Courtesy Holy Redeemer School
Pre-kindergartner Eliot Wangsmo Dhanens beams in a photo taken at Holy Redeemer School in Northeast Portland earlier this year. The school remains one of the most diverse elementary schools in the archdiocese — nearly 10 percent of students are black. In the 1990s, it was nearly four times that percentage. Changing demographics, including gentrification, have pushed some black families out of the surrounding neighborhoods.

Courtesy Holy Redeemer School

Pre-kindergartner Eliot Wangsmo Dhanens beams in a photo taken at Holy Redeemer School in Northeast Portland earlier this year. The school remains one of the most diverse elementary schools in the archdiocese — nearly 10 percent of students are black. In the 1990s, it was nearly four times that percentage. Changing demographics, including gentrification, have pushed some black families out of the surrounding neighborhoods.

Part of a series on race in Catholic schools, this piece is the second of two focused on African-Americans

The night the Michael Brown verdict was issued, Jesuit High School Principal Paul Hogan received an email from a distraught African-American student. “My classmates and I are quite upset, but a lot of our white friends don’t understand,” Hogan recalled the young woman writing. 

A grand jury had decided not to indict Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson for the death of 18-year-old Brown. Wilson, who is white, shot and killed the unarmed black teen in a 2014 incident that — together with subsequent high-profile police shootings — stoked heated discussions about race and policing in America. 

Hogan and a number of his counterparts in the Portland Archdiocese know their students are not sheltered from the world’s ills nor are their classrooms free of racism. And so, over the past decade and with varying levels of commitment, they have addressed issues of diversity and inclusivity with a new level of intentionality. 

The schools face challenges. There is low African-American student enrollment due to state demographics and a dearth of black teachers and administrators. When addressing race and racism, there’s also the fear of “its emotional potency,” said Shauna Adams, community outreach coordinator and counselor at De La Salle North Catholic High School. “Many teachers and administrators are just beginning to learn how to speak honestly about race, and those conversations often come with guilt, anger, shame, confusion and hurt.”

As messy as they are, there are Catholic schools entering those conversations.

Post-racist society?

After the first black president was elected, “some people thought we are living in a post-racial society,” said David Blue, director of diversity and inclusion at Central Catholic High School and a Jesuit alumnus. “Some people wonder why we need a director of diversity and inclusion.” A number of high schools have similar positions, including Jesuit and De La Salle. 

Blue says there’s no longer much of the overt racism he sometimes experienced as a teenager in the early 1990s, but systemic racism, or forms of racism structured into political and social institutions, is prevalent.

“It’s not about pointing fingers or blaming people, but about education,” he said. For example, looking at how gentrification disrupted, and in some cases decimated, Portland’s African-American neighborhoods. And it’s about seeing life through another’s eyes.

When you’re a mother and your son is black and not home at midnight, “it can be terrifying,” said Blue. 

In his role at Central Catholic, Blue supports students of color, organizes professional development and creates programming. But he also helps students of all backgrounds have more than a superficial understanding of race.

“These students are going to be our leaders, our politicians; it’s about educating them to have a deeper understanding and to be able to dialogue about race.”  

The concept of white privilege emerges in discussions about race in the archdiocese. The term “refers to the myriad of social advantages, benefits and courtesies that come with being a member of the dominant race,” according the 2001 book “Critical Race Theory: An Introduction.”

Elaine Forde, former Jesuit diversity director and current dean of student activities, said she didn’t really understand what white privilege meant until about eight years ago, when she was traveling with a group of 40 black students to Tacoma, Washington, for an African-American Summit. Forde, who is white, recalls going to a restaurant in which “the kids weren’t served until I walked in.” 

Someone ‘who looks like you’

Due in part to Oregon’s troubling race history —  which includes a state constitution that banned blacks from entering — the number of African-Americans in Oregon has remained low, a reality reflected in the Catholic schools. 

Nationally, nearly 8 percent of the Catholic school population is African-American, according to the National Catholic Educational Association. Since the 1990s, according to archdiocesan data, the total percentage of blacks in Oregon Catholic schools has hovered around 2.5 percent, with a slight recent uptick in some high schools.

However, given blacks account for 2.1 percent of Oregon’s population and make up a mere 3 percent of U.S. Catholics, that percentage is fairly high. (The percentage does not include De La Salle and St. Andrew Nativity, whose service to an exceptionally high number of blacks would distort the overall picture. This year De La Salle’s student body is about 33 percent African-American, Nativity’s 45 percent. Both schools have unique educational models and missions to serve low-income families.) 

Additional numbers create a more nuanced portrait of the archdiocese. More families are identifying as multiracial than ever before, noted Holy Cross Brother William Dygert, superintendent of Portland archdiocesan schools. In 2000, 53 high schoolers identified as multiracial, this year 463. 

School teachers and administrators tend to lag behind the student population in diversity, something St. Mary’s Academy junior Angela Sivers, who has an African-American father and white mother, quickly noticed.

When she was a freshman, the only black instructor was the assistant athletic director.

