As the city of Asheville and Buncombe County move forward on formal plans to make amends for slavery and systemic racism, two local college professors say reparations need to address education and the environmental factors affecting it.
UNC Asheville Professors Tiece Ruffin and Agya Boakye-Boaten stand behind a folding table, stacked with rows of collegiate blue tote bags. They smile behind matching West African cloth face masks, greeting Pisgah View Apartment residents walking inside to pick up their weekly bag of groceries.
The two Fulbright scholars are distributing books and learning kits to families to support parents with their child’s at-home learning. But Boakye-Boaten says the books, which prominently feature black protagonists, are just as much for the adults as they are for the young readers.
“When you see yourself reflected in a material that you read, it does something to you," Boakye-Boaten said. "By giving these particularly well-chosen books their deserving families, there is something that we are trying to communicate to them: that ‘yes, you belong. Yes, you’re part of the intellectual class.’”
He says for too long, the American school system has “educated people away from their cultures and identities.” That’s why he calls these books a form of liberation -- showing parents they have the agency and ability to be effective teachers at home.
This grant-funded initiative is a partnership with Colorful Pages Coalition and Read to Succeed Asheville/Buncombe. It’s a direct response to what’s been called "Asheville’s opportunity gap,” or the racial inequities that exist in local schools. Just 23 percent of black students in Buncombe County Schools are considered proficient in reading. In Asheville City Schools, the figure is even lower, at 12.6 percent.
"We often do think of things in terms of gaps, or that parents are not invested, that parents are not equipped with the tools to actually support their kids learning, and that’s a huge fallacy," Tiece Ruffin said. "Because parents are the kid’s first teacher. Parents and caregivers are advocates, the desire is there."
That desire is evident on the face of one mother, Tiffanny Boyd. Ruffin hands Boyd a book called, “I Am Enough.” The cover features a young black girl with a halo of curly hair.
“That is my daughter," she says with a smile. "This will boost her esteem a little bit, with her natural blackness."
Boyd’s daughters are about to start second and fourth grades at Ira B. Jones Elementary. She says it’s been a challenge keeping them engaged at home during the pandemic, and she’s even more worried about how remote learning will impact their development.
“Now, we’re also going to be the teachers, because they’re going to be doing remote learning. They can only read and listen so much, to where they're going to have to have some kind of interaction with someone physically," Boyd said. "So I guess we’re going to have to get on our butts and get our skills up to help them as well.”
Boyd says she had to figure out how to work internet access into the family budget. She says she wishes the school district would offer more support to parents in communities, like Pisgah View.
“More tools for the parents to support the children, because I'm pretty sure not a lot of people are going to understand how to do it, so we can check their work. That should not just be right now, during covid. That should be period, throughout the school year," Boyd said. "And come and talk to us, tell us what's going on, not just a reply on email.”
Agya Boakye-Boaten calls limited internet access a “digital apartheid” -- just one of many external factors that further widen the city’s opportunity gap.
“We have to look at employment for black families, ensuring that we have scholarships for our students of color who want to go into teaching, in any school they want to go, the city should be paying for it, knowing they'll come back to give back to their city. We have to look at housing investment, at small business investment," Boakye-Boaten said. "All of these contribute to a better education experience for our kids.”
So far, Ruffin and Boakye-Boaten have distributed learning kits to 176 families with students from pre-k through 9th grades. They say they’re continuing to apply for grants and hope to expand the culturally-relevant learning materials to include science and math.