Student Equity: An Interview with Gerald Donaldson, Part Two

Edited by Jennifer Sunami

We continue our conversation with Gerald Donaldson, the family support worker at Leschi Elementary. In this second part of our interview, we talk about the exciting work being done by the K–5 student-led equity team at the school. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.

About the K–5 Student Equity Teams

Four years ago, the district started the district equity teams. We had a building staff equity team, a parent equity team—we had all these teams and were neglecting the people we work for. So we started our student equity team, for kindergarten through fifth grade. Myself, Rayco Dabney, and another one of our teachers were just sitting around and asked, “Why don’t the students have an equity team?” Staff was a little hesitant at first and initially it was supposed to be grades 2–5. But you’re still leaving out people, two parts of your population. So we went with K–5 and it’s just taken off.

We meet the first, second, and third Tuesdays of the month from 1:40 until 2:25, in our library. Part of joining is the students are nominated by their classmates. Once you are nominated you have to be able to tell us your definition of the difference between race and equality, equity and inequality. A letter goes home that says “Your child was nominated for the student equity team, why would you want your child to participate?” That was the start, now we’re on our third generation. Our fifth graders this year started in third—they really took the ball and ran. Initially, we would run the meetings. Now, an adult has to be in the room but they take over.

They started an award called the Turtle Award, and they did the design and everything. It’s for students who stick their neck out above and beyond. It could be they see somebody being bullied, that they help somebody up who’s fallen, or is crying. The adults have no say about the Turtle Award whatsoever. The students nominate two people from each grade level, then they vote and make an announcement about once a month at an assembly.

We talk about the importance of voting. You might not be able to vote, I can’t tell you who to vote for, but you know somebody who votes. Encourage your parents to vote. When 45 won, there were students who were coming to the meeting crying but yet had enough upstairs to say, “I have friends who are immigrants, are they’re going to be deported? How can we help them?” That’s amazing to me.

Broadening the Impact

Other schools want to come on board. South Shore K–8 started their [equity team]—we actually took students out to South Shore. I’m going to Loyal Heights Elementary to talk to them about starting an equity team; Thurgood Marshall Elementary is interested, John Muir Elementary, Ballard High School. We’re going to start one in Meany Middle School next year. They have some of our students who are sixth graders now, and when our fifth graders go there next year, the seventh graders can start their equity team. I have some young ladies over there, a couple of young brothers—they’re going to be sharp.

We go out to the University of Washington every year and sit in on their ethnic studies classes or the student union stuff. They’ll ask our students race and equity questions. Our younger students out there—I’m amazed at what our students know, they’ll blow you away. It’s been a joy. It gets emotional because people always say the future seems like it’s in good hands, but I feel presently we’re in good hands. You know it’s true when you have kindergarten leaders who lead by example, when you see parents who are now asking when we do the Kinder tours, that they want their babies on the equity team.

Sometimes I have to watch how I take stuff, because when people say I’m amazed [the students] could ask a question I don’t know what that means. Are you amazed because they’re Black and answer the questions, or are you just amazed that they had the knowledge to answer the questions? Our students spoke for the State of the Superintendent Address. We had four students who spoke at that event. The superintendent, when I saw her she just was giddy they were so great. My suggestion was every school K-12 should have [a student equity team]. It’s taking pride in your school. They take pride in their school family—it might influence somebody to take action.

Read Part 1 of the interview. Part 3 continues next week.