A portal for learning about racism and local history

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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. 

Kesha James

“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. 

Shane Wiegand

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]

22 thoughts on “A portal for learning about racism and local history

  1. There should be more classroom discussion about the Democratic party’ s role in racism in the United States. That role seems to missing from classroom curriculum. After all, the Democratic party’ s heritage is tthat of slavery, the Confederacy, the KKK. Jim Crow, etc. When I was a Democrat, I did not know that. Furthermore, the Republican party was founded in part as the anti slavery party. I wonder how many Democrats know these facts? If they did, would they also leave the Democratic party and become a Republican.

    • I would think anyone with a basic knowledge of the period knows the abolitionists, led by Lincoln, split from the Whig Party to form the Republican Party over the issue of slavery.
      The Democrats then were the extreme right wing, and the Republicans were the radical left, center, and sometimes center right. Our political parties evolved; it has never been about political parties really. It has always been about Conservatives v. Liberals and the size and power of the political center. Conservatives supported slavery, Jim Crow, Hitler and Mussolini before Pearl Harbor, were against Civil Rights, universal suffrage, worker rights, Social Security and I could go on. I do not know any Dem voters that have KKK or swastika tattoos or fly Confederate flags.

    • Stop with the half-baked, distorted, convoluted, pseudo historical “record.” The full truth of the matter is that, in historical context, both the Republican and Democratic Political Parties were and are racist, oppressor institutions. You do recall that it was the “progressive” Republican Party that sold Black folks down the proverbial political drain via the Compromise of 1877, which led to unleashing one of the harshest, most brutal, savage-like, prolonged violent attacks and atrocities against Black citizens by former enslavers, former confederate soldiers and other RACISTS — that this wicked, thoroughly racist, white-supremacist-based nation-state has ever witnessed — don’t you???


    • Better buy a calendar. It’s 2024, not 1865 or 1965. Political party names are of course irrelevant as parties evolve (or devolve in the case of the GOP) over time. The reality of that litany of sins is that they were all committed by conservative, small-government states’ rightists who operated at the time under the name of the Democratic Party. Care to guess which political party is now the home for those conservative, small-government states rightists? (Hint: try googling Nixon’s Southern Strategy”.) And while you’re at it, maybe you can also guess what party the liberals and even radicals who pushed through the 13th., 14th. and 15th. Amendments under the banner of the Republican Party now find their home.

      And while you’re working out those answers, may be you can ask Obama and the 90% of black voters who support today’s Democratic Party why they see no significance in your “facts”.

    • And how about that Betty Grable? Hubba hubba.

      “When I was a Democrat,” – you were never a Democrat.

      ” I wonder how many Democrats know these facts?” – All of them.

      I wonder why you skip, oh:
      The Democratic Party since 1932;
      The significance of the votes of 1932 versus 1936; who voted how?
      Maybe stroll through what Eleanor Roosevelt did for Marion Anderson;
      Who integrated the military? (Hint: it wasn’t a Republican.)
      Who championed and signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964?
      (Bonus: Why did President Johnson say to a young aid as he signed this bill, “I’ve just handed the South over to the Republican Party for the next 40 years”?)
      Who championed and signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965?
      What party has been dismantling the Voting Rights Act of 1965?
      Let’s examine Nixon’s “Southern Strategy”?
      Let’s examine, oh, I don’t know, Obama’s birth certificate.

      We are, of course, just scratching the surface.

  2. A hopeful article to further intelligence. People are not born racist and bigoted, or without empathy, except maybe from severe mental illness. This passage supposedly comes from a Native American Nation, but I have not verified if that is true. Regardless, I believe it is applicable.
    With all due respect, History is not there for you to like or dislike. It is there for us to learn from. If it offends us, even better because that will make us less likely to repeat it. History is not yours to erase or destroy. Then teach it to your children and grandchildren.

