Portland Teachers Union Faces Challenges In Racial Equity Work

By Elizabeth Miller (OPB)
July 13, 2020 2:36 p.m.

Institutions and organizations — from Nike to public media — are grappling with racism and promising to become more equitable for people of color.

When it comes to education, things are no different. Inequity is rampant in everything from the curriculum teachers use to the students who get disciplined. And for schools around Oregon and Southwest Washington, they’re in the middle of a racial equity reckoning.


Some changes at an administrative level have come quickly, as the COVID-19 pandemic and national protests against police brutality put pressure on institutional leaders.

School districts have passed resolutions committing to being "Anti-Racist."

They've held sessions for students and staff to share their stories of racism at school. They're planning curriculum changes and professional development around equity.

Some are removing police officers from schools at the urging of communities of color.

But educators and advocates recognize that some of the most important — and most difficult — work to improve racial equity in schools is what happens between teacher, student and parent. Seeking racial equity in the public education system has long been a goal of education leaders everywhere, but a difficult one to make progress on.

Teachers at Oregon’s largest school district tackled the issue head-on over the last year when they saw the central office failing to intervene. But a decision to shelve a report on racial equity demonstrates how fraught it can be to discuss race in schools.

PAT’s ‘revolutionary’ effort on race

The Portland Association of Teachers has been working on equity for years now, well before the current national moment and conversation.

But last year they took it a step further and received a racial equity grant from the National Education Association, the national union for public school teachers, including PAT and other Oregon locals. PAT asked Nichole Watson to take a year off from teaching to focus on the union's racial equity work.

“We started this work with a mission to be revolutionary in our response to racism,” Watson said.

PPS has over 48,000 students and over 2,700 teachers. More than half of the students in the district are white (57%), but its teaching force is even whiter, at 79%.

Before PAT hired Watson to work on racial equity, she taught at Rosa Parks Elementary, leading conversations about equity in and outside of her classroom at one of the district’s most racially diverse schools.

Nichole Watson is the developer of racial equity and community partnerships for the Portland Association of Teachers.

Nichole Watson is the developer of racial equity and community partnerships for the Portland Association of Teachers.

Celina Tebor / OPB

Over her year as PAT’s developer of racial equity and community partnerships, Watson helped at least two schools publicly handle and discuss acts of racism and facilitated conversations with communities of color, students, and parents.

The plan for the year was to focus on community engagement, student voice, restorative justice, professional development and advocacy within the union itself.

In reality, Watson would document the messy and uncomfortable process of confronting racism and white privilege, while becoming a support person for people of color who didn’t have positive relationships with PPS or the union.

Watson’s report on race, shelved

Watson compiled PAT's work in the 2019-2020 school year and plans for the future into a more than 200-page report, packed with personal essays from parents, educators and union representatives around the district and the state.

“It speaks to connection and family and resistance,” Watson said. “It speaks to how strong our collective voices are.”

Elementary school teacher Nedra Miller shared her experience as the only Black classroom teacher in Northeast Portland’s Jason Lee Elementary. She said the report was validating for her and other educators of color.

“As a person of color, to be able to speak my truth in such a way,” Miller said. “It was just the story unfolding of work that has been past due.”

One section of the report outlines Watson and PAT's goals for its racial equity grant work in the 2019-2020 school year.

One section of the report outlines Watson and PAT's goals for its racial equity grant work in the 2019-2020 school year.

But the report won’t be released by PAT or shared with the district, or internally with its members. However, others have shared the unofficial draft report, including with OPB.

“PAT never had permission from the author to adapt this report for use within our union,” said PAT President Elizabeth Thiel. “PAT is proud of our commitment to equity and social justice, and like many organizations across the nation this moment has spurred us to reflect on the ways we’ve succeeded or fallen short in these areas, with the hope that we can better serve our students, educators and communities in the future.”

Watson, “the author,” has left PPS. She and union leaders say there were disagreements about the report’s final form, ultimately leading to it being shelved. PAT leaders say they wanted the report to undergo a review process before it was released. In conversations with OPB, contributors to the report — particularly educators and parents of color — said they wanted the report released without modifications and with its lengthy narratives intact.

