As the nation grapples with difficult conversations about race, equity and social justice we might all be well served to listen to the teachers at Woodlawn Elementary School.
Teachers at the Northeast Portland elementary school have plenty of experience talking about race. The school sits in a neighborhood that used to be a center of Portland’s Black community, but has gentrified rapidly in recent years, bringing more white families into the school.
KGW spent the entire 2019-2020 school year telling stories and documenting life at the school for a series called Inside Woodlawn.
The series delved into race, gentrification and supporting undocumented students – conversations the teachers at Woodlawn were used to having among themselves and with their students.
“It's very amazing that you all decided to, you know, follow us this year because this is a year that our children will be talking about in history classes,” said first grade teacher Lionel Clegg.
Reporter Cristin Severance and photojournalist Gene Cotton recently sat down with four of the educators featured in Inside Woodlawn to talk about the Black Lives Matters movement, how the education system can sometimes fail teachers of color, recent protests in Portland and how they’ll address this national conversation with their students.
Their conversations are part of a special report: “Inside Woodlawn: No Time to Waste.”
Chapter one: Lionel Clegg
Lionel Clegg was a student at Woodlawn elementary school and has been a teacher there for 21 years.
Clegg, 44, grew up in the Woodlawn neighborhood and still lives there to this day.
“Woodlawn helped me learn to be who I was growing up,” Clegg said. “There was a fourth-grade teacher that I had, her name was Rolia Manyongai, and she was actually the first teacher of color that I ever had. She gave me a great sense of pride about being who I was.”
The no-nonsense educator has a distinct teaching style and is described as a strict and excellent teacher by his former students.
“Especially with our children of color, I feel like we don’t have any time to waste. I have a sense of urgency that our kids are getting everything they need in the classroom to be successful in the future,” said Clegg.
Clegg is never one to shy away from talking about race and appeared in many of the Inside Woodlawn episodes.
He talks about the national conversation around Black Lives Matter and how it was considered controversial by some viewers when he appeared in an Inside Woodlawn episode wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt just a few months ago.
Chapter two: Mary Evans
Mary Evans is the family community coordinator at Woodlawn.
Evans, 32, describes her job as helping families with whatever they need from rental assistance, finding them a place to live or making sure they have food at home.
“So, whatever needs a Woodlawn family or any family that contacts me might need, my job is to help them,” said Evans.
But just as gentrification has changed almost everything at Woodlawn, it has changed Evans’ position too.
“My role has shifted. Families still need help paying rent and they still need help keeping utilities turned on. But what changed is, they don't live in our neighborhood now. They live in the numbers, or they live in Vancouver,” said Evans.
More than half the families at Woodlawn can’t afford to live in the neighborhood so they live in less expensive areas, like Gresham and Vancouver, and drive their children to school every day.
“It's not a process that's happening, but it's happened. Portland has replaced Black people with Black Lives Matter signs,” said Evans.
Evans shares her unique perspective on race in the interview below. She was adopted as baby from India by her white mother in Portland and all her siblings are people are color. She gives her perspective on hearing the phrase “I don’t see color.”
Chapter three: Anthony Lowery
Anthony Lowery teaches first grade alongside Lionel Clegg.
“I don't think you'll ever find two black teachers in first grade in the state of Oregon. I think that's like a unicorn,” Lowery said.
Lowery, 49, became a teacher at a crossroads in his life. He was laid off after 12 years at Nike and was coaching basketball when another teacher told him to check out the Portland Teachers Program. The now defunct Portland State University program recruited teachers of color for more than 30 years.
“They really gave my life purpose,” Lowery said. “It gave my life meaning. I never really knew what my life was meant to be, but now that I'm here as a teacher, it’s like, man, I don't see myself doing anything else.”
Lowery said the fact that PSU ended the program was a way of silencing black teachers.
“This is another nail in the coffin to really get into, you know, eliminating the black community in Northeast,” said Lowery.
Watch Lowery explain why he’ll address what’s happening in the world and in Portland with his students this fall.
Chapter four: Jai Blair
Jai Blair is heading into his sixth year of teaching at Woodlawn Elementary School.
Blair, 38, teaches fourth grade at Woodlawn and never sugar coats talks about race or Oregon’s racist beginnings with his students.
“I mean, you look in my classroom, there's so many different shades of skin color and so many different types of households,” said Blair. “And we know that America is built on race. And so, if I have that all in my classroom, why not talk about it?”
Race is also something the biracial father of three talks about with his 13-year-old twin sons and 6-year-old daughter. His wife has organized Black Lives Matter rallies in their Parkrose neighborhood and his kids have participated in several marches.
Blair talks about the pride of seeing his children fight for racial equality in the interview below.
About Inside Woodlawn:
KGW investigative reporter Cristin Severance and photojournalists Gene Cotton and Kurt Austin were granted remarkable access to spend the 2019-2020 school year chronicling life inside Woodlawn Elementary School in Northeast Portland. Their reporting offers a rich view of how teachers, administrators, school staff and parents overcome many challenges to serve students. Join us as KGW News goes Inside Woodlawn.
Please follow our year-long series on YouTube, Facebook and by using #insidewoodlawn on Twitter and Instagram.