Her daughter’s question inspired Dina Johnson to come up with one of her own.
“If my kid says to me, ‘Ma why are we studying Black history only in February and barely then,’ then what can I do to say how can we change this as a whole?”
Johnson, whose children attend Greece Athena middle and high schools, is organizing a rally and march from 3 to 6 p.m. June 20, beginning and ending at Greece Town Hall.
Black Families Matter brings Greece parents, teachers and students together for racial equality and social justice.
“My husband said why are you doing this?” Johnson said. “I’m tired of being sick and tired. I’m frustrated. Every time we get the news, it’s targeted toward our Black men and Black women. … I can’t be quiet.”
Speakers include students, counselors and parents – including Johnson – poetry, singing of the Black National Anthem and African drumming.
Themes are diversity among staff in the Greece Central School District, embedding Black history into the social studies curriculum, recruiting more Black and Latino residents to get involved in town government and to hold police accountable for acts of social injustice.
Johnson said education is a big part of the rally.
Greece has nearly 96,000 residents, and 7.5% are Black or African American, according to U.S. Census data estimates as of July 2019.
She said students report that textbooks do not reflect the Black experience, and that the district lacks diversity among teachers and counselors.
“We heard from students that they didn’t know Black teachers existed until they went to college,” Johnson said.
In February, the district held a forum on the N-word after concerns from students who’ve heard the word. Johnson said such conversations need to continue.
Greece Central School District Superintendent Kathy Graupman said follow-up with teams from individual schools was interrupted by COVID-19.
“It is part of a larger body of work and commitment to anti-racism and equity within our school district,” she said.
Graupman said that over past four or five years, the district has changed its strategic plan to include direct efforts related to equity.
“We are in it,” she said. “What we’re wanting and continue to get is more voices from families around how they are experiencing things. “I think that allows us to continue to make changes.”
She said the K-12 curriculum, not just social studies, is being examined for diversity and that school administrators are being directed to promote two-way communication.
“One thing we’ve looked at is how are you listening,” Graupman said. “What does that listening campaign look like? How are you getting interaction with families to show you are actually listening?”
The district is supporting the rally by supplying water and snacks in the parking lot of Greece Athena High School, which is on the route for the march.
Diversity in the police department also is a concern among Black families, Johnson said.
The Greece Police Department has three Black officers, a sergeant and officer on the road patrol and an officer in community services.
Police Chief Patrick Phelan said that diversity is an issue for all town and village departments. “I know every police chief in Monroe County really wants to diversify their police department. I’m one of them.”
He said he understands that residents want to know their department serves their needs and wants “and that we’re doing it properly and we’re doing it with integrity and professionalism.”
Greece, like all police agencies in Monroe County, completed a voluntary accreditation program that addresses 119 categories of policies and procedures and it regularly recertified.
Johnson said she wants people to understand the context for current events, and she said her talk will focus on history. “How it goes back to the 1600s, what things we have accomplished, what we haven’t, how the biases are still there.”
She’s heard them.
She said people have assumed she lives in the city, and they’ve said to her, “‘You started from the bottom and now you’re on top.’ First of all, I never started on the bottom,” she said. “Just the things people say because you’re Black. ‘You can’t go to RIT.’ I got into RIT.”
For Johnson, change is all about education.
“How do we get people to educate?” she said. “If your history is learned about slavery or negativity and you never learned the positive, you can’t expect people to have a positive outcome on things. They won’t stop and say, ‘Let me back up and think about why things came to be.’ ”