For parents and teachers, and Watson, the report remaining private is a further indication of the challenge of racial equity work in predominantly white institutions like the PAT and PPS.

‘Caught in the climate we were trying to dismantle’

While PAT reiterates its commitment to equity work moving forward, educators of color included in the report hope to see a resolution between Watson and union leaders that allows the work from the last year to be shared.

“It’s hard for me to trust an organization that says they’re leading in racial equity — it’s so tongue in cheek with a situation like this,” said educator Jacque Dixon. “They need to come to an agreement so that the good things that were done in the past year could be celebrated and talked about."

What’s happening with PAT reflects just a few of the challenges with changing an organizational culture where educators and communities of color don’t feel supported and heard.

“We got caught in the very climate we were trying to dismantle,” Watson said.

Watson's report marks significant events from the year — community conversations on issues ranging from racist incidents to education spending to discussions of marking a district-wide "Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action."

Portland Association of Teachers' Nichole Watson facilitated the community conversation with 10 Wilson High School students.

Portland Association of Teachers' Nichole Watson facilitated the community conversation with 10 Wilson High School students.

Elizabeth Miller/OPB

But it also highlights the experiences of being a person of color in Portland and problematic examples of a system that has never supported all of its students.

In September 2019, a racist threat was made against Black students at Robert Gray Middle School in Southwest Portland. As a parent of Black children, LaShada DiCosmo was concerned about the incident. She and her family were also new to Portland at the time, moving west from the East Coast.

“Our experience within PPS has been beyond culture shock,” wrote DiCosmo in the report. She lists the various alleged incidents at Robert Gray and other schools in Southwest Portland, including nooses hanging in elementary and high schools and swastikas being carved into desks.

As parents of Black students attending a majority white school, DiCosmo is among those who grew frustrated by school and district responses they found inadequate.

“With a majority white school, it’s easy to 'sweep things under the rug' but this only creates a bigger issue in the long run,” DiCosmo said in the report. “Eventually someone trips and falls.”


DiCosmo and other Robert Gray parents organized, creating a Parents of Black Children group and a Black Student Union.

DiCosmo said Watson’s work helped “foster a sense of community to support our children.”

But with the report staying private, DiCosmo said PAT’s lack of action is a “mirror” of what’s happening in Portland.

“It’s the microcosm of what the larger system is doing in this city and in this country,” DiCosmo said. “It’s another example of white privilege. You can choose to turn your eye, you can choose to not see it.”

Building relationships, supporting teachers of color

Fostering a relationship between the union, parents and community organizations was one of the five goals PAT and Watson had for the year.

It’s what led the union to host two community forums on school spending, one for Black community members at Harriet Tubman Middle School, the other for Latinx community members at Jefferson High School.

Another section of the report presents an analysis and feedback from conversations around the Student Success Act.

Another section of the report presents an analysis and feedback from conversations around the Student Success Act.

An analysis of the feedback from the forum at Tubman found connecting school and community was the strongest suggestion for how to direct funds from Oregon’s 2019 education investment known as the Student Success Act. For Latinx communities, the top feedback was wanting to see more teachers and administrators of color.

Until recently, Carla Gary was the Interim Director for the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at the Oregon Department of Education. She attended the Harriet Tubman meeting and said that while she prefers seeing educators like Watson teaching in the classroom, she wrote in PAT’s draft report that Watson’s work on racial equity was needed.

“Given the depth of the long-standing disconnect between these parents and community members, and the Portland Public Schools, there is so much internal work to be done,” Gary wrote in the report.

Report uncovers challenging work climate for teachers of color

In the report, Wilson High School teacher Nabilah Mohammed talked about being “questioned, approached, and interrogated” about her faith, and having teachers ask her to invite students of color to join their clubs, rather than ask students directly.

“Everyone wanted to be seen as diverse but were not willing to do the work to get there,” Mohammed wrote.

