Salem-Keizer youth tend symbolic garden, demand similar care for students of color
The sunflowers and colorful flowers in front of the Salem-Keizer Public Schools building on Lancaster Drive NE are thriving despite the dry soil and dead grass surrounding them.
Members of Latinos Unidos Siempre planted the small garden on June 10 and have been caring for it daily.
With the return of in-person classes, the group gatheredthis week to wave signs and reiterate demands for specific and permanent reinvestment of the funds previously used for school resource officers.
Fight against school-to-prison pipeline
In March, LUS youth celebrated the removal of police officers from Salem-Keizer Public Schools.
Superintendent Christy Perry announced the district would not renew contracts to put local law enforcement officers in schools. It was a victory for local youth activists who had fought for the removal of police in schools for years, arguing that their presence often brought discriminatory policing and discipline against students of color.
LUS members demonstrated in front of the district building on Lancaster Drive on June 10 and shared a letter urging Perry to further dismantle “aspects of the school to prison and deportation pipeline” by reallocating the approximately $1 million previously budgeted annually for those SRO contacts for counselors, nurses and educators.
The flowers “symbolize all the family members who have fallen to the school to prison pipeline,” LUS organizer Alex Buron said, as well as students who “didn’t get the proper compassion and resources growing up in the district.”
Flowers need proper soil and water to grow, Buron said. Similarly, students need proper resources and programs at school to grow.
“The water that we’re putting into [the garden] every single day is representing the reinvestments,” said Alex Sosa, another organizer with LUS.
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Activists have suggested investments should include culturally responsive counseling for youth of color; arts and music education in predominantly Black and brown schools; culturally responsive after-school activities; culturally responsive mentoring and tutoring programs for Black and brown students; and culturally responsive services for students with behavioral and physical disabilities.
“The money that was spent on the SROs and much more is needed to be put into the education of the youth and students in the Salem-Keizer school district,” Sosa said. The district, he said, also needs more staff of color and counselors who are educated on racism and oppression.
“If they adopt the reinvestments LUS is putting their efforts into since the beginning of the police-free school fight, we would see growing students of color,” Sosa said.
New school board, new hope
LUS youth re-sent their June letter to the new school board, which includes more people of color.
“We think now is the best chance to re-bring it up today and hopefully for the new school board to adopt the reinvestments so that we can at least have what we’ve been fighting for,” Sosa said.
Activists have been dismayed at the lack of recognition from the district about the gift of the garden, some of the youth at the gathering said. While they meant the flowers to be symbolic, they have been the ones watering and caring for the flowers every day.
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During a recent school board meeting, several LUS youth activists testified, including LUS director Sandra Hernández.
“I have seen the impact of systemic racism directly and how it impacts the lives of families of youth that I work with,” she said. “I support our youth’s demands to reinvest SRO funds into the education of students most impacted by the school to prison and deportation pipeline. We now have $1 million in our budget to be used for the programs needed to support the wellbeing of our students.”
The district has not yet publicly said how those unspent funds will be used.
At the gathering, Hernández said activists have been waiting since April to hear specifics about how the funds will be reinvested.
“All we know is that they’re still in the air,” she said.
Board member Marioa Hinojos Pressey voiced her support for the organizers toward the end of the board meeting.
“I would definitely like to see us put our money where our mouth is, if you will, with this anti-racist stance and really bring forward the topic that has been at the top of minds of a lot of people that came and testified today and sharing our plan for the reallocated SRO funds,” Pressey said.
“And how we can use that money to support our BIPOC students and encouraging recruitment of BIPOC staff and retention, mental health as opposed to continue to fund those structures that have kept minority students down," she continued. "We have the data; we have the statistics.”
LUS youth will continue tending to the sunflowers and flowers in the meantime. The group planted sunflower seeds in June. They have since bloomed into 12 large sunflowers. In front of the district sign are pink, yellow and orange marigolds, also in full bloom.
"We chose the ones that were brightest to show that our youth are bright. It’s just that we have these factors and these people in power that don’t listen and are the reason that the youth aren’t glowing," Sosa said. "The sunflowers are kind of the main show, I would say, to show how tall they can grow if they’re given the right things."