An Open Letter to the BUSD Board of Education on the Renaming of Jefferson Elementary

August 18, 2020

*To see this letter as a published document, click here.

*Please also see An Account of the 2003–05 Jefferson Elementary Renaming Process, For Review by the Berkeley School Board, Jefferson Elementary PTA, Parents, and Staff for more detailed information.

We are writing to you concerning the renaming of Jefferson Elementary within your recent Black Lives Matter Resolution. It is clear you all have good intentions in creating a plan of action to combat racism and anti-Blackness. We strongly agree with the spirit of the BLM Resolution; ideas like staff anti-racism training and a Black joy campaign are pioneering. In this letter, we hope to illustrate how we agree that racism needs to be rooted out of our lives. When it comes to the long overdue renaming of Jefferson Elementary, we have heard you say you wish to right a wrong. However, we see that you don’t realize the harm that a brand new naming process, which overwrites the previous democratic naming election, will inflict on a population of the Berkeley community that is still alive and well, yet scarred by past acts of racism committed by the School Board.

The renaming of Jefferson Elementary was initiated in 2003 by Black parents and staff and passed by the school community in 2005. Jefferson Elementary has kept its name only because in 2005 the School Board refused to ratify the new name, “Sequoia Elementary,” which was chosen by the community’s electoral process. This two-year process involved challenging and stressful work done by the community, who carefully and correctly followed the Board’s instructions.

Of the 2005 BUSD Board, Director Joaquin Rivera, Director Shirley Issel, and President Nancy Riddle used the vagueness of the policy to assert their illegitimate right to deny the name change, stating that the process wasn’t followed correctly. However, the School Board supervised the process, and the superintendent approved our steps along the way. Furthermore, the principal’s outline of the process, which was signed off by the superintendent, explicitly stated that the community’s vote would determine the name of the school. Yet the Board voted to overturn the process they supervised, prioritizing their personal views over the students’ and families’ decision.

It is gratifying that the current Board understands why Berkeley schools should no longer be named after slaveholders. Still, the violent part of this local history is largely unknown to the current community, and it is irresponsible to leave them uninformed or misinformed. In conducting a renaming process for Jefferson Elementary without sufficiently and publicly acknowledging to the entire Jefferson community the history of the 2005 name change process (as well as the School Board’s undemocratic rejection of the name “Sequoia Elementary”), you send the message that this valuable population of Berkeley, who fought righteously in 2005, fought in vain when, in fact, their labor still holds the fuel to both right several wrongs and even assist you in streamlining your new initiative.

The name change advocates faced challenges and hostility throughout the process from the school community, outside residents, and the Board. Many Black advocates, in just presenting the idea of changing the name to the school community, received hate mail and were shunned by opposing community members. The 2005 Board failed to follow their mission to empower all students, parents, and staff when they made the issue suit their own interests as they openly expressed racist beliefs during the process. Board members allowed the pressures from conservative white Berkeley residents, who were not part of the voting population, to compromise their ruling. And although the vote was anonymous, the vote was deemed invalid by some of the Board due to the false, unsubstantiated belief that many white parents voted “yes” in fear of retaliation from Black community members. In the end, they disempowered the community involved. Racism can be expressed blatantly, and it can be concealed within structures of power. When our leaders believe racist or unjust things about anyone that they lead, they cannot adequately guide or produce policies that benefit all those that they serve. These Board members have remained protected and were never held accountable for their actions. Moving along as if they did nothing wrong legitimizes their behavior. The psychological scars from these racist interactions still remain, fifteen years later.

Announcing a new renaming process, without pointed transparency and accountability concerning both this proposed election and the 2005 election, comes as a slap in the faces to the staff and parents who fought to ensure no child would have to attend a school that did not value part of their community’s history and experiences as Black Americans. The decision to follow your policy by rote perpetuates white supremacy within the Berkeley school system. Appropriately acknowledging Jefferson Elementary’s racist history helps create a clear standard against white supremacy. Ratify the vote of 2005. At this point, only proper acknowledgment stands in the way of our community’s healthy progress.

