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A dozen Tulsa community members, many Hispanic and Latina/x/o, showed up to speak at this week’s Tulsa Public Schools Board meeting. They had come to stand up for their community and speak out about ongoing issues of discrimination.
When speakers arrived, however, they learned that the board pushed their speaking slots to an upcoming special meeting.
Frustrated, but undeterred, community members sought answers before settling in for the meeting with translation supports in hand. On this cold night, in the pouring rain, they stayed to ensure their presence was known.
“If there hadn’t been these issues of racism, I wouldn’t necessarily have come,” said one community member, a leader with Growing Together. “But I’ve seen these issues with our elected member, and also in the community.”
The elected member this community leader was speaking about was Dr. Jerry Griffin, District 6 Tulsa School Board representative.
Only Latina Tulsa Public Schools board member expresses outrage over “offensive” comment about her citizenship
In a Facebook post on February 28th, TPS Board Member Judith Barba from District 2, aired frustrations after a private conversation with Dr. Griffin following the meeting.
Barba said Griffin “wanted to connect me to a reporter that was asking questions about my naturalization, aka my immigrations status.” In her post, Barba said the question was “offensive and racist”.
“I have no obligation after one year seated on the Board to talk about my naturalization,” she said. “It is obvious that if I run for the seat, I am a citizen.”
The Black Wall Street Times reached out to Dr. Griffin via email asking if he could address concerns of community members following the conversation.
“I never asked Ms. Barba about her citizenship status or anything close (period – full stop),” Dr. Griffin responded. “In fact, I did not ask her any questions about anything.”
When asked if he could clarify the conversation from his point of view, he said he asked to speak with Ms. Barba privately following the school board meeting.
“A reporter wanted to talk to you,” Griffin recalled mentioning to Barba. “May I put you in touch with him?”
When Barba asked Griffin what the reporter wanted to speak with her about, Griffin says he responded “I don’t know, perhaps your citizenship status.”
“She said many things with an angry tone,” Griffin wrote, referring to Barba, before saying he left the conversation.
The BWSTimes asked Dr. Griffin what led him to believe the question may have been about Barba’s citizenship status.
“It was my guess based on things I had heard from others,” Griffin responded.
When asked if he would share which reporter asked him to connect with Barba, Dr. Griffin declined.:
“It is inappropriate for me to say what reporters say to me and who they are,” he wrote.
Facing questions about citizenship “traumatic” for many Latino Tulsans
“Coming here, speaking with an accent, do you how how many times I’ve had people tell me: ‘go back to your country’?” Lehabim Flores asked in his interview with The Black Wall Street Times.
Flores said he sees that Dr. Griffin “doesn’t understand why what he said was a problem.”
“It doesn’t matter where you come from,” Flores said, “because you are right here in Tulsa.”
“Asking that question,” he continued, “is a traumatic experience for us. That doesn’t change my value as a person, so why would you ask that question?”
“It’s hard,” Flores said, “for us it’s a really hard topic. And if he doesn’t understand that, that’s why we’re here.”
But for Flores, and others, this night was about more than just Dr. Griffin’s conversation with Barba. This moment points to a larger issue of discrimination students and families say they face every day.
Parents speak about discrimination Latino families face in Tulsa
“My daughter has experienced a middle school teacher of hers telling her to go back to Mexico. I’ve seen kids who are Asian, based on their looks, being told to go back to China,” Tulsa parent Antonia Chavez told The Black Wall Street Times via a translator.
“And no one should ask anybody where they are from or what papers they have,” Chavez continued, referencing the conversation between school board members Barba and Griffin. “There’s no reason why anybody’s asking anybody those types of questions. Their ancestors came just like we did – it’s a nation of immigrants.”
The community leader with Growing Together, who asked not to be identified by name, also expressed her concerns about the discrimination students and families often endure.
“I’ve seen how ELL kids get disadvantaged, and not just because of the language learning process, but because of discrimination,” she told The Black Wall Street Times.
“I have four kids who go to Tulsa Public Schools. They are citizens,” she continued, “I don’t want people in the future asking my kids about their citizenship status.”
District promises improvements as families express frustration with translation services during school board meeting
Technical difficulties with headsets and translation issues themselves made it difficult for many to follow the school board meeting.
“You can tell how the system of education is difficult to navigate when you speak in an accent, when you speak a second language,” Flores said. “A lot of the parents coming today, they had a difficult time trying to understand English, but the services for translation weren’t working.”
Flores said translation issues can act as “roadblocks” for community members who want to engage, despite language barriers.
“Our families are here, our kids are born here,” he continued. “We want to be part of Tulsa, we want to be part of the community. Let us be part of the community.”
Tulsa Public Schools parent Antonia Chavez realized quickly the translation she was receiving in the school board meeting wasn’t accurate.
“I speak enough English to know that what was being told to me in the headphones was not correct,” Chavez said. “It’s nothing on the translator, it’s a hard job, but everyone who comes here deserves a fair shot engaging.”
District officials were extremely apologetic about the issues with the translation efforts and were able to resolve most issues partway through the meeting. Several Tulsa Public Schools staff members ensured families they would work to make certain the issues did not occur in the future.
Board to hold special meeting for community members to discuss issues of diversity, equity and inclusiveness
Many who showed up to support school board member Barba also expressed concerns with not being able to speak on Monday night, despite signing up. Some discussed how difficult it is to alter plans last minute on a work and school night.
“It is difficult to come here”, Flores said, especially for parents who “need to find someone to watch their kids”.
During the meeting on Monday, teacher Ana Barros, who also came to speak out for Barba, echoed these sentiments.
“Judith is a brilliant, capable and empathetic board member,” Barros said. “She doesn’t just raise her own voice, but also elevates her community’s voice, which is so often unheard. Any attack on her is also an attack on us.”
“The point of citizen comments is to decrease the gap between the community and our elected officials,” Barros continued. “It is a traumatic experience to be kept from speaking in a room that is largely White when you are already systematically silenced.”
“They should have let us speak tonight and have a special meeting to continue the conversation,” Barros said on Monday.
In a statement to The Black Wall Street Times, school board president Stacey Woolley worked to address these concerns.
She said the board pushed back community comments to a special meeting because “the Open Meetings Act prohibits board members from participating in dialogue about items not on the agenda.”
“Over the last week, we received a number of Citizens Comments requests to speak to the Board of Education’s role as leaders of a district committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion,” Woolley wrote. “These conversations about equity and inclusion at the Board “table” are extraordinarily important.”
“They deserve to happen in a time, space, and format that allow the Board to talk with each other and with the constituents they serve. Those constituents also deserve an opportunity to hear a response to their concerns and feedback,” she continued.
“We are working urgently to schedule a special meeting that will provide that opportunity.”
That meeting will take place on Wednesday, March 30 at 5:30 p.m. in the Education Service Center.
Latino community members say they will “keep showing up” to school board meetings
Community members who spoke with The Black Wall Street Times on Monday said they will continue showing up to future school board meetings to ensure they are heard.
“Coming here tonight made me realize that it’s bigger than just us,” Chavez said. “There are a lot of barriers that are put in our community’s way.”
The Growing Together leader echoed this point, saying “we are a minority, but we are united and we are going to keep showing up.”
“We are here,” she continued. “We want equality and we want respect.”