Graphic from the Western States Center website

Graphic from the Western States Center website

Duo trains locals on Confronting White Nationalism in Schools

Mercer Island parents present two-hour session.

Some conversations are uncomfortable, but crucial.

When it comes to placing diversity, equity and inclusion at the forefront of community discussions, Mercer Islanders’ Lori Cohen-Sanford and Alice Finch’s recent training session with local PTA leaders and other community members about Confronting White Nationalism in Schools was as impactful as things come.

“This is a topic that’s difficult. It has pitfalls that you can go into and it’s much better to do this kind of thing with a partner,” said Finch, who received training with Cohen-Sanford through the regionally based Western States Center to present the March 16 two-hour session for about a dozen participants.

As partners, the two mothers of Mercer Island School District students prepared for the session by bouncing ideas off each other and discussing possible questions that trainees might bring to the table and how to answer them.

Cohen-Sanford, who is MI Parent Edge’s content lead and has a master’s degree in counseling and clinical psychology, said the training is vital because it brings awareness and shared language around the threat that white nationalism poses to kids, schools and communities by fueling hate and bigotry.

According to the Western States Center website regarding the Confronting White Nationalism in Schools Toolkit, “Everyone who engages in the life of a school is in a unique position to isolate and push back against the growing white nationalist movement and its hateful narratives. We can build schools where everyone feels valued, and where students grow to be engaged citizens of an inclusive democracy.”

Finch, a former middle school instructor who focused on equity education, said they’ve scheduled training at Islander Middle School (IMS) in April and they hope to gain momentum and branch out into other school districts and communities in the future. She’s formed a partnership with IMS over the years and praised the school for addressing systemic and institutional racism, according to the school’s website.

A former teacher at the East Asia Resource Center at the University of Washington, Finch said that while the session pinpoints white nationalism across the country, it also brings the issue home.

A local example was four years ago when signs were posted outdoors on the Mercer Island High School (MIHS) campus emblazoned with the message, “It’s Okay To Be White,” according to an article in the school newspaper, The Islander. School district staff believed an unknown individual posted the signs.

Last June, the Mercer Island City Council issued a proclamation on diversity, equity and inclusion amid the protests over the death of George Floyd.

Finch explained that there’s a need for education and awareness around the topic of white nationalism.

Regarding the session, Finch noted about some of the attendees’ reactions to the toolkit’s contents, “It’s really interesting because I think the general impression is, ‘Wow, I had no idea.’ And then you start to see it or look for it or be aware of it in places where before you may not have been aware.”

Added Cohen-Sanford: “Because white nationalism is often designed to appeal to more mainstream and acceptable ideas like uplifting/protecting the white race and ‘preserving traditional American values,’ it is plausibly deniable and can be hard to confront. Kids and young adults are at high risk of being targeted for recruitment.”

Video-game chat rooms, websites, apps, podcasts and music are some spots where white nationalists spread their messages, said Finch and Cohen-Sanford, especially during the last year of kids’ extensive online — and often unsupervised — presence through remote learning.

Finch said that some attendees reached out to her a week after training with questions about observances they made on social media about possible white nationalism.

“You’re trying to implement the awareness that you now have, but it’s also sort of getting used to how to process that,” she said.

Cohen-Sanford noted that “if teachers and parents know what to look for and have some guidance on how to talk to kids about this topic, we are all stronger for it.”

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