But Mohammed and others wrote about feeling a sense of movement in the work happening at schools like Wilson.

Educator Alisha Chavez was a part of the report too. In her essay, she reflected on the events of the school year.

“This year has been the most engaged and seen I have ever felt in my profession,” Chavez wrote.

Going forward, she and other educators of color are hurt by what’s happened. But she remains committed to continuing the union’s racial equity work.

“This is just kind of a ... roadblock in the way of moving forward with racial equity work,” Chavez said.

Rebecca Greenidge worked alongside Watson, helping facilitate conversations about race around Portland. Over that year, Greenidge said she saw the opposition Watson faced.

“This year, I saw my (white) people … place her in the basement and fail to give her the tools she needed to do her job, micromanage and microagress her constantly, use her presence or her name for their gain, belittle her in private while acting like her ally in public,” Greenidge said in the report.

Watson moving on, PAT working through ‘uncertainty and turmoil’ 

Going forward, Watson’s plans included culturally responsive professional development for teachers and a how-to guide for Black Student Unions.

But Watson will not continue her work at PAT or in a classroom anywhere in Oregon's largest district. Her contract ended in June and she will start next school year as principal of Prescott Elementary in the Parkrose School District. From there, she will continue the work she engaged in as a classroom teacher at Rosa Parks Elementary and as a racial equity specialist for the union.

“I am ecstatic and filled with hope because I know what can be built when we embrace a village-model where students, families and educators are thought-partners in building Beloved Community,” Watson said. “They are ready for me. I am ready for them!”

While Watson is enthusiastic for her next chapter, both PAT and PPS have lost another educator of color, as districts across the country are desperately trying to recruit and retain such teachers.

“That’s why PPS can’t attract... quality educators of color,” DiCosmo said. “Because they run them away.”

But when it comes to moving forward with racial equity work in the future, educators of color including Chavez say they want to implement ideas within the union that may provide more support for those teachers.

Near the end of the draft report, PAT President Elizabeth Thiel wrote about how the union’s equity work and planning were cut short by COVID-19. Thiel is listed in the draft report as "president-elect" — the title she held until earlier this month when she became president.

She outlined some of the work PAT has done over the years, including a Racial Equity Task Force and increased diversity in union leadership.

“There is no question, continuing our racial equity work is crucial to the future of our union,” wrote Thiel. “The risks that come with taking action; the danger of inaction; and the need for a supportive community to carry each other through uncertainty and turmoil.”

With more diverse leaders at the top of the union, educator Nedra Miller said she’s hopeful more racial and cultural perspectives will be considered when it comes to future union plans and actions.

But there are still moments when signs of the old system return.

As PAT prepared to ask the National Education Association for another racial equity grant, the same grant that funded Watson’s work release, educators Chavez and Jacque Dixon say the process was more collaborative, rather than an order from the top down.

But Dixon said there were still the challenges found in a system trying to change itself.

“To feel like you need to consult folks that haven’t been involved in equity work at all to write this grant, that’s frustrating,” Dixon said. “But I also realize that’s part of the power structure of the union I’m not going to be able to change.”

Some of the union’s plans going forward include heritage celebrations throughout the year for students and educators who are Latinx, Indigenous, and Pacific Islanders. They have started collecting books on race, equity, and relevant professional development, as a resource library for educators. The teachers also plan to start two hotlines, one for school communities dealing with racist incidents and another for educators of color to ask about contract issues and other concerns.

Parent LaShada DiCosmo is watching. She thinks the report could help shine a light on these issues and the work moving forward.

“Now more than ever the students need the help of the union, the teachers need that support,” DiCosmo said.

“This is a learning opportunity — they’re missing it.”

For educators, the work continues, and excitement is tempered with apprehension about trust within the union and concerns about the upcoming school year and COVID-19.

But even with the turmoil happening inside the organization, Dixon and other educators of color see an opportunity to build on the momentum and take advantage of conversations about racial equity happening around the country.

“We have an opportunity to really lead right now,” Dixon said. “We can’t just let it pass us by.”