Black and Brown teachers matter in Denver

February 21, 2019

Thousands of members of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA) went on a four-day strike last week in which the primary demand was to raise salaries to match the city’s rapidly rising cost of living. The strike, which was marked by an outpouring of student activism and support, ended when the school district agreed to raises between 7 and 11 percent, and a partial shift from bonuses based on test scores to seniority-based salary increases.

Based on initial reports, Denver educators appear to have won an important victory. But it’s also important to note that the DCTA didn’t forefront racism in public education as a central issue in the same way that United Teachers of Los Angeles during the recent LA strike.

Manasseh “Nas” Oso is a teacher at Manual High School and a DCTA picket captain. Shortly before the strike, he spoke with Carlos Valdez about why the issues of institutional racism and the low number of Black and Brown teachers should be central to the struggles for higher wages and stronger teachers unions.

WHAT MAKES Manual unique in terms of the staff and the demographics of the student population?

MANUAL IS, I believe, one of the oldest schools in Denver — it opened in 1894 — and it’s right at the center of a historically Black community in Denver known as Five Points, which is rapidly gentrifying, if not already gentrified.

This public district school has been a core element of a community that has been attacked and kicked out. It’s sort of a last little stronghold, if you will, that’s continually destabilized, and without support from the district.

DO YOU feel like the needs of that specific population at Manual are being met?

Manasseh “Nas” Oso at a teachers’ rally in Denver
Manasseh “Nas” Oso at a teachers’ rally in Denver (Dave Russell | Buffalo Heart Images)

UH, NO. (laughter) Manual has this negative reputation as being sort of the dumping ground for students who don’t get choiced into what are seen as “good” schools based on this nonsensical high-stakes testing and accountability regime that measures and compares schools according to ultimately irrelevant measures.

Manual boasts a higher population of special education students within Denver and is still expected to meet the same requirements of other schools that basically push out these students who are on the fringes, precisely because of their negative impact on testing scores. Manual is the place that includes those students and that works to build up those students. And we’re still expected to have 100 percent of students in college courses or college-level courses.

As far as the broader lack of funding of public district schools goes, there’s a lack of mental health support, particularly for teachers of color and students of color, and the unique needs they have. We really only have one explicit social worker at our school.

WHAT STEPS does the teacher’s union, the DCTA, need to take in order to have the solidarity from Manual be truly genuine and authentic?

I THINK that teachers at Manual — really, any teachers of color and any people teaching in the Northeast working with our working class Black and Brown students — need to see that the union’s politics are actively and openly anti-racist. They need to see that its goals are race-conscious in integrating its labor politics with issues of race.

DOES THAT include perhaps having more educators of color having a bigger voice within the Denver teachers’ union?

THIS IS a perennial problem. Our students of color are totally targeted by this white supremacist capitalist system that manifests very directly in education. So gee — surprise, surprise — there aren’t so many teachers of color.

Here is where it connects to teacher pay — working-class students of color who do go into higher education don’t feel that teaching is a worthwhile and economically sustainable profession for them to even go into in the first place.

In fact, I was just talking with my mentor about this. Yes, we need more Black teachers. Yes, we need more Brown teachers in front of our students. But we also need all teachers within the DCTA, which is majority white, to recognize and actively champion anti-racist politics, given the dearth of teachers of color.

Teachers in DCTA and teachers in general in Colorado need to understand the broader issues of why teachers of color are not represented proportionally within the teaching profession broadly, and thus within their unions.

The union needs to demonstrate actively that it’s tackling the intersections of race when it comes to these labor politics, and not just going into buildings when it needs to rally bodies to vote — and then expect that teachers of color are just going to sort of nod and go along without being listened to in the first place.

I do believe that all of these issues that are being fought for are intimately interconnected. Teachers’ wages are the tip of the iceberg of this mammoth machine that’s eating away at public education and is part of the colonization and re-colonization of students of color within this country.

Given the fact that this wage issue directly affects teachers who are majority white, who serve populations that are increasingly becoming majority Black and Brown, it’s even harder then for the community, or even students themselves, to see teachers striking and see that those struggles are our struggles.

Among Black and Brown students and families, it prompts a sort of “what?” attitude toward these teachers who are saying, “I can’t afford to live in Denver.” Do they stand up when Black and Brown people can’t afford to live in Denver? Is it supposed to just matter when teachers can’t live next to their school? What about the families in these schools who can’t live next to these schools?

The fact that we have a body of teachers that doesn’t reflect the racial identity of the students they serve makes connecting the issue of teachers’ wages to broader conditions of public schooling and Black and Brown education that much harder to see.

In that context, white teachers need to actively and loudly understand and champion anti-racist politics within education and within the union.

YOU’RE THE strike task leader for Manual. On the first day of the strike on Monday, what will you do to build that solidarity from teachers who aren’t so eager to join this picket line?

I GUESS one very concrete thing right away is the ways that I’ve expressed these sentiments of teachers at Manual in other communities I’m a part of, such as the ISO. Just the fact that the ISO is even coming with the Tamales for Teachers at Manual — a picket that’s not even going to be so large — is a first step.

We’ve been yelling and screaming for some time, but dismissed, not heard and ignored. So to have this sort of contingent of my socialist comrades out there listening, and validating their skepticisms and concerns, is a first step.

On a basic level, I love the basic power of bodies together chanting, and I particularly like bringing in chants that bring consciousness about the intersections of race into this fight over teachers’ wages.

So I hope to provide this space or build this space with other people on the picket lines, where teachers — teachers of color in particular — who are fed up and who are tired have their voices heard and validated through our chants that acknowledge the intersections, and that don’t just so narrowly articulate this issue around teachers’ wages.

SO THAT these issues can be fought for after the strike.

YUP! THERE’S no way, before the strike or after or whatever that we can solve these systemic issues at Manual by itself. We can start systemic change, no doubt about it — Manual has all the potential in the world — but it’s not something that we can do alone.

It’s something that we should do with the broader Northeastern community. And when I say community, I mean families. It’s going to take a whole village to turn this shit over.

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