State group honors Washougal educator

WHS teacher rewarded for ‘dedication to racial, social, economic justice’

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Washougal High School teacher Charlotte Lartey holds a "'No' might make them angry, but it will make you free" sign at a Black Lives Matter march march in 2020. (Contributed photo courtesy of Charlotte Lartey)

Washougal educator Charlotte Lartey, recently named the recipient of the Washington Education Association Human and Civil Rights Committee’s 2020-21 Elaine Akagi Cultural Awareness award, has not had an easy year.

Lartey says her nearly push for more anti-racist training and policies at the Washougal School District and for more accountability from district leaders, has led to many sleepless nights.

For the sake of her mental health, Lartey took a leave of absence from her job as a Washougal High School teacher earlier this school year.

“Deciding to step away from my classroom, when our students (were) struggling so much in this pandemic, was such a hard decision for me,” she said.

Now, Lartey is back in the classroom and honored to receive the state education association’s cultural awareness award.

“Since I have been back, I can honestly say that the time I spend in my classroom with my students is the best part of my day and we have not let the pandemic stop us from making positive memories. I am proud that I took the time to take care of myself when I needed to, and I am grateful to still be able to find that light every day in our students at Washougal High,” she added.

The Washougal teacher said she had no idea one of her colleagues had nominated her for the cultural awareness award, which recognizes outstanding achievements and contributions surrounding student involvement in cultural awareness and international peace and understanding.

“I was definitely surprised when I found out that I won,” Lartey said.

According to the state education association’s website, nominees for the cultural awareness award have designed and initiated programs to identify and encourage the use of multicultural teaching materials; promoted human relations training within education; and worked beyond the call of duty to eradicate racial inequities in education.

“There is this sense of irony (because) as the Washougal School District’s first-ever Black female educator, I have tried to utilize every channel within my capacity to bring some accountability to racial and social justice within this district, and a lot of the change has come at my personal expense,” Lartey said. “I have received so much support from WEA when it comes to fighting injustice for myself, for students, and even fighting to keep my job when others believed I was not a good fit in this community. Pushing for change requires that one stands firm on a foundation of their morals and values, so receiving this award from WEA is an affirmation of that, and it means a lot.”

The Washington Education Association will honor Lartey and other award recipients during a virtual awards ceremony April 15.

In a letter sent to Lartey, the association’s Human and Civil RIghts Committee co-chairs, Pamela Wilson and Joshua Boe, called the Washougal teacher and other award recipients “human and civil rights heroes.”

“Your dedication to racial, social and economic justice inspires us,” Wilson and Boe told Lartey. “We continue honoring our past and rededicating ourselves to the unfinished task of creating a just society, and it is because of the dedication of people such as yourself which allows us to take steps forward. The work you do with the students we educate and with the communities in which we live is genuinely moving.”

Washougal High junior Kabiah Blain, president of her school’s Black Student Union, a club Lartey founded in 2018, said the Washougal educator is deserving of the state award.

“She’s tough and caring,” Blain said of Lartey. “She can sometimes be tough on you, but you know it’s because she cares and believes in you. She’s tough because she’s one of the only Black teachers (at Washougal High), and that’s not easy. Ms. Lartey has helped me by teaching me how to be confident in myself and that I can do anything that I put my mind to. I have also learned from Ms. Lartey that being Black isn’t a weakness. It’s a beautiful strength that not everyone can have.”

Lartey has been active with the Vancouver-based Riverside chapter of the state education association, serving in a variety of roles, including chair of its political action committee and member of its equity committee, during the past several years.

“When there are only a few Black and brown people in a school district and there is no space to uplift their voices and experiences, it can lead a community to develop this comfortable sense that they are immune to racism,” Lartey said. “I believe I have spoken up about racism enough times in the past three years that I have been able to dispel that myth for many students and colleagues.”

Lartey had a large impact on the Washougal School District’s equity and anti-racism efforts in 2020, leading a push to include updated equity language in the Washougal Association of Educators’ new contract with the district and helping the district implement a culturally responsive professional development system.

“Though we did not reach agreements on hiring new personnel that can implement equity into systemic practices and policies with fidelity,” Lartey said, “we are off to a good start by forming equity teams in every school building, and that is a direct result of the personal hours I spent last summer, writing and negotiating contract language.”

Lartey said she is proud of the culturally responsive classroom management system the district is implementing, saying: “I really think (it) will positively benefit all students and staff in the Washougal community.”