Racism is ‘alive and well in Washougal, just like everywhere else’

City’s only Black high school teacher pushes district to fund equity programs

Washougal High School teacher Charlotte Lartey (left) participates in an event for the National Education Association Black Caucus. (Contributed photo courtesy Charlotte Lartey)

Educator Charlotte Lartey is pictured in her classroom at Washougal High School, where she teaches health science, medical science, anatomy, physiology, medical terminology and health classes. (Contributed photo courtesy Charlotte Lartey)

When Charlotte Lartey was 4 years old, she discovered her sister standing in a bathtub, screaming in pain after pouring bleach on her skin so that the other girls at school would stop calling her “ugly” and “evil.”

About eight years later, a boy who had already directed an ethnic slur toward Lartey’s brother, stabbed her in the chest with a needle and told her to die.

During the first week of her first year as a teacher at Jordan High School in Sandy, Utah, a student scratched the N-word into her classroom door. In her second year of teaching, she walked into her classroom one morning and found “LARTEY HAS EBOLA” written in large letters across all of the whiteboards.

As the only Black educator at Washougal High School, Lartey wants to make sure young people of color in Washougal don’t experience the same discrimination she endured as a youngster growing up in a predominantly white Utah community.

“It’s very clear that some of the things that happened to me are still happening to kids today,” Lartey said. “I’ve healed, and found inner peace about my experiences, but the world is the same.”

In a recent email to the Washougal school board, Lartey said she was dismayed when district leaders had shot down a proposal from the teachers’ union to hire an equity-and-inclusion teacher.

“It was very disappointing to hear from the district that they are not interested or willing to spend any money on equity, or in hiring new personnel to help the district advance the equity goals,” Lartey stated in her email.

Although she praises Washougal’s school leaders for the district’s recent efforts to improve its anti-discrimination policies, Lartey said she would like to see district administrators take additional actions to show they’ve “put their money where their mouth is.”

“Racism is alive and well in Washougal, just like it is everywhere else,” Lartey said. “I’ve seen Confederate flag-waving. I’ve heard (white) kids make slave-owning jokes, slave-whipping jokes, cotton-picker references. I’ve heard them say the N-word and that it’s OK for them to say it.”

The school district has made equity one of the six pillars of its new strategic plan, and said the equity component is a major part of the district’s newly created assistant superintendent role.

“We commit to engage in intentional efforts to identify disparities that create opportunity gaps and act to eliminate the achievement gap,” Washougal School District Superintendent Mary Templeton stated on a message posted to the district’s website. “We further commit to challenge and disrupt systems that are perpetuating institutional biases and oppressive practices, as well as develop culturally responsive school houses. We have not accomplished all that we need to as it relates to our work with equity, but please know that as we engage in this work together, we will need to count on our courage, commitment, honesty and be gracious with one another as we aspire toward true systemic change.”

“My first year here was the hardest I’ve ever had as a teacher. I experienced some things that made me want to walk out of the classroom. I said, ‘Wow, I’m not sure how much longer I can do this,'” Lartey said. “It’s been tough at times, but I wouldn’t stay here if I didn’t feel it was a good place for me to be. There are a lot of good people here that are ready to do this work if someone leads the way, and the same can’t be said in Utah, so I’m remaining patient.”

‘We need an anti-racist system’

Lartey recently completed her second year as a member of Washougal High’s career and technical education department, teaching health sciences, medical science, bio-medicine, anatomy, physiology, medical terminology and health.

Margaret Rice, the district’s CTE director, said Lartey “brings a wealth of knowledge” about AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), a nonprofit organization that provides educational strategies to help schools move to a more equitable, student-centered approach to prepare all students for college, careers and life, and has been able to apply AVID strategies to her health science classes.

Rice also praised Lartey’s work leading staff development on AVID practices and for founding a Black Student Union club at the high school.

“(She) has a passion for the awareness and elimination of racial injustice,” Rice said.

“I’ve always stood up to racially biased harassment since I was kid, so it feels like I’ve been preparing for social justice work my entire life,” Lartey said. “There is a lot of work to be done to change the educational system, but knowing how much work there is to do is fuel in itself.”

As chair of the Vancouver-based Washington Education Association (WEA) Riverside chapter’s political action committee, Lartey keeps tabs on the latest legislation, as well as on local and state government practices, policies and positions. She interviews and endorses candidates for elected positions and urges other educators to run for school board positions and write to their elected officials about important issues.

WEA-Riverside is a regional council of 15 local education associations that represents more than 4,600 educators in Southwest Washington. Lartey also works with the group’s equity committee, which works with school districts in Battle Ground, Ridgefield, Camas, Washougal and Vancouver to create a network of educators of color and help them to hold administrators accountable for their actions.

The Washougal High teacher is a member of the Washougal Association of Educators teachers’ union’s bargaining team, which is currently negotiating for new teacher contracts in Washougal.

“In the educational system, there is systemic racism, but it manifests itself on a variety of levels,” Lartey said. “We see micro-aggression, interpersonal acts of racism, oppressive practices for educators of color and higher discipline rates. We need to create anti-racist systems. It’s not enough to not be racist anymore. Too much needs to be fixed. The system is racist, and we need an anti-racist system to (replace) it. It’s daunting, overwhelming and isolating work. But it’s important.”

Lartey will also be a part of a webinar panel series along with several other BIPOC (Black, indigenous and people of color) educators in Washington called “Collectivist Action through COVID-19 and a Revolution,” created and organized by Estefa Gallardo, a member of the WEA board of directors. The  four panel discussions, which will be hosted by Zoom, will focus on the varying activism work that is largely being led by educators of color around the state.

Lartey will participate in “The ‘B’ in BIPOC: Black Educator Experiences in a Very White Washington,” which will begin at 6 p.m. Thursday, July 23 and can be viewed at action.washingtonea.org/p/salsa/event/common/public/?event_KEY=426230; and “Uprising in Rural and Small School Districts,” which will begin at 6 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 6, and can be viewed at action.washingtonea.org/p/salsa/event/common/public/?event_KEY=426232.

“The WEA board and WEA’s Black Caucus have endorsed this project, and it would be great to have our local communities tuning in as we have these conversations about educational activism and racial and social justice,” Lartey said. “I am really excited about this.”

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