Stand all the way up for our city. The BLM Resolution is essential and necessary, it is radical and revolutionary, and all of its parts should be handled with thorough attention. What you’re doing already requires the whole city to shift, and it pushes us to unlearn previously accepted, racist norms within district-wide education initiatives. This resolution is representative of the heart of leadership that stands throughout the Berkeley community. In the white supremacist framework that our world is centered around, The BLM Resolution is anomalous, “out of the ordinary,” and courageous. Today, we are asking for no less. Calling attention to this issue adds momentum to the whole conversation rather than detracting from it.

Who do you fear disappointing by ratifying the 2005 vote and respecting the community who was denied justice? Honoring a new policy is less valuable than honoring the legitimate work of dishonored people. Contrary to what Board members claimed in 2005, their decision was less about adhering to the policy and was more governed by the effects of systemic racism on all parties involved. We urge you: Do not use the 2005 Board’s same strawman argument to mask any racism behind a policy on our new path of progress.

We, the students who participated in the vote of 2005, have provided you with historical information¹ in addition to this letter that the current school community must be aware of before moving forward with any proposed process. This name change is one of many opportunities within the BLM Resolution to dismantle white supremacist systems within your organization.

It is not justice if it is not carried out in full.

We are demanding thorough justice:

Inform the current Jefferson Elementary staff and families of the school’s history, forsake a new voting process, and honor the vote of 2005. Otherwise, however well-intentioned, the impact of this new name change will be a deleterious, reactionary implementation of an otherwise positive resolution in honor of George Floyd and other Black lives taken by police violence. If you don’t handle systemic racism with a strong vision for the future, open ears, a thorough scope of history, and current community-consciousness, you risk perpetuating the very system from which you are trying to heal and harming the community you’ve been elected to serve in the same stroke meant for justice.

How a new name election perpetuates racism:

Racism, as defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary: 1) a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race. 2) a doctrine or political program based on the assumption of racism and designed to execute its principles, a political or social system founded on racism. 3) racial prejudice or discrimination (emphasis ours).

This country was built on the backs of enslaved Black people and has ratified laws that systemically hinder the progress of those who are non-white. The 2005 BUSD Board’s decision to nullify the name change to “Sequoia” was racist, as it prolonged the oppression of the student body who is deeply and daily affected by racist systems. This recent denaming of the “Washington” and “Jefferson” schools is a good step towards an anti-racist school district, as these two men amassed wealth as active participants in the heinous business of chattel slavery. But we need to do more than just name the racism inherent to our country’s founding. We need to do the harder and more important work of examining and rooting out racism from within our own community’s past. “Jefferson” as a name is not only racist because of who Thomas Jefferson was. It is racist because if not for the racist action by the 2005 School Board to deny the legitimate vote of the 2005 community, the school would now be named “Sequoia.”

A new election is just as harmful as the Board’s refusal to change the name in 2005, as it enables white supremacist culture to live on within the annals of the BUSD’s organizational practices. White supremacist culture looms within every organization in the United States. The workbook, Dismantling Racism, is now cited by countless national racial justice organizations. Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun outline the ways that white supremacy infects American culture, explaining,

“Culture is powerful precisely because it is so present and at the same time so very difficult to name or identify… [These characteristics] are damaging because they promote white supremacy thinking. They are damaging to both people of color and to white people.”

We encourage the Board to examine similar resources and consider ways in which this culture resides within regular BUSD processes. Regardless of intent or unconscious bias, certain norms perpetuate white supremacy. These norms from our country’s inception champion a process, woven with fabric of division, over the constituents whose ancestors bore the weight of its construction. In enacting an entirely new naming process for Jefferson Elementary without properly addressing the 2005 issue, the School Board will be performing these characteristics of white supremacy culture:

1) either/or thinking: The Board is simplifying the complexity and vulnerability of the issue. Instead of considering the school’s specific history, you have denounced the 2005 community’s requests for more time to consider alternative solutions to undergoing the entire name change process again,

resulting in:

2) worship of the written word: prioritizing the written policy over harmed individuals,

due to:

3) fear of open conflict: concerning former Board members who still reside in Berkeley, thereby disregarding the conflict of 2005.

