One of the best qualities in a leader is the ability to empathize. Seattle Schools Superintendent José Banda has this quality in spades and it is much appreciated. But as I noted in my column Friday, Banda takes empathy too far when he fails to forcefully convey the district’s mission and priorities. I’m referring to the tug-of-war Banda has been in much of the summer and fall with Africatown Central District, an umbrella group for about 18 organizations that have been operating out of the Horace Mann school building sans a lease agreement and steady rent payments.
To his credit, Banda went out to Horace Mann last spring and listened as community leaders, parents and advocates offered emotional, compelling reasons for turning the school into a hub for small businesses, job training efforts and educational enrichment programs. People spoke their truth about the ways racism in Seattle has kept the Central District from being all it can be.
Banda listened. That’s good, but he did not ask detailed questions about Africatown’s vision and how it would improve academic performance, the district’s top priority. Honestly, I like the idea of Africatown. My cynical spirit is buoyed by the innovation efforts behind the plan. I also agree with the speaker in the room who said, “Anything that is about us but does not include us is not for us.” We know what it takes for our children to succeed and we have to be more involved and vocal about it.
But good intentions doesn’t eliminate the need for a solid education and business plan built on proven principles. Africatown sublet space in Horace Mann from a private school and stayed long after the school moved out and the district asked Africatown to move. Some of the group’s leaders, for example Omari Tahir-Garrett, infamous for breaking bones in the face of a former Seattle mayor, doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. But district leaders, afraid of being called racist — again — have scrambled to find new digs for Africatown. So the groups’ real estate problems become Banda’s. Here’s what I think the superintendent should have told the group:
“Thank you for allowing me to come out and hear firsthand your vision for this community and for African Americans in Seattle. I would love to learn more about the programs you envision and those already up and running. In turn, I will share with you my academic goals for your children. I am responsible for their academic success. If they fail, I’ve failed. That is my reason for wanting to talk more about them, less about you.
The district is always looking to deepen its ties with communities so I hope we can partner together on some educational priorities. I recognize the grave historic injustices done to African Americans in America, in Seattle and I recognize the district I run has not done a good job educating your children. With your help, I seek to change that.
But that is a longer conversation worthy of more robust thinking and planning than any of us are prepared to offer today. I’ve come here instead to let you know that you must vacate the premises by a certain date to make way for renovations that will turn this building into a high school. Your children are welcome to enroll in that high school. The parents who have love it.
I am under no obligation to furnish you with a new building. There are dozens of nonprofits vying for space within the Seattle School District and while I’d love to accommodate all of them, my first priority is to ensure there is enough space for students. I hope you do not view my response as lacking empathy. I and my bosses on the School Board try, when possible, to connect unused school buildings with communities. You’ll find former schools all over the city that have been leased or sold for community uses. Nearby, the former Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary school was sold at below market price to First African Methodist Church, an esteemed part of the black religious community. And if you’ve been to the Northwest African American Museum, then you’ve gazed upon the former Coleman School.
We care. We sometimes fail spectacularly in showing it. Help us to show it in ways that improve educational opportunities for your children and other students. Thank you and let us know the date you will be moving out.”
Listen below as community members tell Banda what their neighborhoods need. Weigh, as I did, the letter of the law against the appropriate feelings of disenfranchisement.