Inspired by her own experience discussing race issues while running for school board in District 24, Valley Stream resident Cristina Arroyo is spearheading discussions on how to address issues of segregation and racism in her own hometown.
Although not directly related, the talks she has organized take place amid the backdrop of an unprecedented national conversation about race in America brought on by the police killing of George Floyd, which has led to weeks of sustained protests over racism and police brutality.
On June 1, Arroyo hosted the first of a number of planned discussions, and told a crowded Zoom chat of nearly 100 residents, that she sought to broach the potentially uncomfortable topic in the context of Valley Stream.
“I wanted to have this meeting to provide a safe space to have an informed conversation about race and racism in Valley Stream because a lot of people don’t want to talk about it or they want to pretend it doesn’t exist,” she said at the outset. “If we don’t talk about it, we are perpetuating it.”
Arroyo has an extensive background discussing race relations, having taught the psychology of prejudice and discrimination at Baruch College and has led diversity and inclusion seminars. She also has a master’s degree in ethical leadership and teaches conflict management for New York Police Department leadership.
She relayed her own experiences with racism. As a Latina and single mother of two children who attend Robert W. Carbonaro Elementary School, she said over the years she has heard a number racist comments from white residents, and was seeking an outlet to discuss them.
“The more I got involved in the Valley Stream community, and I met different kinds of people, the more I heard racist talk,” she said. “This has been something on my mind for a while and I’ve heard things that I’ll never forget.”
Among them included an instance in which, while dropping her children off at school, Arroyo confronted a white parent after overhearing them discuss with others their desire to leave Valley Stream upon learning that they would be getting new neighbors, who were black.
After sharing a few more anecdotes, Arroyo took the participants off mute, and allowed them to share their own experiences with racism, and discussion focused primarily on racism in the schools, and the various ways it manifests.
“The teachers in Valley Stream are one hundred percent white and the kitchen and custodial staff in the schools are one hundred percent minority,” one participant said. “What does this mean? Something needs to change.”
Anthony Cruz, who was also present, noted the structural barriers that prevent more people of color from becoming teachers.
“If you look at research that has been done by the U.S. Department of Education, it is very clear that diversity diminishes at each point in the path of becoming a teacher,” he said. “This is not because of a lack of time, it’s a systemic issue because diversity has not been encouraged in higher education for many years and that ends up affecting how many minority people enter the education workforce and stay in it.”
The results would appear to bear that out. According to the latest statistics from the federal agency, 80 percent of teachers nationwide identify as white, 9 percent identify as Hispanic, 7 percent identify as black and 2 percent identify as Asian.
In Valley Stream the trend is the same, with teachers overwhelmingly identifying as white despite the neighborhood’s minority-majority population. According to previous Herald reporting, in 2017, 89 percent of Central High School District staff identified as white, along with 95 percent District 13, 95 percent in District 24 and 79 percent in district 30.
Despite this, the Department of Education makes it clear the positive benefits of minority students having teachers that look more like them.
“Research has shown that having a teacher of the same race or ethnicity can have positive impacts on a student’s attitudes, motivation, and achievements and minority teachers may have more positive expectations for minority students’ achievement than nonminority teachers,” the study concluded.
One participant in the discussion said she has friends who are teachers and, as people of color, have long struggled to get jobs on Long Island, despite, in some cases, going to Ivy League schools. She also disputed speculation that the slow turnover of white teachers for ones of color was attributable to their having tenure.
“My friends feel like the system is rigged against them and many of them have gone to work in New York City because they felt like Long Island was not open to hiring teachers of color,” she said. “There are not enough Latino, black or Asian teachers and I see a lot of new young white teachers, so it is not about tenure. It’s also not because of a lack of talent, but there is a deficiency in the hiring process.”
Another participant, who is black, and graduated from South High School recounted how such a disparity can sometimes play out in the classroom.
She recalled a ponytail extension falling out of her hair during class, and asked the teacher for permission to go to the bathroom to fix it. When the teacher declined, she went anyway and was given two weeks of detention.
“This incident demonstrates the cultural difference that teachers have, where if they don’t know something, they automatically demonize the kids,” she said. “This brings down some kids’ self esteem and how they view themselves and it impacts how successful they are in the work that they do. I think it’s important that more teachers look like the kids, so they can culturally understand background and some of the things that happen.”
Full names of some of the sources in this story have not been included as per their request.