By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
“Regardless of religion, race, nationality, we must band together to support each other, share with each other, understand each other.”
Those words from Imam Benjamin Shabazz embodied the message of today’s second annual Equity Day at West Seattle High School.
He was part of a panel addressing Equity and Religion, one of 17 topics explored during sessions this morning, followed by an all-school assembly, as Equity Day spanned what was a two-hours-early-dismissal day around the district. The other topics:
Equity for Native Americans
Physical Activities and Individuals with Disabilities
Mental Health Equity
Love + Relationship Equity
LGBTQ Equity 101
LGBTQ Equity 102
Justice, Gender Equity, and Healthy Relationships
Unions and Equity
Women of Color: STI Inequity
Sexual Health Equity for LGBTQ People
WSHS educator Jennifer Hall organized the day, assisted by the Diversity Club – for which she serves as adviser – bringing speakers from around the region, including high-profile leaders such as Duwamish Tribe chair Cecile Hansen and Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant.
Since the morning presentations/discussions were concurrent, we could only observe a few. We started in the school library, where Imam Shabazz was on the religion panel with Rabbi Daniel Weiner of Temple De Hirsch Sinai, Pastor Lee Seese of Mount Baker Park Presbyterian Church, and Muniba Mushtaq, a Seattle Muslim woman.
After a faculty introduction and summary of what the 1st Amendment says about freedom of religion, each panelist spoke for a few minutes, starting with Rabbi Weiner, who spoke of the current political climate: “Things have changed, things feel different, things are different, we all need to be aware of that …” before addressing Jews’ millennia of persecution: “We know what it’s like for the past 3,000 years to be the stranger, to be the other.” Recounting the Exodus story, he continued, “That experience has sensitized the Jewish people to be on the forefront of fighting for all (oppressed) people.”
He mentioned the Holocaust-denial graffiti vandalism at his synagogue on Capitol Hill as part of an “ongoing pattern of threats against the Jewish community, and so many vulnerable communities … Muslim, LGBTQ, immigrant …” But, he continued, it had “a pretty significant silver lining … once it became known … we received an incredible outpouring of support, more than 1,000 messages of support” from around the nation and world … especially from Muslim community … and we stood with them (when they were threatened) .. “overwhelming confirmation that those who perpetrate these acts are a small minority … out of something painful and disturbing came something affirming and hopeful.”
Pastor Seese began by explaining that “our congregation is more than 90% European-descended white people … culturally, ethnically we are also the majority in the country, the ones who enjoy privileges that many of our fellow American citizens don’t enjoy … but as Christians we share in common … mandates, that we are supposed to put first … among those mandates … we are to be welcoming of immigrants, foreigners, people who are in any way marginalized, oppressed, hated.”
He spoke of the differences between denominations/factions of the Christian faith, some who believe that Jesus commanded them to be kind and welcoming to all – “whatever you did to the least human being on earth, you did to me” – and some who don’t. He said his church is evaluating whether to become a “sanctuary congregation” that could be a safe place for immigrants and others who are at risk of “being detained” and would need a place to meet with legal counsel, to get help from volunteers who would take their children to school, and other types of assistance.
Speaking next, was Mushtaq, a Muslim woman who immigrated from Pakistan seven years ago, finishing high school and attending college in Seattle. She said she works to clear up myths about her faith and those who practice it: “Muslims are not bad people.” She had harsh words for media depictions of Muslims, and concern that Muslims are under siege even here in “the most liberal place in the United States.”
But she said she is also encouraged by the community reaction to the hate crimes that have happened, and talked about a bake sale organized at a north end school where she works, to help out in the aftermath of a mosque arson – “little kids, everyone in the community wanted to do it… when we submitted that money, everyone felt so heartwarmed that at any level you can have an impact, you can make change.”
In a Q/A period at the end of the first session, Imam Shabazz talked again about solidarity, noting that during the Civil Rights movement of the ’60s, “all people of faith and spirit came together – now anybody can go to school anywhere in America that they choose, anyone can go into a restaurant that they choose,” and to give the students context, he mentioned the movie “Hidden Figures,” which included some of the racist realities of the day, separate bathrooms and drinking fountains for people of color. As for the film’s subject, he exclaimed, “That information was suppressed for over 50 years – the African American geniuses who put John Glenn in orbit!”
He warned about allowing people to be divided to “keep us from doing meaningful things.”
Another question asked about the collision of religious conscience and the secular everyday world, as it relates for example to court decisions such as the Hobby Lobby case. Pastor Seese acknowledged again that some Christian teachings are “held in tension,” but that he considers “any law that is an injust law is no law at all.”
One question veered more toward race than religion, and Shabazz spoke of race being “just an environmental factor,” that people’s skin color, hair type, and other external aspects are just based on the “environment” in which their ancestors lived. “Young people, you have the ability to (make) a new beginning,” he told the students. “Your minds are open. … Realize this one thing, everybody is a human being … there are no subhuman beings, no superior beings.”
