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Living the Dream

Erin Jones celebrates King’s legacy every day

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The dream of Martin Luther King, Jr., is not confined to a single day, but is a way of being thoughtful and intentional about how we translate that dream into everyday action, says educator Erin Jones. She will keynote the 17th annual conference on human rights at Whatcom Community College.

As the director of Equity and Achievement for the Federal Way School District, Jones was honored as a Champion of Change during an event at the White House in 2013. The award was given to ten leaders throughout the country who have devoted their time and efforts to helping further education among African Americans.

Jones has been involved in education for the past 23 years, teaching Americans in all environments, in some of the some of the most diverse communities in the nation. She was named as the Most Innovative Foreign Language Teacher in 2007, while working at Stewart Middle School in Tacoma and was the Washington State Milken Educator of the Year in 2008 while teaching at Rogers High School in Spokane. She recently transitioned from Federal Way to director of AVID in Tacoma. Advancement Via Individual Determination is a global nonprofit organization dedicated to preparing students for college and other achievements.

Erin Jones was born in the United States but raised in the Netherlands, where her parents worked as teachers at the American School of the Hague. Erin speaks four languages and returned to the United States in 1989 to attend Bryn Mawr College, where she earned a degree in comparative literature with a focus on literatures of the African Diaspora. She has one high school senior who attends Timberline High School, two children in college, and a husband, James, who is also an educator.

Cascadia Weekly: Federal Way, and that very large region between Seattle and Tacoma, is also one of the most ethnically diverse districts in the state, with—in my understanding—more than 70 languages spoken by students and their families. Is that a challenge for you?

Erin Jones: I actually see that as an asset. I love the diversity. Federal Way actually has a lot more than 70 languages spoken; they have about 120 languages spoken. People in the United States, and especially in public education, see all those languages as a challenge or as a deficit. I see it as an asset. I am a language person. I speak four languages, and am a teacher of the English language.

The challenge is, how do we get teachers the skills they need to be successful with that diversity of kids? The kids can learn with them this incredible richness of experience, and those kids come with tons of academic potential—it just may not look like what we expect that to look like here in the United States.

So part of my work is to understand how we can call out the great richness that kids bring from different backgrounds and cultures, and use that to add to what we have instead of viewing that as something that is taking away from public education.

CW: You’ve been at this long enough that you’ve seen students take these tools and go on to succeed. What are some of the success stories you’ve seen?

EJ: There are so many kids, but a few spring to mind.

The greatest compliment is when I am in public—and it doesn’t matter where I am at in the state—kids will walk up to me and say, “Oh, Miss Jones, I remember how you helped me.” They will go out of their way and thank me.

Sometimes kids won’t acknowledge their teachers. But kids come and find me and tell me that I’ve made a difference, what I’m doing made a difference. That’s what you want as a teacher.

I want them to feel they’re special and talented. Their response tells me I’m accomplishing that.

There are a couple of students I had in another school district who were former gangbangers. They were sent away from home because their moms couldn’t deal with them. These were two young men who have had it rough, in trouble off and on, without access to good role models.

My husband and I stepped into their lives and told them we thought they had leadership potential. They ended up in my class. I was able to teach them skills that allowed them to take college-level classes with high school students.

One is now an officer in the Navy. The other just graduated from Whitman University on a Fulbright scholarship.

Those are only two.

It is exciting to watch students lives changed.

I don’t believe I have any special gift. What I have learned, in my 23 years of experience, is people want to know that they matter. When you tell kids they have the potential for greatness, and you treat them as if they have potential for greatness, that is exactly what you get out of them.

The opposite is also true—if you tell them they will fail, often they do.

So it is important how we talk to kids, and what we tell them they should feel about themselves. How we interact with them completely drives the outcome.

CW: The anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr. Day gives us all an opportunity to reflect on issues of social justice. What are your thoughts on this anniversary?

EJ: I think one of the most important ideas is that, first of all, it is not a Black holiday. I often get called out to speak because I’m, you know, “the Black lady” [laughs] But I really push people to try to think beyond the Black/White.

Dr. King stood for so much more than that. He spoke strongly about the power of serving others; the power of love instead of hate; the power of great education; and the power of envisioning a dream for yourself and your community. Those are really the four images I like to keep in mind, both through the lens of Dr. King’s life and, also, how we translate that into every day action.

We’ve celebrated Dr. King’s birthday nationally now for more than 30 years. What I find happening that I think is a bit dangerous is that now we check off that we’ve spent that day, but it doesn’t necessarily change who we are as a people.

I want to challenge people to think about how we take this dream and allow it to impact every day—every day that we go to work, every day we interact with people.

How do we take those many messages and change who we are?

We need to honor his life by living life differently.

CW: For the community of people who want to believe we’re on an evolutionary path toward equality and human rights, that we’re improving as a society, I think it’s been a pretty discouraging year. Are you discouraged by the events that have unfolded this year?

EJ: I would disagree with that.

