Whitaker Addresses Mascot Question, Diversity Audit
A question surrounding Jamestown High School’s longtime nickname and mascot — the “Red Raider” — has generated a good amount of conversation throughout the community.
And Dr. Kevin Whitaker, whose tenure as superintendent of Jamestown Public Schools began on July 1, hopes that it will continue to be exactly that.
“It has to be a conversation,” Whitaker told The Post-Journal during a recent interview. “It can’t be some sort of dictate from on high.”
Prior to his start-date, Whitaker said he had been following the discussion and news coverage remotely as he concluded his duties at the Geneva City School district as assistant superintendent for School Improvement and Accountability.
“There are many people in this community — and when I say community I mean a broad swath within a 50-mile range — that have many different backgrounds and many different experiences,” he said. “It is essential — in the same way, I’ve spoken about kids — to honor all of those people.”
He added, “If you go to the Seneca president and he says, ‘Hey no, it’s an honor. We really appreciate what you’re doing there,’ that’s a different conversation than, ‘Look, there’s a history of caricature and making fun of us and we don’t like it. Please stop. It’s time.’ That’s the beginning of two different conversations.”
Whitaker is referring to a statement submitted to The Post-Journal by Seneca Nation President Rickey L. Armstrong Sr. on June 18 supporting the efforts of a petition calling for a change to the name and removal of any associated Native American imagery, saying: “The time for change has long since arrived, and the call should be heeded.”
“There are multiple layers to this thing and this is part of a conversation so I’m not dictating anything,” Whitaker said. “But maybe if you have a scale of 1 to 10 and a 10 is you’ve got caricatures and cartoonish representation and a 1 is totally fine. Somewhere on that scale lie things like war chants and headdresses and cartoon and caricature figures and somewhere else lies, ‘Raiders.'”
“Raiders” combined with the previous caricature — a Native American portrayal which was phased out starting in 2012 — as well as the use of the color red — derogatorily used to describe the skin color of indigenous people — could pose the problem.
“‘Raiders’ may be different than that, but once you have those other things like headdresses and caricatures and then you’re also ‘Red Raiders,’ people go, ‘Oh, Red Raiders means that’ — therein may lie our problem,” Whitaker said, but emphasized the need for the issue to remain a conversation and discussion.
“It’s less really about changing a name than it is about listening to the people that are impacted by what we are doing and having a community conversation around having to resolve that,” he said.
The movement to change the name — which started with an online petition started by Autumn Echo of the Jamestown Justice Coalition that has, as of press time, received nearly 850 signatures — kickstarted a counter-effort, started by 1993 graduate Melissa Paterniti, to keep the name the same which has received nearly 1,200 signatures.
“A lot of times, if you’ve done any reading around bias training or implicit bias, one of the most important things that you understand is that it’s not the intent, it’s how it’s received,” Whitaker said. “If I call you something and I think it’s a term of endearment and you take offense to that, it’s not about what I intended, it’s about what I did to you. If we are hearing from the people that are directly impacted by this, at least by their representation, that it’s hurtful and harmful, we have to take a look at that. It’s only respectful to do so.”
The discussion comes at an interesting time for the district: in February, the school board approved an agreement with Eversley Bradwell Consulting, led by Dr. Sean Bradwell of Ithaca College, in conducting a “culturally responsive audit” that “reviewed district policy, learning spaces, curriculum review and a review of pedagogical practices,” according to a copy of the agreement.
According to The Education Alliance at Brown University, culturally responsive teaching is defined as “pedagogy that recognizes the importance of including students’ cultural references in all aspects of learning.”
“The school board and I, as we look at student achievement data and have looked at school climate surveys realize that Jamestown’s demographic is changing quite a bit,” said Whitaker’s predecessor, Dr. Bret Apthorpe, who retired as the district’s superintendent on June 30. “About 40% of our students are minorities and a vast majority of them are Latino students. We look at Latino student results and climate surveys and student achievement and it’s very apparent that they are disengaged with their school and school community.”
The audit is currently in draft stage. Whitaker said he has read the report “one time briefly” and couldn’t comment on any details.
“I think the timing of asking for that is appropriate and especially by a third party and someone to come in and do some interviews and walk around and do surveys,” he said. “What it indicates is that it’s time to have a conversation. It’s time to begin to talk about that.”
He added, “There’s a population here that says, ‘There’s no need to have a conversation’ and there’s population here that says, ‘We have been trying to have this conversation for years and years and years. It’s long overdue time.'”
Self-assessment, Whitaker noted, is key to helping to bridge the communication gap.
“You can’t go into it being unmoving in your beliefs,” he said. “Any equity work that I’ve seen that’s been successful is where people say, ‘A month ago, I thought this thing and now I realize that that was misinformed and I have a completely new understanding. I’m so glad I went through this process.'”
He added, “That’s the tough part. It’s getting from A to B. That’s not Z. That’s just A to B.”
Recognition of implicit bias — defined as “attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner” is also key to helping minority students succeed in the classroom.
“In one of the BOCES I taught in, they began to talk with districts about equity and they wanted to have a panel and have people of color on the panel,” he said. “I proposed that the first thing we needed to do in that work is to look at implicit bias and learn about ourselves.”
Whitaker added, “Beginning the work by looking at ourselves is the only way we’ll eventually get to a place where we can see at least some perspective from different sides.”