Just as it is not good practice to stitch up a wound with shrapnel still inside, it would not be prudent to move forward with this decision to rename the school without addressing what wounds are still festering in the Berkeley community and its BUSD Board’s history. An ongoing commitment in the BLM Resolution is: “This Board commits itself not only to address the symbols of institutional racism and white supremacy, but also to proactively identify and address biases, practices, policies, and institutional barriers that perpetuate injustice and inequality in our schools and our community” (emphasis original). Identify and address the contradictions we’ve outlined within the institution of the Board of Education.

It is our understanding that there are those within the current Jefferson Elementary community who feel they should have a part in choosing a new name. We do not believe we are snatching an “enjoyable” experience away from the current community; we are reemphasizing how traumatic the initial advocates’ experiences were. Ratifying the vote of 2005 would not be a missed opportunity but would be honoring a dishonored vote. We hope that in looking at the historical evidence we’ve provided, that you might consider the fact that the work you and the current Jefferson community feel you must do to rename Jefferson Elementary (amidst handling COVID-19, implementing the many other parts of the BLM Resolution, and adjusting the budget in light of recent cuts) is already done. Our parents and teachers, and we, the students, endured the stress, divisiveness, and suffering of the name change process so that the future communities at Jefferson could go to a school where Black and non-white perspectives are also valued.

With a new election, our work and suffering will be buried beneath inaccurate news articles and a new name. The School Board’s decision was an insult to the Black name change advocates whose voices, even when they managed to get a non-Black majority on board, still didn’t matter to those in power. It was an insult to the other community members whose initial instincts were opposed to the name change, but who were swayed by the historical information presented by many people in Berkeley’s Black community. It was an insult to all of the voters who spent time and energy critically researching this issue. In the end, what was the point of all that time? Our community underwent a difficult and necessary meditative process, coming to better understand how racism affects us all, and the School Board’s decision denied us the legacy that should have come with our community effort. It prevented our newfound understanding from being passed on. With this letter, we are reclaiming that legacy, and we hope that this new information can change your hearts and minds so that you will realize: By informing the community you serve of the events of 2005, you will be enriching them to overcome racist action as a diverse community and to truly make positive contributions to our world. Being candid and honest about the events of 2005 adds momentum to these difficult, uncomfortable conversations.

In response to our public comments at the June 17th School Board meeting, appreciation was given for the 2005 community members, but it was also stated that it is not the Board’s job to undo the work of their predecessors. We respectfully disagree and point at the fact that in denaming the school, the School Board’s predecessors’ work is already being undone by the current Board. It is the School Board’s job to undo its past mistakes, in the same way it is the present society’s job to undo the structural injustices that still remain from African enslavement and the overt suppression of Black people via the Slave Codes and Jim Crow laws. It is the School Board’s job to acknowledge and engage with racist incidents in its own past; in the same way it is our country’s job to acknowledge and engage with the racism inherent to the founding of our nation. And it is the School Board’s job to engage with Berkeley’s unique history — it is the School Board’s job to address the lingering pain and trauma still felt by current community members who were present for the 2005 name change Board decision and nullification. The Black Berkeley community who worked for the initial change did not deserve to be silenced, they did not deserve the hate mail and the insensitive public criticisms², and they most certainly did not deserve to be harassed in front of their children once the final decision was made. This hostility did not end in 2005 with the Board’s vote. The undeserved hate followed us out of City Hall that night, as someone shouted for us to “get over it” as we sang, “We Shall Overcome³”; it followed us throughout the Berkeley school system. Racism follows you everywhere, no matter how liberal or progressive a city presents itself. You cannot fix the trauma we’ve incurred, but you can definitely prevent misinformation from inflicting the same trauma on current and future generations over and over again.

A new vote and a new name tells us again that it was all a waste of time and that we don’t matter.

An Educational Opportunity:

This is a healthy educational opportunity to teach current students about democracy. Our democracy was taken away from us, and a new process teaches that it is okay to ignore democracy for political reasons. It may seem like going through the new process with the current community will teach about anti-racist action, but it is not a good lesson if it unjustly overwrites community trauma. Ratifying the name “Sequoia” and teaching the history behind that name is an opportunity for future students and families to learn about history within their own community: It was kids just like them, their parents, and teachers who fought for justice, and they have the power to do the same in their own lives moving forward. There is enough injustice in this world to fight, so let’s focus on unaddressed problems where we can make a real difference, channeling our community involvement as prudently as possible.

