to me. But as I began to come into myself and my identity through having professors who spoke about issues of power, privilege, race, discrimination, issues of difference in this country, and also through self-discovery from being in an environment where my friends had all came from different places and perspectives, I was really able to start seeing that, yeah, maybe parts of the world are this way, but lots of people want the world to be different.
When I was at home in quarantine, the murder of George Floyd happened. I was on a drive through my neighborhood and I drove past the high school, I thought back to all those times in the school parking lot and seeing Confederate flags everywhere, all I could keep thinking about were the kids in those classrooms still, whether it was virtually or not, that they were experiencing the very same traumas that I tried to run from for the past three years. And, yeah, maybe in a couple of years, they’d be able to run from them too, but that they shouldn’t have to. So, between now and then with the knowledge I had gained in college and some advocacy experience, I was able to start organizing in Highland.
How did you start that process? What was your first step?
I started talking to people; that’s always the first step. If you have an idea, try to find people you’re allied with. My dad kept telling me I was crazy because when I went to school, I would say the only allies I really knew of were my parents. I didn’t really know of anyone else who was outwardly an ally and pursued that work. I thought I wasn’t going to be able to find anyone. But I was wrong. I was very wrong in that right. I started finding a lot of parents—specifically moms, what else is new—who were really focused on how they could get their kids a more diverse, well-rounded education and better support systems. I started talking with the few peers that I did consider to be allies when I was in school and coming up with ideas we had for change in the school.
What we decided to do was collect testimonials via a Google form that asked current students, past students, parents, staff, etc about their experiences within the district. Whether it was something that was done to them or a discriminatory experience that they observed or just a general message of the mark that Highland left on their lives—we asked them to share their stories. In five days, we collected over a hundred and twenty testimonials. I collected that into a document with a letter to the Board of Education; it was thirty-eight pages of testimonials, and eleven recommendations to the Board of Education to rectify the outlined issues. Really what we were doing was saying “okay, you’re now on notice, you are failing your students by creating a toxic environment where discriminatory acts-- that are DASA violations (the Dignity for All Students Act) may I add—thrive. Like, this is illegal, and you need to do something about it.”
We submitted that on a Sunday night, and on a Tuesday, myself and about two dozen other parents, current students, former students, even a few teachers, came with us to the Board of Education meeting, and we held public comment for three hours straight, reading the testimonials out loud. We choose to hold this space because it’s easy to run away from things on paper or just ignore the memo that’s on your desk. But hearing these testimonials by current and former students—students that they taught, that their spouses teach, that they watched grow up in this school, some of them on the brink of tears while outlining these severely discriminatory acts—was much more difficult to ignore. Some of the board members were better receiving than others. There’s a split on the board, for sure, of who is allied to the cause and heard our voices and those who took to texting during our presentation. That’s what happens, but they weren’t able to escape what had been said. The press was also there, so they knew that they certainly weren’t going to be able to escape it because we were going to be holding them accountable.
How did you keep the momentum? What following steps did you take to ensure the work you had done would be sustained?
We just kept going to every single meeting. I like to say we were the squeaky wheel that never stopped, and every time they asked us to stop, we just added more wheels until we were like an eighteen-wheeler. They didn’t expect us to hold them accountable. We had different people come to the meetings to give public statements in support of our recommendations, continued to have different parents coming, sort of just calling for support. They’ve hired a consultant to spearhead their Racial Equity Initiative. They started an ad-hoc Committee to the Board of Education to essentially consult on issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
We are working on curriculum, reviewing the Code of Conduct, professional development, and different initiatives in the school that can be utilized to create a more proactive approach to educating about race, power, and privilege. We’re also thinking about our reactive approach, meaning, what do we do when we have a kid who is utilizing racially charged language in the classroom? How do we prep our teachers for having those conversations? Going into this work, I assumed those things were conversations that were happening in schools already. I think a lot of people assume that they’re happening. I kept realizing none of this work is happening, none of the things that I thought would be pretty baseline necessities of getting our teachers—who are already overworked and underpaid—the tools to support students were being provided. Not enough resources nor thought were put towards working diverse texts into classrooms, to approach these conversations with students, to understand issues of bias in the classroom or teach about culture.
When you started doing this work, was there anything that particularly shocked you about the state of our current education system?
I started realizing that this issue was so much broader than Highland, and that this was happening all across the Hudson Valley, all across New York State, all across this country: our approach to education was very deficit oriented and reactive. I always like to use this line: have you ever met somebody who’s not gone through the education system in some way, who’s not stepped foot in a public school in this country? You’re going to find very few people who fit that. So, what happens when we don’t take the institution that all of us experience seriously?
