by Carol J. Bova
In 1984 the Wendy’s fast food chain launched an advertising campaign in which the catchphrase was, “Where’s the beef?” The phrase entered the popular lexicon as a way to question the substance of an idea or claim. The time has come to dust off the phrase in this age of fast, loose and often-baseless charges of systemic racism.
In a July 8 article in the Gazette Journal, “Let’s talk about Diversity, Equity and Inclusion,” Mathews County Supervisor Melissa Mason slammed the county and its school system. “In our small, rural utopia of Mathews County, due to location, declining population and demographics,” she wrote, “we must be intentional with how we address ‘D-E-I”.’ We lack in these areas in our public school system and in our government.”
Oh, yeah? Anyone can say anything. What, specifically, is lacking? Where’s the beef to this accusation?
Mason introduced her opinion with a quote from Dr. Lynn M. Gangone, president of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. “AACTE believes that, in educator preparation, diversity involves having understanding, awareness, acceptance, acknowledgement and representation of differences. Equity includes meeting learner needs by delivering social justice, differentiating instruction and providing equal access. … In education today, we must address the persistent problems of the inequities of access, discrimination and bias, as well as the underrepresentation of culturally and linguistically diverse populations among educators.”
Again… A lot of verbiage. But where’s the beef?
Mason cited “a decline in people of color in our division” and “a loss of other great teachers and staff (not just people of color).” She asked, “How dare we let them slip through? The environment should have been such that they would not want to leave. The opportunity for growth should be progressive, proactive, and purposeful.”
She continued: “Our division, our leaders, the school board must address the persistent problems of the inequities of access, discrimination and bias, as well as the underrepresentation of culturally and linguistically diverse populations among educators.”
The article did not identify what those “inequities of access, discrimination and bias” might be, so I asked her for specific instances of discrimination and bias. I also asked her, given the limited numbers of Black, Indigenous or other People of Color in the teaching professions, what exactly Mathews could do.
“I am sorry that you had difficulty comprehending my opinion,” she replied. “My statement is clear and plain we need more of a diversified representation of teachers and administrators.”
That was no answer at all. In search of the missing beef, I asked Mathews School District Superintendent Nancy Welch for a response to the vague charges of racism. She said:
As a very small division, there are limited opportunities for any individual to grow and advance from a teacher’s position into a coordinator or administrator position. We just do not have great turnover in these positions-now or historically. Larger school divisions are better able to move individuals into positions to create the opportunities that Dr. Mason mentions, but keep in mind that larger divisions also face the same types of turnover that Mathews County faces, but on a much larger scale. To create an administrative position just to create an opportunity of advancement for an individual would not be a good use of taxpayer dollars.
The superintendent did identify a socioeconomic inequity that the school did address.
The perfect example may be found in the access to broadband during the initial school closure in March 2020. Families either didn’t have a connection at all, or couldn’t afford the internet access. The school division was able to obtain the Chromebooks, wifi units and pay for the monthly service through grant funding. This is an example of how we address the inequity in accessing education in Mathews County when instruction was delivered in the virtual environment. In addition, the individual schools do not charge the school fees for families who just can not afford them. I cannot cite any founded cases of discrimination and/or bias in Mathews County Public Schools. Any claims of such are addressed, by policy, in a specific process.
Welch went on to describe recruitment efforts at Historically Black Virginia Colleges and Universities and exploring a new program with a third party group to diversify the faculty.
I then asked Welch to respond to the following statement in Mason’s column: “Are we ready to do the work and make people accountable? It is more than talking about D-E-I; it must be required, and it must be into place. If our administration cannot do it, continues to make excuses about it, continues to talk us into a false sense of reality, and just refuse to make it happen then we need talk about other changes.”
Welch said she had no idea why Mason said that. “Mathews County Public Schools continually advertises and recruits employees with the purposeful intent to diversify our team. When Dr. Mason was a member of the Mathews County School Board, this became one of our Focus Area strategies that remains in place today. We have had many conversations about this need in our community-as a school division and as a community (law enforcement, County Government, etc.)”
If a member of the Board of Supervisors and former head of the School Board has observed problems and has a vision of what needs to be done, she should tell the readers of the opinion piece in a forthright way and not imply inaction or misdirection by those in charge — especially when she’s one of those in charge.
Carol J. Bova is a writer living in Mathews County.