      • James Bertolone, Howard Eagle, I am not sure. I think people ARE born with an innate fear of “the other” and difference, and an innate affinity for their own “team”/community. It’s a lizard brain thing — very primal.

        I think that people have to be taught to see the universal humanity in people who are different from them in looks and culture. Yes, you have to be taught “X peoples have this particular flaw and Y peoples have this other flaw”, but I don’t think you have to be taught to mistrust people who aren’t just like you. The job is to overcome that tendency.

      • Kate Kressmann-Kehoe,

        How in the world did you arrive at the ridiculously-erroneous conclusion that “people ARE born with an innate fear of the other and difference???” In fact, what (specifically) does “the other and difference” even mean??? Are you saying (for example) that white folks who are born in the thoroughly racist, white-supremacist-based U.S.A. have “an innate fear” of all  people born in other countries, or is it that they have “an innate fear” of all  people born in other countries, EXCEPT other white people??? What (exactly and specifically) are you talking about???    

        It would be very nice, and definitely positively-impactful regarding the widespread, pervasive, ongoing existence of the Tripartite Beast And Illness of Individual, Institutional, and Structural Racism — IF “people [were] taught to see the universal humanity in people who are different from them in looks and culture.” However, obviously, in millions of cases, that’s NOT the reality.

        IF your wild theory that people “don’t have to be taught to mistrust people who aren’t just like you” is true, which is very, very doubtful (you know what I mean, the idea that such “mistrust [is] innate”) — then I’m back to the question that I asked above, e.g., does this mean (for example) that white folks who are born in the thoroughly racist, white-supremacist-based U.S.A. automatically “mistrust” white folks who are born in, let’s say England, France, or Portugal, or are you arguing that white folks who are born in the thoroughly racist, white-supremacist-based U.S.A., and those born in England, France, or Portugal are “just like” each other?

  3. Shane & Kesha are doing some fantastic work for the community and all school districts should be engaged with their work for the benefit of their students, parents, and constituents.

  4. I suspect this is all theoretical hand waving unsupported by any outcomes data that demonstrates benefit to our community. My belief is that this “training” creates mostly guilt and entitlement and so has a negative, polarizing impact. We must have clear evidence of benefit before we impose mandates and spend community resources. I hope someone can show me data that proves this is valuable- I will be happily surprised.

    • Hi Dr. Anstandt, we primarily found positive outcomes and unity resulting from our professional learning experiences. Would love to connect and share some of the data we’ve collected. Reach out at [email protected]

    • The historical data is well documented from the events after President Grant left office and Reconstruction ended. Jim Crow continued legal discrimination until the civil rights legislation of the 1960’s codified equal rights, including in employment, education, and voting rights, and an end to discrimination in housing and immigration. Housing Covenants continued via red lining and continues today with exclusionary zoning laws. How Jim Crow and white supremacy led to the race riots of the 1960’s, most that had happened AFTER Civil Rights were legislated, was the subject of an over 400-page report from the Kerner Commision in 1967-68. The data was comprehensive, and so were the actions that needed to be taken, including the resources needed. Critics could find little wrong with the report. We could have ended poverty, including in white rural areas then. Government and some economists did not believe it could be done with the cost of the Defense Budget, specifically the Vietnam War. The Kerner Commision, and its data and solutions hold up well today if there is the will to get it done. Instead, we have a large segment of the population that now absurdly believes that the biggest discrimination problem is racism against whites.

    • You want data, ask Black students, parents, educators, and Black community members in general if it’s “valuable.”

    • How do you measure “outcomes” data for teaching history? What is the desired outcome anyway? Inculcating belief in a sanitized version of history (that certain segments of people know for a hard fact is not true)? I vote that the desired outcome is that people understand the good and the bad of how we got to the present situtation.

  5. A great program! I was quite shocked, as were my friends, when the home they bought in Irondequoit still had a restrictive convenant on it for no Black people. Great to be able to register it on the map to be start the process of being able to get rid of these.

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