One of the few things that all Americans have in common is our access to education, something we like to brag about a lot. This access is a huge developer; it can help propel communities; it can give people a lot of tools to succeed. So, I started thinking: how do we raise people’s consciousness of this? It was reflecting very heavily on the Women’s Rights Movement from the late 60s through the 80s, and how their biggest tool was consciousness-raising. I think a lot of people—once they understand issues—want to take action on them. But because our education system is failing people, people don’t necessarily have the tools to understand those issues.
I know you’ve been holding webinars on the CR-S Education Framework. I thought the webinar was really incredible; it allowed people to interact practically one-on-one with someone about these policies, which I think, when we don’t have a resource like that available, mobilizing people to take action becomes more difficult. As the Director of HSOAR and the Education Advisor at NSHV, do you want to specify other specific work you’ve been doing to organize your community?
Yeah, for sure. With the webinars, our goal is to educate people on ways to reimagine education, the tools to take action on that vision and a motive to pursue that work in their community. We are going to continue with sort of that generic webinar moving down the line, depending on what happens this legislative session. We are also working on putting a webinar series together for teachers in the area to engage in these topics together.
There are so many educators and specialists who have things to offer our teachers in the Hudson Valley and across New York State but these resources are not being provided by school districts in the state. So, we are working on facilitating relationships with every school district in the region, to invite them and their teachers to these webinars, all free of charge. We’re also working on some data related stuff—collecting data on schools in the area. Asking: Do they have a Racial Equity Initiative? Do they want to have one? Do they think they need one? What resources do they need to do that? What type of professional development do they have related to anti-racist teaching or mitigating bias? Do they teach comprehensive sex education? (The answer’s no, usually.) We’re really trying to see where we’re at as a region, where people’s needs are, and where the desire for change really is, and then taking that data to see how we can fill those gaps, how the State Education Department can fill those gaps to strengthen our approach to education.
Beyond that, we have a ground team that’s been canvassing in Newburgh and Beacon, educating folks on the current state of affairs, letting them know what’s happening with the city budget, how this affects their schools, how this affects their housing, how this affects their sidewalks. And then asking how we can get them to take action on these issues. Otherwise, we’re pushing for state-level legislation, so that we can fund these initiatives. We were in the Poughkeepsie Journal last week for the work we’ve been doing and for our local commitment to continuing this work.
What would you consider your teams’ overall goal to be right now?
Our real goal is to start having these conversations in our school district, signaling to the state that this is worth being taken very seriously. Culturally Responsive Education has already been enacted in New York City, so we’re working to show that it’s not just a city thing. It’s not just something that those schools have the power to do, but it’s something that we want to be able to do too, but that we also need the state’s help to achieve. We believe that what we want to do is really be a vehicle for change, for elevating the voices and desires of the people in our community, and mobilizing them, giving them the tools to do it themselves. We’re working on an organizers’ guide for the Hudson Valley and talking with organizers across the region, getting them to say how they’ve created change or different vehicles for doing so. We’re also working on a specific organizers’ guide for people who are interested in approaching their school boards.
Do you have any specific advice for our readers who are students and educators looking to organize in their communities? What are the steps they can take to change how their classroom looks?
We’re planning to have our organizers’ guide done in the next few weeks, so that will be an available resource, free of charge, with those specific steps. But first up, you always find out what your situation looks like. You don’t go into a war zone without looking at a map. You shouldn’t go into this war zone without finding out what your school policies are, what your school is doing, and any current actions or past actions. Familiarize yourself with your surroundings, have a few conversations with other students, with other parents, with board members, with administrators. Maybe you shoot an email, and you say, “I’m curious about what you’re doing in regards to this” and so on.
Second step: talk to people, start building coalitions. There is power in numbers. If you’re not in a friendly environment, you might need a petition, and you might need to be very direct in what you’re asking for. Never be scared to do that. Board members are elected officials; they’re there to serve their community and represent you and your needs, so if you make those needs heard, they are on notice to do so. If they don’t do what’s right for your community: run against them. And then, you know, the internet is an incredible place. There are so many organizers’ guides, so many example letters and resources—I recommend EJ-ROC. Google it, they’ll be there. So never think that you have a question that is unanswerable. You can either find those answers on the internet, or you can email me. I’m happy to have one-on-one conversations with people to walk them through this process.
Never hesitate to ask those questions, whether it is of your child, of your school district, of your community, and the histories there, it’s really important to learn these things about your community. I also think it’s really important to take care of yourself, especially if you’re in a community that’s not necessarily friendly to these aims. You need to remember who you’re doing this for, why it’s important to you, and really carve out the space to acknowledge when a week has been hard in advocacy, or that there have been new barriers to what you’re trying to do, and acknowledge that this is going to be a long and hard fight for justice in our schools. That this might not be a fight that you win in the next year, and that this might not be a fight you win collectively in the next ten, but that the only way to start progress is by having those conversations in your own community. Even one mind changed, or one person exposed to these ideas, is one more person who is going to be on the right side of history.
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