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The Needs of Black and Brown Disabled Students Can Not Be Overlooked in the Fight to Halt the School Closures in OUSD

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By JR Valrey, The Minister of Information

Cintya Molina is an activist that I had met when we were both in college, and we reunited, after a longtime on the battlefield, at the “Halt the School Closures in OUSD” rally in March. Since the time when I’ve known her, we have matured into two different people, and life has led us into two different experiences. She talked about having a disabled son, and about becoming an advocate for Black and Brown disabled students. I learned a lot from what Cintya Molina had to say on the mic and in this interview, and I wanted to share it with the readers, with the intent of us all, doing inventory on our own mindsets and politiks. Check out Cintya Molina in her own words.   

JR Valrey: Can you talk about your experience in the OUSD, being the parent of a Black-Brown mixed special needs student?

Cintya Molina: To begin, I want to note that I do not use the label of “special needs” for my son. This is not mere political correctness. To quote Emily Ladau in Demystifying Disability, “It is the most universally human thing to have needs, so I’ve never understood how having a disability translated to having ‘special needs.’ No one has their needs met in exactly the same way.” 

My son and other young people like him have the needs that we all have: to be safe and nurtured, to communicate and learn, to belong and contribute, etc. For example, some might need a device to communicate but the need is the same, communication. Need and access are universal concerns. We must all discuss within our communities the language that most describes the lived experiences that fall under ‘disability’ and that most humanizes our young people and all of our community members. We must embrace the experiences that live under that umbrella, and offer our children the opportunity to develop positive and politicized disability identities. Because many consider disability as stigmatizing, they end up dealing in euphemisms like “special needs” and “differently abled.” We often inherit that language. Of course, we must above all respect the ways in which specific disability communities and individuals choose to identify themselves. Taking our cues from voices within direct lived experiences is best.

And that takes me to your core question: as a politicized Boricua with a proud African Diaspora/Black identity, it has been extremely difficult for me to witness the almost complete absence of a disability justice lens in antiracist circles within education in my city. I have encountered an almost complete silence whenever I have brought up the urgent need to center Black and dis/abled students of color within antiracist conversations and efforts. It often feels like everyone is running away from my son and his peers, from bringing them to the center of their concern. This feeds the extreme invisibility, containment, and disinvestment that my son and other students like him experience. 

So-called educational justice allies often normalize treatment that they would never accept for non-disabled students of color. At other times, people respond with examples of small individual efforts to include or “be nice” to individual disabled children and youth, examples that are extremely tokenizing and even condescending. And this from people who often decry the lack of attention to institutional and systemic racism within education, and who call for sustained unlearning of racism. 

Only twice in my son’s educational experience has he been fully embraced as a full member of the school community, when he was in preschool at Tilden Elementary and in 5th grade at Grass Valley Elementary. The fact that disabled students had achieved critical mass at those schools is not a coincidence. It takes many of us to shift the culture of a school. And, of course, the commitment of administrators, educators,and families at the school. 

There are too many painful stories related to my son’s experience to share here. Because of that I will just say that his greatest desire within his experience of 7 schools in 9 years was always to have friends and to share fun moments with them–that and learning video production and animation (which were never available to him.) 

Schools did little to cultivate those friendships, either within or across disability experiences. Still, I must recognize the great love that permeated a few of the Special Day classrooms that my son attended and the great efforts of a few General Education teachers to connect authentically with him and with other students. In the case of Special Educators in Special Day spaces: many of them labor with and alongside children in the face of incredible odds born of disinvestment and the devaluing of their work. That so few of those educators remain after 2-3 years of service speaks to the disillusionment that many of them end up feeling. And at the end, it is the children who most suffer when they do not have experienced teachers, stable educational arrangements, or little to no expectations for learning. 

Some of those Special Educators are able to create positive environments and experiences that people do not see. And yet, others end up normalizing invisibility and lack of access because they are themselves not included or supported as they should be within many school communities and district spaces.

JR Valrey: How does the school closure agenda of the Oakland Unified School District affect the disabled students from the Black and Brown inner-city communities of Oakland?

Cintya Molina: Simply put: several of the schools that are slated for closure have had, historically and now, among the greatest number of Special Day classrooms and students, and of Black students taught in Special Day classrooms. We are at the verge of wide scale destabilization of essential support, and will sever long standing protective relationships and practices borne of collaboration.

No one is speaking about the specific and diverse disability experiences within those classrooms and schools, about what led to those concentrations of disabled students and Special Education classrooms, nor about what cultures and structures have been created to support those students.

Until that happens, the larger community will not know what disability inclusive and supportive experiences could be lost. Special Education program stability within and across schools is a precondition for any kind of real support to happen.  The same goes for creating and maintaining an inclusive school wide culture. Historically, Special Education programs and students have been moved continually within OUSD. We are talking about school closures right now, but individual disabled students have been losing their school experiences when they or their classrooms get moved from one year to the next. They are torn from their school communities without the larger community being aware of it. In other instances, it is individual families who find ways to leave schools when situations become desperate or untenable for their children.

For a thoughtful perspective on the impact of school closures, read the call that was unanimously adopted by members of the OUSD Community Advisory Committee for Special Education: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1I4sAx_8vBDCrqljUT6vh_gzaiIL3vmKv/edit?usp=sharing&ouid=107837068308632473483&rtpof=true&sd=true

JR Valrey: How has the Oakland School Board historically responded to the needs of disabled students?

Cintya Molina: In my 17 years of OUSD experience, School Board discourse has focused on the so-called burden that what we call “Special Education” puts on the district’s overall budget with accompanying calls for austerity or the suggestion that fewer students should be identified as having disabilities. I could speak for days about the ableism inherent in those two frames. 