Yes, it has been a tough year; but what it has done is uncovered the nasty underbelly that has actually been there. We just haven’t been willing to talk about it. With national stories like Ferguson [Missouri] and New York, it has forced us to have to talk about issues of race, issues of inequality. But the issues have been around.

I believe there’s a silver lining to everything. The silver lining here is that we actually have to take what we’ve learned and apply it toward improvement.

When I moved to the United States in 1989, I was blown away. I came from Europe, having studied the Civil Rights movement, and I imagined America was post-racist. Within my first two months here, I was called a “nigger” by somebody.

That was my awakening.

We are not in the place that we thought we were.

What I’ve found living in the Pacific Northwest is, we’re very politically correct. What that means is, we don’t talk about it. We talk about people as if we actually care about them, but our actions don’t match our talk.

Even though this year has been tough, it has opened our eyes to the reality of where we are as a nation. Ferguson has forced us to look and say, “We’re in a crisis!” Well, we’ve been in a crisis for a long time.

I think we’re in a better place because we can’t hide from it.

CW: How about your students and those you work with? Are they discouraged by what they’ve seen? Are they talking about their feelings?

EJ: When the Ferguson verdict came out, a lot of our students of color were very upset. We held a town hall meeting in Tacoma, and there were quite a few kids there who were discouraged.

My own children are young adults. My daughter hates talking about race. She’s an African American, but hates talking about inequality. But on the night of that verdict she could not go to sleep. She was up all night, reading all she could about it. She was very upset.

My youngest son is 17 years old. He is a 6’4” Black boy—huge—but he is also one of the top ten students at his school, one of the highest SAT scores in the state of Washington. He is thoughtful, but he is also outspoken and has a strong sense of justice. He was watching this story unfold on social media, and was very disturbed by the lack of critical thinking. He decided to write a long rant online about race, about the realities for him of being a large Black man.

It was powerful for me to see my children really be thoughtful about what these means for them.

All three of my kids have been profiled. My two boys were on their bicycles and were pulled over by police. My daughter was accosted by police in our community park when she with with her white friend—the police called her over and wanted to know why she was in the park.

We’ve spent a lot of time as a family talking about what this means, what profiling means, how you respond to it.

We never had to worry about this in Europe, but as a mom what I have to tell my kids is, when the police stop you—which they will at some point; not a question of if but when—we go through exactly what you must do to interact safely with them. That is such a hard conversation to have with kids, to tell them they must be afraid.

My youngest son is brilliant but outspoken. He cannot stand injustice. My greatest fear is that he will be pulled over somewhere for something he doesn’t feel he did wrong, and he will not be able to remain quiet. And because he is big and intimidating looking, something terrible will happen to him.

That terrifies me. I’ve cried, thinking about it.

He has an interview with Harvard University this week, but I don’t know that I want him to go to the East Coast. That is so terrible, to have these thoughts and to realize we must have these thoughts.

CW: So there is a very excellent education that you’re involved in, but there’s also a very terrible education that you’re also involved in.

EJ: Exactly.

CW: It’s also been a tough year, a tough several years, for education. The Legislature is going to try to tackle properly funding public education. Are you hopeful we’ll solve this problem?

EJ: No. [laughs] Not at all.

I have a lot of friends in the Legislature, senators and representatives, and I am close to that work as part of my job. And I try to stay positive about it.

But I am not hopeful. There are so many things we need money for, that I am not hopeful we’ll get what we need.

At the same time, I believe that what education needs is not always money. It’s how we disseminate the resources that we do have, to make sure that kids who really need it most are getting what they need.

We tend to think in this country that if we throw money at something, it fixes it. And I believe that’s not the case. I think sometimes the money we throw is not very thoughtful, and may not make the impact that we need.

I’m not saying education doesn’t need more money, because it certainly does. We need to be more strategic and intentional about how we use money.

Our biggest challenges right now are the adults, not the kids. How do we support adults, how do we get beyond the adult issues? I think about the Legislature, and about school districts and school boards—sometimes the “adult way,” the ego and political stuff, gets in the way of what we need to be doing for the kids. Especially those students who do not have a voice.

CW: Where would you like the state to be in ten years? What would you view as positive direction for the state on issues that matter to you?

EJ: As a system, that we have resources available not just on the west side of the state but in the east and central, where we have so many immigrant students. I would like our teachers to be able to walk into a classroom with confidence, feeling they know how to support students who do not speak English as their first language; ready to teach what I call “Academic English as a Second Language,” the language students need to excel at college.

People see language as a barrier. I don’t see it that way, but I also have been trained about how to teach students from different cultures and backgrounds.

I feel we’re not even close to that place. We don’t even have in place programs to help our teacher candidates to develop those skills.

Washington state has the nation’s worst ratio of counselors to kids. You have some districts where there are 500 kids to a counselor, and they just cannot give these students what they need in encouragement to excel.

We need to be able to teach students how to walk out of school and get to their dreams.

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