“A lot of people take for granted having role models who look like them,” said Sivers, who thinks overall race relations at her school are positive. “It may seem like a small thing, but it’s really empowering to see a strong woman working at this amazing school who looks like you.” 

Additional staff of color have since been hired, and the school has a faculty equity group that’s “looking at how we can move the discussion on race forward,” said Kelli Clark, St. Mary’s principal. 

Intentionality amid discomfort 

“To be Catholic, you need to serve every population, particularly marginalized groups,” said John Garrow, principal of Central Catholic High School. “The idea of becoming truly Catholic means we must be an inclusive school.” 

At Central Catholic, the commitment to inclusivity has shown in the African-American population, which grew from 2.6 percent in 1999 to more than 5 percent this year. In the same period, the black student body at Jesuit rose from 2.8 percent to 3.6 percent, according to archdiocesan numbers.

Jesuit’s Forde pointed out that a critical mass of African-Americans is important. 

“In a community, you want someone else to talk to who can relate to you,” she said. 

“But if you’re the only black student in your class, that can be tough,” added Hogan.

Although parochial education has a history of providing African-Americans with an alternative to failing public schools at a fraction of the cost of most private schools, financial aid must be a priority to increase diversity, say school administrators. Both the perception that Catholic schools are only for the wealthy and the reality that they sometimes are has been “an admission bar that’s excluded large groups,” said Garrow.  

To serve black students already enrolled, schools are trying to provide opportunities for students of color to see themselves in school initiatives. “Through dances, music, assemblies, curriculum, we want programming that says, ‘You are important and valued,’” said Blue.

Black History Month and Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and other annual events are celebrated. Jesuit sends students to a biannual African-American Summit for Jesuit schools throughout the West Coast. Last fall, Jesuit hosted and representatives from nearly all Portland Catholic high schools attended. Some schools have parent and alumni groups for African-Americans.

Elementary schools, such as Holy Cross and Holy Redeemer “have age-appropriate discussions about race and what’s happening in the world,” said Holy Redeemer Principal Luke Harkness, whose school is 10 percent black. Holy Cross, with a 7 percent African-American student body, hosts multicultural nights.

Marist High School in Eugene, with just five African-American students out of around 520, is nevertheless “in the early stages of researching programs we want to implement,” said Marist Principal Stacey Baker.

The word that emerges regularly when discussing how to serve racial minorities is “intentionality.” 

“The main difference now is that we are really trying to be intentional,” said Garrow. Rejecting the old idea that “you just don’t talk about such things, especially when they are negative,” Garrow said today he tries honestly to “talk about how we relate to each other.” 

Unique challenges

Taped to Tim Joy’s computer is a note that reads: “Embrace the discomfort.”  

“Being here is a blessing, but it’s also one of the hardest things I’ve done,” acknowledged the principal of De La Salle.  

The high school, which includes a work study program, is the most diverse private high school in Oregon and the fourth most diverse in the country, according to the consumer research site Niche. 

But while more than a third of the student body is African-American (36 percent is Hispanic), the staff and faculty are 90 percent white. Many teachers come with “zero experience working with a diverse student body in an urban setting,” said Joy. 

He includes himself in that description. 

“I went from being a pretty-effective teacher to being a rooky,” Joy said. “What I knew seemed not to matter.”

Several De La Salle students acknowledged they find the lack of teachers of color frustrating. 

Anthony Mosley, who is African-American, said that “some teachers are trying to understand and relate.”

“But when you’re white,” he continued, speaking above the cafeteria din, “you don’t understand what it’s like when someone who looks like you is shot. You worry as you walk down the street people will think you’re a thug.” 

During the past several years, Joy has emphasized training around cultural competency, which has “helped teachers grow more comfortable and effective,” he said. Joy said that at the core of the school’s effort is the Lasallian charism: “To touch the heart of students.”

Maria Cabrera, vice principal, and Joy pay attention “to the stories we need to learn,” said Joy. “We need to hear the stories of students, because when we understand their stories, trust begins to form and learning can take place.” Many of those stories are shaped by poverty, parents with alcoholism and caring for younger siblings.

“Race and cultural differences are real and white privilege is real and we need to speak to that,” he added. “We are not in a post-racial society and to say, ‘I don’t see color’ is not helpful. Differences are real but also beautiful.”

De La Salle serves an especially large African-American population, but across the archdiocese similar struggles and revelations occur as many schools try not only to promote diversity in a predominately white region, but also to do so from a Christ-centered paradigm.

“Our Catholic faith and the call of social justice is to have solidarity with people, not just in words but through practical efforts,” said Joy. 

And these efforts are fueled by dialogue — and, at times, prayer. 

On the day after Hogan read the Jesuit junior’s email on the Brown verdict, the student’s thoughts and emotions took new form.  

“We pray that the inherent human dignity we are all born with be recognized on every single person’s face, as we are all made in the image of God,” she said, sharing her words with the Jesuit student body. “We pray that no one will have to cower in the face of authority, or judge another based on the color of their skin.” 

To read the first in the series, see the Jan. 20, 2017, print issue of the Sentinel or click here.