Kewaunee woman starts petition asking school district to teach anti-racism
KEWAUNEE – A local woman said she was hoping to get about 50 people to sign her online petition asking the Kewaunee School District to, among other things, make changes to its curriculum that would include and present more non-white voices and viewpoints in its lessons and discourage racism within the schools.
Boy, is she happily surprised.
Instead, Megan Kuehl, a Kewaunee High School graduate and a teacher herself — although not in the Kewaunee system — has garnered 245 signatures as of Wednesday morning, less than three weeks after she posted the petition in Google Docs.
Kuehl wasn't sure what kind of response she would get. She hasn't publicized the petition, instead simply mentioning it to about 50 friends she was confident would sign and encouraging them to mention it to their friends. She also posted a link on her Facebook page and relied on social media and word-of-mouth for people to become aware of it.
Kuehl, who is white, has been one of the regulars in the weekly Black Lives Matter demonstrations held since early June — after the death of African-American man George Floyd while in the custody of four Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day — at Harbor Park, in a city where 96% of its population of about 3,000 is white and 0.1% is Black.
So, getting almost five times as many online signers as she was expecting in a community of its size and demographic makeup, for a petition that hasn't gotten any real publicity, gives Kuehl hope that more residents and Kewaunee alumni will add their names.
"I'm shocked we reached 200," Kuehl said. "I know it's daunting in a small town, putting your name on there. But I think we can grow (the number) even more than we have."
Kuehl emphasized the petition, introduced by an open letter to the district outlining the requested changes, isn't meant to take a political stand in today's highly charged, partisan climate across the state and country. Rather, it's about giving Kewaunee students the chance to hear diverse voices in their classes.
"Some of (the points raised) may seem smaller, some might take an extended period of time, but none are political or radical," she said. "I just want people to know the idea of anti-racist work is not political."
The five-point petition asks the school district to:
- Release a public statement that it condemns racism and "… stands with Black students and families (and all students and families of color) … welcomes all marginalized communities (even if they are not represented in our current population)."
- Ban the Confederate flag from all school property and events, which the petition says violates the district’s bullying, anti-harassment and dress code policies.
- Examine curricula in history, social studies, language arts and other subjects and make the changes needed to incorporate non-white and other marginalized perspectives, including education plans on systemic racism, white supremacy, covert/overt racism, privilege and Native American, Black, LatinX and LGBTQIA+ histories.
- Present new and diverse voices, including guest speakers, trying to recruit and retain a more diverse staff, and seeking greater input from students and community members.
- Empower district teachers, staff and leaders to build anti-racist schools.
While acknowledging the extraordinary effort the school district put into educating its students during this spring's shutdown from the COVID-19 pandemic, the petition also says the deaths of Floyd and other Black people in police incidents across the country "… have magnified the racial inequities and systemic injustices that also continue to plague our nation. And a movement has been ignited to confront America’s pandemic of racism."
It goes on to say that while the population of Kewaunee is mostly white, that doesn't mean racism doesn't exist, and the schools should seek to offer an education with more diverse viewpoints to help students understand those perspectives — not just from the Black community but other non-white and LGBTQIA+ ones — and better prepare them for life both in Kewaunee County as the demographics change over time and in larger communities.
"… Normalizing intolerance by avoiding white discomfort is no longer an option. We have witnessed racism within our schools and communities, and now is the time to do better," the petition says. "We believe that this change will be hard but necessary. We acknowledge that change of any kind can sometimes spark backlash. But we stand with you and are ready to help push this change forward in any way we can."
Kuehl said she understands if the district decides to make changes, most of them won't happen overnight. She realizes teachers and staff would need time, support and resources to review and possibly rewrite their curricula, and the points in the petition are meant to be a framework.
"What I put in the letter is just a baseline of where we need to start," Kuehl said. "If the district moves forward, it can start by doing an audit of its policies, grading, discipline, more systemic things."
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Kuehl said part of the reason she's petitioning the school district is that her experience as an educator leads her to believe that schools should be in the front lines of a battle against racism, no matter their location or demographics. While Kuehl hasn't taught in the Kewaunee system, she's taught in systems ranging from Algoma and Luxemburg-Casco (as a substitute) to Milwaukee and currently works in higher education.
"I feel it's important for schools to commit to anti-racism," she said. "I consider schools a beacon in the community. They should lead the fight."
She said it's important to provide young people with a base for understanding other cultures before possible racist beliefs become ingrained as the students grow into adults. Kuehl said while she's heard support called out to the group at the demonstrations she's attended, she's also heard plenty of insults, especially from younger people.
"Some of the negative reaction we've gotten from young people has been really eye-opening," Kuehl said. "I felt like maybe our schools can do a little bit better, open some eyes to some new perspectives."
Kuehl added that she thinks her learning experiences in the Kewaunee system — she is a class of 2000 graduate — didn't adequately prepare her to experience and appreciate multicultural experiences.
"There were a lot of gaps in my education when it came to understanding racism, a lot of white voices when it came to history," Kuehl said. "I still think I'm learning now."
That's why Kuehl said it matters to provide these learning opportunities in a small, mostly white community such as Kewaunee, especially to students who might move to bigger and more diverse communities after graduation.
"Our society is not (predominately white)," she said. "I think especially in a predominately white district, you need to focus on understanding racism in all its forms. It can be embedded, it can be institutional. It's important to build a school where all cultures, all communities are included."
She noted that the goal is not to paint every race, sexuality and culture with the same brush but rather to give each its own voice.
"I hope the district can see that colorblindness isn't the way," Kuehl said. "People are different, so let's treat people how they need to be treated."
The petition signers so far almost all have a connection to the school district. They include current and past Kewaunee students — a handful of them graduated more than 50 years ago, dating back to the class of 1968 — current and retired Kewaunee teachers and staff, educators who formerly taught in the system and have moved elsewhere, and parents of current and past students. A few city residents also have signed on without noting a connection to the school.
As of now, there isn't a deadline to sign. Kuehl isn't sure exactly when she'll present it to the district, although she hopes it'll be before the start of the school year at the end of August.
"We're still in the process of circulating," Kuehl said. "We also knew the school district had a lot on its plate dealing with COVID-19. But now that that plan is in place, we're thinking it's time to move forward."
For a link to read and sign the online petition, visit facebook.com/kuehl.megan or forms.gle/stc4CLveNEyv1wcL8. For more information, email Megan Kuehl at [email protected]
Contact Christopher Clough at 920-741-7952, 920-562-8900 or [email protected]
This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: Kewaunee woman starts petition asking school district to teach anti-racism