Women’s History Month is always an introspective time for me. I think about all the ways that women have been, and continue to be, visionary shapers of their communities. And I think about how I have been prepared to be the visionary leader that I am today by the example set by the women who have gone before me. I stand in that truth without backing away from the light it creates.

I didn’t have much choice in the kind of woman I would become. I come from a long line of strong, Black women from a hilly village called Moriah on the small Caribbean island of Tobago. My grandmother Esther, whom everyone called “Mother,” gave birth to nine children, including five daughters. Vanessa, Mother Esther’s middle daughter, is my mother.

All my life, I have been transfixed by the resilience and resourcefulness of these six women. As a child, I remember marveling every time my mother turned a nearly empty pantry and refrigerator into a deliciously healthy family dinner.

All my life, I have been humbled by their courage. I watched their journeys of immigration and sacrifice, rebuilding their lives from scratch in North America. I remember attending night classes with my mother at Howard University. She didn’t allow the lack of a babysitter to keep her from earning a master’s degree to provide a solid life for us.

All my life, I have been taught how to love by watching their service to others. To follow the example of the women in my family means I must also be a strong, spiritual, and loving leader with a servant’s heart.

Mother Esther was a force. My mother tells countless stories about how my grandmother brought women in the village together to problem solve when someone was sick or in need; and how she assigned her daughters to visit and care for elderly and widowed women in the village. She turned her front yard into the hangout spot on the weekends to keep the youth in the village safe, stringing lights and baking coconut buns for them to enjoy in within the sanctuary of her space. I grew up with the understanding that the wellbeing of young people is vital to the future of a community. Mother Esther’s commitment to children and youth struck a chord in me to also create spaces that ensure their safety and opportunities to thrive.

Mother Esther cast a vision for her village and her family in her little home at the top of the hill in Moriah, and she let nothing stand in her way to achieve it. Likewise, my mother and my aunts Wilcenia, Vandalyn, Eunice, and Joan added to that vision for our family through their diligence and sacrifice. All of them saw the needs of others and served them, even in the midst of their own struggles.

When I look into the faces of the four generations that have come from my grandmother’s womb, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for her vision and her constant prayers. I am sure of my purpose to write the next chapter of the vision for my family and for all children in the place I now call home – these United States of America. I founded The Moriah Group to honor my grandmother’s vision for her village and her family. And each day, I pray I’m doing everything with the tools I have been given to continue her legacy in ways that make her proud.

Author: Rhonda Tsoi-A-Fatt, EdD

Author: Rhonda Tsoi-A-Fatt, EdD

With COVID-19 an ever-present threat, many parents are burdened with questions as some school reopen for face-to-face instruction:

As a child advocate and a parent to children of color, answering these questions is even more difficult because of two factors: an understanding that continuing my children’s education is a critical component to their growth, and an awareness that the weighty experiment of in-person learning is borne on the backs of people of color—as has been the case throughout this pandemic.

Since this health crisis began, the lives of working-class people of color in “essential” industries have been placed at risk to maintain the economy and conveniences of affluent white Americans. We have witnessed the seriousness of this virus downplayed as some spun the story of its disparate impacts on people of color.

Then Southern students, nearly 60% of whom are children of color[1], were used to test the waters of school reopening. At the prodding of the President, and against health experts’ advice, many Southern districts opened in late July and early August for in-person education. Others opted for virtual learning in the first quarter, with plans to reassess. The nation held its breath to see what would happen and proof of the danger in placing children back in school buildings manifested quickly. In Tennessee, Hamilton County Schools had to close two school buildings just hours into the first day of school after reporting confirmed COVID-19 cases.[2] Across the state, the majority of school districts opened for in-person education and hundreds of teachers and students were quarantined almost immediately due to potential exposure.[3] While some schools across the country decided to postpone in-person schooling because of the risks, there are some schools who are making plans to transition from virtual to in-person schooling in the coming weeks because virtual learning simply failed.

The lack of federal leadership on the issue of schooling during the pandemic has meant that all of our children are at greater risk. The politics of this pandemic makes schools reopening feel like a tug-of-war between opposing parties with the health and wellbeing of our children hanging in the balance.

The dangers accompanying virtual education, while not immediately life threatening, also have potential for negative consequences. The beginning of this pandemic revealed major inequities in the education of students of color. Gaps in technology access, hunger, supervision, and learning support have not yet been resolved. Tragically, this will create learning gaps for students of color that may take years to correct, if at all.

Schools can help improve outcomes for students of color in four ways:

Ensure the physical safety and wellbeing of students and families. Schools can create a sustainable means of distributing food to families during virtual learning to offset the loss of school meal programs. They can also provide families with information about securing their homes while parents are at work and students are home. Schools can also engage a technology partner to assist families with cyber-security while children are learning online.

Equip parents and students with the necessary learning tools. Students of color have historically faced an internet and hardware digital divide. Now is the time to partner with local internet companies to provide free internet access to families and laptops and Chromebooks to all students who need them. Schools should ensure that all communications are translated for students for whom English is a second language. In the process, reach out to parents and caregivers of color to ensure they can take full advantage of the supports available.

Structure the virtual learning experience to address the present needs. A regular 8 AM – 3 PM school day does not work for many families during this crisis. Schools can make the learning day flexible so students can begin at the time that is most conducive for their household. Use teacher specialists, aides, and other school staff as learning coaches to support students who have limited parental support. Partner with a trusted community organization to safely provide learning assistance to families of color. Make learning coaches available during evenings and weekends.

Be attentive to the mental health needs of students, families, and teachers. The challenges of essential work or loss of income, food insecurity, housing instability, and COVID-19 deaths are faced most harshly by families of color. This, coupled with ongoing racial tensions and protests, significantly impacts the capacity of students of color to learn. Provide mental health workers to regularly check in with families and provide care. Similarly, ensure teachers have regular opportunities to care for their mental health as they are thrust into a new type of teaching and feel immense pressure from both administrators and families.

How schools will address the new (and long-standing) equity gaps students of color is the problem to be solved. In addition to the academic, logistical, and safety net issues disproportionately impacting students of color and their families, they should not be expected to continue to serve as guinea pigs in all aspects of this pandemic. As tumultuous as 2020 has been, we have an opportunity to do more of what is right to ensure that students of color thrive.

[1] Digest of Education Statistics, 2019. (n.d.). Retrieved August 18, 2020, from https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d19/tables/dt19_203.50.asp
[2] Mangrum, M. (2020, August 13). These Tennessee school districts are already reporting COVID-19 cases after reopening. Tennessean. Retrieved August 24, 2020 from https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/education/2020/08/05/tennessee-school-districts-reported-coronavirus-cases/3296529001/