Parents group advocates for students of color

Glen Ridge High School

GLEN RIDGE, NJ — The Glen Ridge Black Diversity and Inclusion Association started meeting two years ago but formally became an association when it reached 501(c)(4) status this year, enabling it to better organize and advocate for students of color in the Glen Ridge School District. The parent group’s goal is to create an environment in the Glen Ridge schools where black students and their families are represented and included in the community.

“It was an informal conversation, and they were open to it and recognizing that there’s a lack of diversity in the school district,” Tricia Akinwande, a member of the GRBDIA board of trustees said about working with the school district in a phone interview with The Glen Ridge Paper on Aug. 28. “We were two years in and hadn’t seen much movement, so we formalized as an association to help them move forward.”

Akinwande and trustees Nadine Burnett, Regina Henry, Nicole Quallis, Karima Ravenell and Amy Samuels head up six different committees to address diversifying the district: human resources support, diversity training, curriculum, community engagement, communications and fundraising.

“This is to benefit the students of color but also the other students,” Akinwande said. “Studies have shown that, when they have more diverse teachers, they learn and understand better. It’s been a good experience, but we would like it to be more. Let’s not keep talking, let’s do something.”

Akinwande has talked to similar parents groups in the Bloomfield and South Orange–Maplewood school districts and knows Glen Ridge is not the only area town trying to address these issues. School systems across the state are talking about including more representation in social studies curriculum and in staffing. The challenge that the GRBDIA has seen in the last several months is, like the rest of the country, the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Now we have to pivot,” Akinwande said. “It’s more efficient to do this in person, so we’re in the process of figuring out how to adapt.”

One of the ways to reach potential teachers of color and encourage them to apply to the district is having contact with recent college graduates looking to become teachers, and widening the pool of applicants to include more black, indigenous and people of color. According to Akinwande, in Glen Ridge’s five schools, there are currently three staff members of color.

“It’s changing the attitude and changing the mindset,” she said. “We need to change the perception in Glen Ridge. We want them to know Glen Ridge is a place we want you to come and work. We also need to change the culture. Teachers are onboard, but some might not be as open as they think they are.”

One of the challenges is that many Glen Ridge teachers have been in the district for a long time, so there aren’t many openings. But the GRBDIA is working on moving the needle.

They’re not the only ones. Glen Ridge students are, too.

“I’m so impressed with the students in Glen Ridge,” Akinwande said. “They’ve really mobilized, and it’s been the ones who are not students of color. They’ve really recognized that this is an issue.”

Glen Ridge High School students have advocated for a Student Bill of Rights and have been asking the district for a more inclusive curriculum.

“I’m proud they’re doing that,” Akinwande said. “They can help make the change. They have a little more time to focus on it than parents, and I don’t think that these kids are going to tire out. They push hard, and we do, too. Hopefully with both of us, it will work.”