Creating Community: An Interview with Gerald Donaldson, Part Three

Edited by Jennifer Sunami

We conclude our three-part interview with Gerald Donaldson, family support worker at Leschi Elementary. In this final part of our interview, we discuss how to build community support and find role models for students. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.

Bringing Change to the Community

I don’t want to say I can’t be surprised anymore, but it’s okay to be arrogant at times for a good thing. We help effect change. Two years ago, somebody wrote some graffiti down on one of the walls in the neighborhood and we immediately went and supported the immigrant population with a High 5 event. High 5 started four or five years ago, because my daughter texted me one day and said, “I saw this great program in Connecticut, and they did this high five where the African American men line up and greet the students as they came in.” I said we should do that. And we did. It has expanded to even more places—at South Shore K–8, Anthony Shoecraft did his, and Madrona Elementary did one last year. Meany Middle School did one, and there’s other schools that are doing it—the central area, those are the schools that actually partake in it now. We do it twice a year; we’re contemplating doing one right now for Juneteenth.

We get people in just to support our babies and say, “Have a great school year,” and at the end of the year, “Have a great summer, stay safe, looking forward to seeing you come back.” A lot of those people who started coming to some of the High 5 events will stay and volunteer. It infuses spirit into the rest of the day—it just seems like the students know people care who they don’t usually see every day. The people who do it, you talk to them, and they just feel energized. It doesn’t seem like its work, it just seems like you’re supposed to do it.

On Parental and Community Support

First off, when we have the events, come. Just come and see what you can do. You’re always invited, especially to the equity teams and also all the boys and girls groups. When you come, we have to ask the students’ permission. Don’t take it personally if they say no, because the topics could vary. They’ve never said no, though.

Look at how you can get involved. How can you help us fundraise? We need field trips, we need materials in the building. On the political side, get out and talk to the people who have money. We have a great program here, how can you support us? And then let’s take that district-wide. Let’s just not stop here because you have children that go all over. Everybody needs support, especially people of color.

A lot of times our people can’t afford to take off of work. Maybe let our students write letters to your job to say, “We’d really like to have your company participate. Mr. Donaldson needs to come to his son or daughter’s school. Can you please allow that to happen?” Once they write that, it’s harder for a CEO or a boss to say no. White families get out and do that—our children need to see Black role models.

Providing Role Models

We just did our first career day in eight years. A lot of strong, well-educated people of color spent some time with our students, and they got to know the role models. We asked out presenters, “Let them know much you make, let them know that you’ve done to get there. Our fifth graders and fourth graders, can they shout at you for a day?” Just so they can do what you’re doing, and learn how to do what you’re doing.

If you asked 10 boys, nine of them are going to be athletes or rap stars. We had Cliff Avril here, he asked that same question and one young man said he wanted to be an engineer. Cliff’s wife’s is an engineer, so as he was leaving my office and walking out he told a young lady, “You can be an engineer.” That’s why we need people of color to come in and just say, “You can be an engineer, you can be a doctor.” Mr. Avril wants to take some of the kids to the Seahawks facility, to show them the head nutritionist, the head groundskeeper, the medical staff. It’s not just the athletes on the field—there’s the people around them. After a few years, they don’t want your body anymore; these jobs offer longevity, you can do that for 30, 40, 50 years. I would love to be able to take some of these kids on a Black college tour so they can see. Everything can’t be automation. We’re going to need some talent—we have talent. Just tap it.

The running joke around here is, I say, “How many more years to go?” I’ve said two years, for 10 years. It’s hard to leave, especially when you start seeing what’s happening. I envisioned them having an equity team, but I didn’t see all of this. That’s the good part though. That’s what motivates you to go out and talk to organizations. From gentrification to drugs, all that stuff is not as bad as the media portrays it. Things that are positive, it doesn’t sell. When it bleeds, it leads. The genius side, it’s not out there. So I just want to thank you just for giving me an opportunity to get their stuff out. It’s not about me. We’ve got to let people know we’re here, we’ve got to let them know our babies are doing great things, and there ain’t no stopping us now. We’re on the move.

Read Part 1 and Part 2 of this interview, and learn more about the work Gerald Donaldson does at Leschi in this Seattle Public Schools profile.