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‘Juneteenth must be used to strategize and mobilize’

Jesse Tauriac of Lasell University led an online discussion with Newton Free Library.

Jesse Tauriac, chief diversity officer and assistant vice president at Lasell University.Contributed photo

For many, it is a rich celebration of freedom, a commemoration of the day when enslaved people in Galveston, Texas learned they were free, in 1865. For Jesse Tauriac, chief diversity officer and assistant vice president at Lasell University, it doesn’t end there.

Juneteenth “is also a time for us to think critically about the structural and institutional inequities that still pervade our society and oppress so many in our nation,” said Tauriac, who led an online discussion with the Newton Free Library June 21 where participants shared their experiences and perspectives on the way race and racism is presented in K-12 education around the country.

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“When we think about education, it has such a robust potential to either empower or disempower communities,” Tauriac said in an interview. “It’s important for us to consider that — especially at this moment when there are people who, unfortunately, are shaping educational policy and curricula in a way that is silencing and contributing to the marginalization of a whole range of communities.”

The context surrounding Juneteenth exemplifies its significance, Tauriac said, as it took two years before the enslaved people in Galveston learned of their emancipation, which Abraham Lincon had declared in 1863.

“Even though enslaved Blacks had been emancipated, that news didn’t make its way to everybody,” Tauriac said in an interview.

Though an indelible mark of progress, Tauriac said, the Black community was far from being treated equal after Juneteenth. Researchers have extensively documented how racial disparities in areas such as homeownership, healthcare, and education, among others, are the result of policy drafted after the end of the Civil War.

During the online discussion, Tauriac asked participants to reflect on perspectives prioritized and overlooked in their education.

Discussion facilitators created breakout rooms for the participants, where people from varying ages and backgrounds talked about their own experiences and perspectives. After the discussions, everyone came back together, and facilitators shared what their group had learned.

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One group discussed how they thought K-12 curricula glossed over slavery in the 1950s. They contrasted it with the early 2010s, when they said educators spoke about racism as if it were a thing of the past given how the United States had a Black president at the time.

“Talking about race and especially talking about race in school is uncomfortable, and it threatens the status quo. So for many of us, that just didn’t happen,” said facilitator Heidi Burgiel of those in her discussion group.

The common theme for her group, facilitator Cyntoya Simmons said, was discussing how it seemed teachers sometimes focused on Black history intermittently, Simmons said, mainly during Black History Month or other such holidays.

Many in facilitator Alanis Perez-Rivera’s group said the education they received, coupled with an environment primarily made up of white people, “put up blinders to the fact that injustices are still happening.”

James Perry, associate director for Equity & Inclusive Initiatives at Lasell University and one of the event’s facilitators, said in an e-mail after the event that, through his upbringing, topics relating to race and racism were discussed only at a surface level and “referred to as an issue of the past directly and indirectly.”

“As a Black student it was difficult to grapple with only learning about selective events of trauma that people who looked like me experienced,” Perry, 33, said in the e-mail.

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Today, efforts in school curricula to contextualize how a history of racism manifests itself in public policy and law have been met with backlash from some critics but embraced by many educators.

Critical Race Theory is an analytical framework denoting how systemic racism is a part of American society, as defined by the NAACP. Though it is primarily taught in graduate programs and law schools, Perry said he thinks K-12 curricula needs to discuss how current issues pertaining to race impact people on a day-to-day basis.

“To ignore this would be a disservice educationally to all students,” Perry said.

People need an education with solid foundations in accuracy, Tauriac said. Without it, he said, histories are erased, identities invalidated, and communities oppressed.

Facilitators for some groups said they discussed how progress around systemic racism in this country is slow. But Juneteenth also represents a “thread of progress,” Tauriac said in an interview, and it is important to acknowledge that aspect of the holiday.

“Juneteenth must be used to strategize and mobilize to affect change,” Tauriac said in an e-mail. “Otherwise it runs the risk of simply being a performative celebration that doesn’t make an impact on people’s lives.”

Jesús Marrero Suárez can be reached at newtonreport@globe.com.