For the second hour of the day, we stopped in the WSHS Commons to listen in on “Music Equity.” Due to a reported cancellation, this turned into a solo presentation, with popular local folk singer/songwriter Jim Page. He said he had been a musician and activist since age 15, and told stories from the Vietnam Era, including recollections of the draft. He then moved to current politics, and was joined at one point by Equity Day organizer Hall, who took the microphone to say she and Page “have something in common – we’re both angry about inequity … the older I get, I want to say more and more, ‘no, you can’t do that, no, you can’t treat people unfairly’.”
The next song was “This Land Is Your Land,” prefaced by an acknowledgment that the school, and the city of Seattle, are on stolen land, the ancestral land of the Duwamish people.
That segued into our next stop, the classroom where “Equity for Native Americans” was the topic.
Duwamish Tribe member Ken Workman was speaking when we walked in; also on the panel were Duwamish chair Hansen, Puyallup Tribe member Robert Satiacum Jr., and Andy Ribaudo, a veteran who defended the Standing Rock Sioux water protectors and their allies.
Only a few minutes remained in their panel, but we heard Workman speak of the challenge of teaching traditions to youth, and of knowing people by their ancestry, and where, and who, they’ve come from. He and chair Hansen also talked about the documentary “Promised Land” that chronicles the Duwamish and Chinook Tribes’ struggle to get their treaty rights honored.
The morning was capped by an intense assembly, opened by Hall’s greeting, “Happy Equity Day, Westside!” and including student speakers as well as guests.
Mental-health equity was the opening topic, featuring Todd Crooks, who started by identifying himself as a 1981 WSHS alum – and then drew a gasp when he explained that he had lost his son Chad just over a year ago to suicide, resulting from his battle with schizophrenia. (We wrote about the Crooks family last fall.)
His message was urgent and vital: “Mental illness is a disease, not a weakness.” He and his wife Laura are working to remove the stigma from discussing and dealing with mental illness. Crooks emphasized the need to ask someone in crisis, “Are you thinking about harming yourself or someone else?” and not stopping to worry that “you’re planting an idea in somebody’s head,” because you’re not – “you’re sending a message that you understand they might have a serious issue … and you’re willing to talk to them about it on a very personal level.” He told the students they are going to help the family in their mission to “kill the stigma of mental illness,” and said they would leave cards in the campus health center. The website for their campaign is chadslegacy.org.
Some of the subsequent speakers reprised their roles in morning sessions. Duwamish Tribe chair Hansen asked the students to “advocate for the indigenous people of Seattle.” Here is part of what she said about how she got politically involved:
Singer Page performed a protest song with a singalong refrain “over my dead body.” Rabbi Weiner went back to the underlying theme, “This year in this country there are no bystanders … you can’t just sit back and let things happen … you’ve got to love your neighbor as yourself.”
Imam Shabazz quoted Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere,” and Muhammad Ali, reciting his poem with the declaration, “We all have the same God, we just serve him differently.”
The next speaker was Saffiyah Hrahsha, an American Muslim woman who spoke of being the victim of a hate crime, a man tearing off her headscarf and punching her in the face. While Islam is the religion most often mentioned in media coverage she said, that coverage is mostly negative. She urged the students to help counter that by contacting major media organizations to tell them “about what you know about the lives and contributions of American Muslims.” She offered a weblink, cairseattle.org/allies.
The topic moved on to economic inequity, with a student pointing out the concentration of U.S. wealth in the hands of a tiny percentage of the population. “So what do we do about it?”
He introduced Councilmember Sawant, who took on the topic: “If we are against oppression, we have to be against the oppression of anybody, or else we are not against oppression. … Why do we have these various forms of inequality … and what can we do about it? As a socialist, all the specific forms of oppression, racism, sexism, sexual violence, violence against LGBTQs, against Muslims, a lot of this has to be traced to the roots of the system that we live in.” If systemic roots are not considered, she said, the only conclusion would be that it’s an endemic human problem, and, she continued, “I’m sorry, sisters and brothers, I refuse to accept that analysis!”
As the imam had suggested earlier in the day, Councilmember Sawant said that “divide and conquer” was the strategy being used to keep people oppressed. And she challenged the students to fight, saying that as an “immigrant, woman, person of color … I have to fight for ALL groups marginalized by the system.”
How to fight? She tore into the myth that protest actions are not effective: “When Donald Trump announced his Muslim ban, what delivered his most stinging defeat? Ordinary Americans from New York City to Seattle learned about it, agreed it was appalling, decided to carry out nonviolence civil disobedience by occupying and shutting down airports.”
She also mentioned the proposed May 1st one-day educators’ strike, recalling the strike a year and a half ago: “On the picket lines, they were not talking about themselves, they were talking about you,” and asking if the students would “have (their teachers’) back” if they choose to walk out that day.
The reply was affirmative.
The assembly concluded as it had began – with music (the National Anthem and Black National Anthem were performed at the start, an original song at the end) – and while Equity Day continued at WSHS, we had to move on.
One more underscoring of the day’s importance had come in a video message from our area’s Congressmember Pramila Jayapal, played for students as the day began, in which she told them, “There is no justice without equity … seek the equity that you deserve. … You’re setting a great example for all those around you.”