Kesha James remembers when she signed up for training on redlining and racism in Rochester. A Rochester City School District teacher, working on her administrative degree in urban education and urban leadership, James was curious.
She found that the presentation, given by Shane Wiegand, then a fourth-grade teacher at the Rush-Henrietta Central School District, illuminated her personal story.
“I was like, ‘Oh, that’s what my grandmother and my grandfather met in the area (and) because that’s where they were steered to, when they came from the south … that’s why my grandparents still live in this redline neighborhood,” James says. “All this all makes sense. … It just kind of unlocked a lot of pieces of my own story that I hadn’t even known.”
Many in Rochester have heard Wiegand’s presentation, which was initially sparked by a question from a student: Did Martin Luther King Jr. visit Rochester? That was roughly nine years ago.
Wiegand and James are now co-executive directors at the Antiracism Curriculum Project, housed under Coordinated Care Services. The group, which has added teachers to assist with training and expanded its reach across the state, helps educators, students and communities with instructional resources about their local history of racism and civil rights. ACP works with schools, colleges and universities (training pre-service teachers) and is involved in community education.
Currently, ACP ensures that its resources are openly available through a collaborative digital humanities project called Resistance Mapping. With assistance from the University of Rochester and Rochester Institute of Technology, the portal houses lesson plans, interactive maps and other relevant information, functioning as a living, digital archive that documents the history of racist housing and other place-based policies in Rochester and the region.
“Our goal was really to have collaboration with local institutions because what we realized with the history is that folks didn’t get here by working in silos, saying, ‘Oh, we want to just do this.’ There was an effort to collaborate and to really enact these racist policies,” James says. “And so we want to continue to collaborate with whoever we can to really dismantle some of this.”
Resistance Mapping materials explore how Rochester’s current segregation emerges from history and confronts these realities through stories of past and present activism, along with creative imagined possibilities for the community’s future, officials say.
“From the beginning, our goal has been to uplift the antiracist work that’s already being done in the Rochester community. This is a project about Rochester, and it would have felt irresponsible if we hadn’t ensured that this was really community-driven and community-owned,” says Whitney Sperrazza, assistant professor in RIT’s College of Liberal Arts. “We made a lot of decisions from the start to ensure that the back-end development and updates were as plug-and-play as possible so that Shane, Kesha, and their team could eventually take complete ownership of the project.”
Scholars and students affiliated with RIT’s humanities, computing, and design programs and UR’s Digital Scholarship Lab at River Campus Libraries helped ACP expand its resources and create a website to host the educational content, officials say. The materials are organized, searchable and accessible to anyone with an internet connection.
Rebekah Walker, digital humanities and social sciences librarian at RIT, and Blair Tinker, GIS specialist for the Digital Scholarship Lab at UR, helped facilitate and manage the technical aspects of the project.
As part of the final phase of this work, the group members completed the website and are showing local teachers how to use Resistance Mapping in their classrooms. The project has expanded to include other counties in the state.
James notes that teachers have expressed a need for such resources.
“They needed something they could build off of, because a lot of teachers don’t have time to build the extensive curricular units we’ve done. When you’re teaching seven subjects in one day, it’s not feasible,” says James. “Oftentimes, you’ll find really great resources, but they’re password-protected or you have to pay in order to view it. With this, it’s free and open to the community. We don’t want to gate keep any of this information.”
ACP’s work, however, is not a simple task. In the era of furor over critical race theory and some diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives at schools, antiracism education materials can be controversial and create conflict.
“We had people at board meetings that were fighting, and they were yelling about our curriculum,” James says. “We did have a couple of districts that initially were like, ‘We’re going to not use it, or we’re not going to publicly say we’re using it,’ just to protect themselves.
“But then what we realized in the second year (of ACP) was that teachers were becoming afraid and then self-censoring. They were like, ‘I don’t even know if I want to teach this because I don’t want parents protesting outside of my classroom.’ So, what we’ve been doing is really trying to help build them up with some coaching and supporting the administrators with this.”
Often, ACP speaks with parents to clarify that the materials are aligned with state standards. For example, an ACP unit is connected to what a fourth-grader is expected to know as they enter fifth grade. When educators are trained, they participate first as students, and then approach the material as a teacher.
“It’s (an) inquiry; we never tell kids what to think. Even when we use definitions, we always say, ‘These are definitions to consider. You don’t have to agree with them,’” James says. “Students are allowed to push back, they’re allowed to sit here and have their opinions. We help teachers think about how to have conversations with kids that are safe, but also that can honor their voices and what they think and what they believe. And we really train teachers not to put their own opinions on it.”
With parents, ACP holds sessions for them to see the units and what’s being taught in classrooms. James stresses that all the units are from primary sources–based on facts and not opinion. ACP aids in the exploration of local history and its impact on communities.
“It is, historically, here’s what happened in our community. And then we ask kids, ‘What do you notice? What do you wonder? What inferences are coming up as you take a look at this? What questions do you have?’ And so that’s really been our approach,” James says. “What we’ve noticed is that people will come in sometimes hot and then when we actually show them what we’re doing … you see the defenses kind of go down.”
Adds James: “There is going to be that small group of people that don’t want to have that conversation, because they are stuck in where they’re at, and they’re not interested in learning, but people who are genuinely generally curious, we lean into that.”
Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].