By Sam P.K. Collins
The Mayor’s Office of Racial Equity continues to engage various constituencies across the District during information sessions that will inform the first-ever Racial Equity Action Plan, scheduled to be presented before D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) and the D.C. Council later this year.
An upcoming forum at R.I.S.E. Demonstration Center in Southeast will focus on various aspects of the District resident experience, including housing, public safety and health.
With the start of the 2022-2023 academic year only a few weeks away, the quality of a District education will also garner much attention during this meeting with African-American residents, as facilitators will spark discussion informed by concerns brought forth in previous occasions.
“We are addressing education across the lifespan. We are thinking about equitable learning opportunities, like investments in early childcare and [adding to the] traditional course load [including] financial literacy,” said Amber Hewitt, chief equity officer at the Office of Racial Equity (ORE).
“[This includes] tracking the retention of students as they progress through school and access out-of-school time programming,” Hewitt added. “We’ve been thinking about this in other committees to make sure young people have access to learning opportunities [like trade and apprenticeships] to meet them where they are.”
ORE, established in 2021, focuses on developing an infrastructure that ensures the evaluation of policy decisions and District programs through a racial equity lens. As chief equity officer, Hewitt reports to the Office of the City Administrator and collaborates with District agencies and residents to meet racial equity goals.
At the time of ORE’s establishment, parents, educators and advocates often spoke about educational equity, particularly how inequitable internet access hindered the many students’ academic success. The pandemic and racial justice protests of 2020 also paved the way for dialogue about lack of food access, policing in schools and expanding mental health services.
As advocates across the nation press the Biden administration for movement on student loan forgiveness, District public and public charter schools have implemented programs through which students can explore careers in IT, hospitality, nursing, among other technical fields that don’t require enrollment in a four-year college.
Over the last couple of years, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education also saw a slight increase in homeschool applications.
In District schools, administrators continue to tackle a teacher shortage that has ravaged school districts across the country. Toward the end of the previous school year, DC Public Schools and charter schools alike experienced teacher, staff and administrator vacancies. All the while, District teachers continued to rally around demands for a new contract with benefits and protections.
The upcoming African-American racial equity forum, which takes place on the evening of August 8, will be co-hosted by the Mayor’s Office on African-American Affairs. It will follow previous forums held at Marion Barry Building in Northwest for the Asian and Pacific Islander community and the Frank D. Reeves Office Building, also in Northwest, for the Latino and African communities.
As it relates to education, the racial equity forum follows the deadline for a survey the State Board of Education has been conducting in recent months. These efforts count among several over the last couple of years to connect with parents, especially those whose schedules and obligations to home often prevent them from weighing in on these discussions.
During this upcoming event, participants will get to hear from The Rev. Thomas Bowen of Shiloh Baptist Church in Northwest who serves as director of the Mayor’s Office on African American Affairs. They will later break out into groups and provide insight on how ORE can meet its racial equity goals.
In September, residents will once again be allowed to provide comments on the ever-developing racial equity plan.
Rev. Bowen called the racial equity forums an essential part of an outreach strategy that helps the D.C. government get a clear understanding of what’s hindering racial equity in the realm of education.
“It becomes a resource issue once again when you talk about the support that people have,” Bowen said.
“We should know that it’s difficult for a child to focus if they’re hungry. Being able to provide food and meals is important. It’s important to talk about what families do and not do [but] coupled with that is access. It’s not just a school issue. A lot of these [issues] overlap and run together.”