Northampton Public Schools community shares experiences around race

Dec. 27, 2022 | Ryan Feyre

NORTHAMPTON – REAL Northampton has been envisioning an anti-racist district within Northampton Public Schools since its inception more than five years ago.

The organization was founded to tackle racism in the Northampton Public School District (NPS) through various collaborative projects and initiatives.

One of these initiatives – The Story Project — places the experiences of students, teachers and other community members at the forefront of hopeful change.

“There are a lot of folks in the district-caregivers, teachers, staff and students, who were working toward an anti-racist district in Northampton,” said Deborah Keisch, one of REAL Northampton’s co-leaders. “One of the key things that [REAL Northampton] felt was necessary was more dialogue and conversation about race, racism, whiteness and how this all operates.”

According to Keisch, whenever there was a racist incident in the past, the district would treat it like an individual event or act. The perpetuator would be disciplined but then it would be over, and everyone would move on.

“What we really felt is that we wanted to be able to have community conversations that would lead to cultural shifts,” said Keisch. “That’s how we’re going to move beyond treating these incidents as if they’re separate or isolated.”

One way to help ignite this cultural shift in the school district is through the Story Project, where community conversations are grounded in lived experiences. Since 2019, NPS community members, whether they be students, staff, teachers or families, have been sharing their experiences of race, racism and anti-racism throughout the district.

“We began to collect stories that we had always planned to use as a basis for dialogue,” said Keisch.
The plan in 2019 was to create a physical exhibit for the stories that were collected so far, but when schools closed in March 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, the project was put on pause. REAL Northampton decided to transfer the exhibit to a digital platform in January 2021 through a private Instagram account to house the stories and pair them with associated themes.

Now, a story exhibit is set to launch at the JFK Middle School in spring 2023. According to a REAL Northampton social media post, “the story exhibit will be interactive and inspire learning through personal reflection, conversation, and action regarding race, racism and anti-racism in our district. The design will include four distinct components: Identity, Histories of Justice, Taking Action and Student Art. Teachers will lead students through the exhibit and then lead caring discussions to deepen reflection, learning and community building.”

Over the years, REAL Northampton has received grants to assist with many of their initiatives. Part of this money was used to work with Joseph Krupczynski, a designer, public artist and professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “He does public art that deals with community and identity,” said Keisch. “He was able to consult with us to think about how to design a space to hold the stories and a space to help us facilitate these conversations.”

A main focus on the exhibit in the spring is on “vision” and “action,” according to Keisch. The goal is not only share stories of oppression in the district, but also to share “wonderful” experiences of anti-racism happening in Northampton schools.

“When we’re dealing with issues of oppression or inequity, we don’t want to get stuck in the trauma of that and leave the community in that trauma,” she added. “A lot of the exhibit will be centered around envisioning what we want to see in the district…what does an anti-racist district look like to people.”
Beyond the stories, the goal is to also highlight the teachers and anti-racist curriculum that already exists in JFK. “There’s going to be a facilitated component with discussion prompts,” added Keisch. “We’re working with an advisory board of teachers and students who are going to be facilitating groups of students in conversations based on the exhibit.”

The teachers and students, according to Keisch, have been instrumental in formulating the concept of this exhibit through sharing their stories, creating themes and offering input about the exhibit itself. “I don’t want to downplay at all the role of the students in this project,” said Keisch. “Not only their stories, but their insight about exhibit design has been extremely valuable.”

The JFK Students of Color Alliance (SOCA), for example, continues to be a key leader in this project when it comes to coding the stories and offering input. So far, they have read each story, weighed in on themes, and identified sub-themes. They also submitted and categorized additional stories and were given the opportunity to add their own themes, like “Race & Identity,” “The Future,” “Actions & Strategies,” etc.

The goal in the spring will be to allow teachers and students to start thinking about the facilitation of the exhibit itself.

“Teachers and students are the best at figuring out those questions,” said Keisch. “We really need those folks during the school’s day-to-day to be thinking about how to best have school community participate in the exhibit.”

In the meantime, there is a fundraiser online that will help pay teachers to complete curriculum development, create stipends for teachers and student exhibit facilitators and for the materials needed for the exhibit.

“Teachers are incredibly overworked and often underpaid and underrecognized for the extra work they put in,” said Keisch. “We are really committed to making sure that teachers who are spending outside of school hours on this exhibit receive stipends for their work.”

As of press time, around $800 has been raised for the project with hopes of reaching the $5,000 threshold.

The project has received a lot of support so far, especially from students, teachers and past and present administration. One JFK teacher, Emma Martin, expressed support for this project.

“The reality of being a majority white [district] is that it’s easy to not see what you don’t see,” said Martin. “I think it’s really for our children that as educators we put in front them opportunities where they can really engage in many different lifestyles and really understand the role of whiteness in racism and in white supremacy, and to also validate the experiences of our students of color.”

The hope is to have the exhibit at the high school next year, as well. People can learn more about the initiative through the REAL Northampton link: They can also donate to the fundraiser here:

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