Throughout reports and public comments, we have repeatedly heard folks say that this matter is over a simple tree. This is not about trees; the issue is democracy. It is not just about names anymore; it is about righting wrongs. The Board has claimed that our actions in 2005 moved Berkeley to this current decision. Who’s to say we are really the impetus for the Board’s decision to dename schools named after slaveholders? In light of society’s recent anti-racist momentum, many corporations, schools, and teams are changing their names or removing offensive imagery. Those simple changes should have been made long ago. Denaming Jefferson Elementary with only token acknowledgment of the past process is not enough. We need real recognition of past wrongs and current scars.

In unlearning racist norms, the difficulty falls on those who possess privilege to lay down their privilege and lift up the cause of the marginalized. It may not be easy for the Board to give up this opportunity to use your new and improved process. The hard part for Jefferson’s current families may be giving up the enjoyable experience of voting for a new name. Though, it was not enjoyable for us.

As of right now, history is being rewritten. The predominantly white School Board is currently taking credit for giving the Jefferson Elementary community permission to change its name. Berkeleyside, the DailyCal, and many other media platforms have written into Berkeley’s history that “Berkeley community members tried and failed in 2005 to rename Jefferson Elementary School.” We did not fail. We successfully worked for ourselves and accomplished the vote. It was the system that failed. Don’t cover up what really happened.

The name “Sequoia” was democratically chosen fifteen years ago. If you move forward as planned, that history will be forgotten. That history is already being hidden from the current community. We are the children who were there in 2005. Although we no longer attend the school, we have ties to this community. Many of us moved on in the Berkeley school system to experience more acts of racism, and we continue to watch younger generations endure the same. We have had to watch family go to this school where we learned that the Berkeley school district prioritizes ideological comfort over anti-racism. A newly elected name sweeps over injustices of the past, as it will inevitably cover up this racist incident so that only those who were harmed will know the truth behind it.

It is the responsibility of the Board to uphold the integrity of your institution. You have the power and therefore the duty to take responsibility for the harm that your institution causes in the community you are serving. The advocates and voters of 2005 worked tirelessly and endured racial abuse. Now some of them have told us they are mentally preparing themselves to accept another name. This angers us. No one should have to learn to accept subjugation, especially in a country that prizes freedom as one of its core tenets. We, the next generation, have had to face exponentially less overt racism than our elders because they fought for us. Now, we are stepping up for them.

Honor what we endured.

Demands:

The Board needs to recognize: This is not a regular name change case. Washington Elementary (and any other school you may rename) does not have the history that Jefferson Elementary has, so it must be treated in a different manner. Uphold the democratic process from 2005 and change the school’s name from “Jefferson” to “Sequoia.” The current community at Jefferson Elementary must be made fully aware of the trauma its predecessors had to undergo in recent history for the same process you are now presenting to them. It is culturally irresponsible to leave them uninformed or misinformed. Without a community reflection on the events of 2003–05, the community moves forward uneducated about the system they participate in. They miss out on an opportunity for true justice and risk falling into the same historical pattern of triggering unresolved trauma. We want the proper acknowledgment that your proposed public name change process has already happened, and that the rightful outcome was denied in an act of racism: the very thing you are fighting by enacting the Black Lives Matter Resolution.

If you want to honor your process, honor the processed.

For more detailed information please also see An Account of the 2003–05 Jefferson Elementary Renaming Process, For Review by the Berkeley School Board, Jefferson Elementary PTA, Parents, and Staff.

Signed,

The Jefferson Alumni:

Imani Karpowich-Smith, 3rd grade in 2005

Kirby Sikes, 5th grade in 2005

Salim Boykin, 4th grade in 2005

Homemade badge created by 2005 community members after the Board’s decision.

[1]: Refer to Part II: An Account of the 2003–05 Jefferson Elementary Renaming Process, or see it as a published document

[2] See Media Coverage within Further Evidence portion of Part II

[3]: Berkeley Daily Planet, Board Vetoes Jefferson School Name Change

Former students who participated in a 2005 vote to rename Jefferson Elementary School to Sequoia, fighting racist actions that prevented this democratic choice.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store