The specifics of the Special Education budget are segregated from larger budget discussions so that Board members, in my opinion, do not truly understand what is actually provided, or not provided. What is “Special” within all that we cluster under “Special Education?” What are students actually experiencing and receiving that is similar or different from what exists for “General Education” students? I have never witnessed Board conversations that engage with these questions even though our School Board is also our Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA) Board. As such, they should be extremely knowledgeable about what they oversee, and about overall disability access outside of what we call “Special Education.” 

I have yet to hear a comprehensive and nuanced conversation about the actual lived experiences of disabled students with diverse disabilities. Board directors do not lift specific disability experiences: for example, what about different autistic experiences, or Deaf ones, or everything that falls under the category of “intellectual disability?” How do the eligibility categories relate to actual disabilities/impairments, and how are the experiences under each of those categories lived at schools? What schools and programs are models of access and inclusivity? I dream of a sustained conversation of this kind that would communicate that we are valuing disabled students and their education.

The very few discussions of disability access and support that have come up in Board level conversations, with their accompanying stories of what children and youth experience, have largely been the result of struggles undertaken by parent and community leaders in solidarity with educators. 

I will quote Subini Annamma and others to express some of my greatest fears in current discussions of so-called disproportionality in Special Education identification and calls for “inclusion”:

“As schools face budget crises, fewer students may get dis/ability labels or be placed in segregated education classes, not because teaching is becoming more responsive to their needs or because segregation is wrong, but because these may be seen as saving money.”

We must pause whenever we hear calls for inclusion that do not center the needs of disabled children of color and that do not carefully plan for the support that they need. The same caution goes for the claim that somehow “not identifying” a child as having a disability means that they will succeed within schools and classrooms, that the label is the issue. The issue is the stigmatizing of “disability” and how students with a diversity of impairments and bodymind experiences do not figure within our educational justice work. The issue is the disinvestment and marginalization that follow from that.

JR Valrey: You recently spoke at the Stop the School Closure March, what was your particular message?

Cintya Molina: It was a call for radical, intersectional inclusivity within educational justice struggles and for the centering of Disabled BIPOC Students within education and schools, especially those who are also excluded because of class and otherwise marginalized. 

It was a story of how rare it is for students like my son to feel belonging and to have full membership in school communities. 

School closures threaten to disrupt and destroy safe spaces for disabled students of color that are very difficult to find and to maintain. 

Quotes available below: 

Link to speech: https://www.icloud.com/photos/#0a2JDKQ_w1D8Ryb1-lGowvItw

JR Valrey: What do you think needs to happen to better educate Black and Brown people in the movement about the needs of disabled people?

Cintya Molina: We need to resource this intersectional political education work and the organizing spaces dedicated to it. We also need to look within racial justice and disability justice spaces that identify as such and ask the question, “Are the voices of disabled people here, especially disabled people of color? Is the leadership missing? Have we done the work?  How will we begin to center disabled people of color in all of their diversity and carve out a central space for them and the work? Are we building an understanding of ableism and anti-ableism and of their connection to racism and anti-racism? 

To say anti-racism within disability justice is redundant since disability justice is inherently anti-racist. Can we say the same about what we call racial justice work where we engage in it? 

And in our everyday conversations and relationships, we need to get close to disability experiences if we have not done so already and to listen to what persons and families need from all of us. We need to have conversations about the shame we inherit and teach about disability. We need to talk about how we exclude and “dis-able” people with impairments, especially children, when we deny them access;  how we force people to act in so-called “normal” ways; how we enforce normalcy and punish body-mind difference within our own communities. 

We have to face the ugly legacy of eugenics and white supremacy that shows up in our communities of color when we hide, belittle, push out, and even abuse those with bodymind experiences that are not valued by those in power. How we tear apart our own communities and our own collective wellbeing when we do so. My son and I have been at the receiving end of this and it is very painful to carry that even as we work within communities for racial justice. 

JR Valrey: What kind of work do you do for the district?

Cintya Molina: I am called the LCAP Engagement Program Manager. I am the staff person who supports the parent and stakeholder advisory committees that advise on our district’s actions and investments to support students within our district’s Local Control and Accountability Plan, as well as all of the community members who participate in the meetings and activities of the advisory committees. I am the main staff supporting the LCAP Parent and Student Advisory Committee, the District English Language Learners’ Subcommittee, the Community Advisory Committee for Special Education, and the Foster Youth Advisory Committee in collaboration with other staff,  and who helps to connect and integrate the work of other advisory bodies.

JR Valrey: How can people help Black and Brown disabled students specifically in the district? Where can people get more information?

Cintya Molina: The CAC for Special Education currently has a sustained focus on Black students with disabilities in its work to reduce the grossly disproportionate suspension of Black disabled students, especially in middle school. Otherwise, the intersection of race and disability for OUSD students does not have a platform within OUSD for people to access at this time, at least not one of which I am aware.

JR Valrey: How can people follow you and the things you are advocating for?

Cintya Molina: At the moment, I support as needed and when I am called on by others to do so. As a single mother who works full time in very time-consuming stakeholder support work, and who has had to home-school her son for almost four years, I have very few hours left in my week to engage in sustained community organizing. Sadly, the pace of my life is beginning to take a toll on my health. So I step in as I can.

Still, I work to maintain a balance and to remain engaged. I urge everyone to enter the conversations within the advisory committees that I named, and others that I did not, because those committees include families and students from the direct lived experiences, especially the CAC for Special Education. 

I have created presentations and structured dialogues for families and educators who want to commit to disability justice in education. If you are interested in a particular topic, I can connect you to others or share what I have created with others. My email address in cintya.molina.ousd@gmail.com 

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