One of Seattle’s most influential voices in education has been working against racial and social equity for years, and it’s time we started talking about it.
Melissa Westbrook is most of the brains and sweat equity behind the Save Seattle Schools Community Forum, a blog that gained a local following late in the last decade as a public school watchdog.
Westbrook is commonly referred to as an “education activist and blogger.” But her activism has a strong tendency to come at the expense of oppressed communities instead of in their support, and the online community she has fostered has a disappointing track record of vitriolic oppositionalism and inappropriate personal attacks.
So, let’s try to be as clear as we can be, using her own words as opposed to conjecture, about who Melissa Westbrook is and what she believes.
First of all, Melissa Westbrook is not a journalist.
In this Seattle Voices interview from December 2012, Westbrook says so herself.
“I’m not a journalist, and my co-writer and I, Charlie Mas, we never say that we’re journalists. We’re these quasi-journalists.”
As a non-journalist, she did not formally learn the strict ethical standards regarding bias, libel and the like, and she doesn’t follow them. The danger, then, of her being perceived as a “quasi-journalist” without following these important guidelines is exemplified in this post from Monday.
Roughly halfway through the post, she speculates as to why charter schools might have waited a few weeks to publicly announce that they’d received certain grants. But she grammatically marries her own conjecture to someone else’s quote, subtly involving Dave Stewart in taking credit for her ideas.
“Why did they want to wait?” Westbrook wrote. “Because then they could continue to find more funders, could ask charter families for money and (here’s where she begins quoting Stewart) ‘schools have money from existing grant sources to maintain operations into October. Therefore, we anticipate waiting until late-September, early October to release any funds so that we may determines the final funding gap needed.’”
Whether or not it’s intentionally deceptive, which it appears to be at a glance, it is actually deceptive, and crediting a source with more information than he actually provided is something trained journalists are taught to avoid.
Nobody “asked charter families for money.” Period.
This kind of mistake (or this kind of deception, depending on the charitability of your view) indicates a strong likelihood that there is much, much more of this subtle manipulation to be found throughout the Save Seattle Schools blog, which, according to Westbrook, undermines the blog’s credibility:
“What our blog is built on is our integrity to try to get the story right. To go out there and get the information,” she said in the same Seattle Voices interview. “So, the day is a lot of reading, a lot of phone calls, a lot of school district meetings, which nobody else wants to go to. Sometimes talking to city officials, doing a lot of out-of-the-box reading.”
But Westbrook has never set foot inside a charter school, for example, and when I invited her to join me in visiting one, she blocked me on Twitter. She is actively, knowingly protecting her own unchallenged opinions and, as such, pursuing her own poorly informed agenda.
“The thing that saddens me,” Westbrook said, “is that a lot of us are spending more time arguing with each other instead of being on the same page, which is what I greatly long for.”
But by not engaging with any dissenting opinions, what she’s really saying here is that she longs for everyone to be on her page. To submit to her agenda.
Melissa Westbrook is pushing an anti-charter, anti-reform agenda, but she claims publicly to be an education advocate without an agenda.
“It’s interesting,” Westbrook said on Seattle Voices, “because people think that Charlie [Mas] and I have an agenda, and we actually don’t have an agenda except to have a better public school district — a well-run school district — which has always been our premise.”
Westbrook, however, chaired the “No On 1240” campaign that fought the charter school bill before it passed in 2012, and she has continued to fight the movement since.
She has also taken very specific measures to fight individuals and organizations she deems to be part of the “reform movement” — even though her only agenda, as she says, is to create better public schools.
“The thing about the ed reform movement, to me, is it seems quite narrow,” she said. “To me, it’s a lot of, ‘We need charter schools, we need Teach For America, we need more competition.’ Basically thinking of education as a business model.”
This is her understanding of the ideals of education reform? And her response is to criticize their methods while ignoring their goals? Yet we are elevating her voice in these conversations about education as an unbiased activist.
In my experience, education reform is about people acting with a sense of urgency to try to fix the inequity facing low-income students and students of color. But Westbrook disagrees with their models and methods, and she opposes and fights (dirty at times) without digging into the question of why reformers believe what they do, why they are working as they are.
As with much of Westbrook’s writing and activism, a tone of self-righteous derision of anyone on the “wrong” side of the line rings out loud and clear. It’s this oppositional approach, the focus on fighting where methods and ideologies differ rather than engaging based on similarities, that is a hallmark of the Save Seattle Schools blog.
Melissa Westbrook and her community have engaged in a pattern of behavior that includes intimidation and personal attacks.
She fought tooth and nail against the entry of Teach For America (TFA) into Seattle Public Schools, and during the organization’s first year in the state of Washington, she and her community stooped to bullying, intimidation and personal attacks in aggressively defending their privilege.
Someone within the Save Seattle Schools blog (believed to be Cecilia McCormick) posted the personal information of the handful of young teachers TFA had placed in public school districts in Washington State in 2011-12. All were under the age of 25, all were members of the union, and all were teaching in public schools.
One of those teachers was protected by a restraining order against someone from her past, but Save Seattle Schools made her name, address, academic transcripts and more publicly available online.
Three more teachers sharing a house together were burglarized within a few weeks of having had their information posted.
This small group of young, union-dues-paying public school teachers (and their students, indirectly) suffered from the added stress, difficulty and distraction conjured by Westbrook — despite Westbrook’s stated agenda-free mission of wanting to support and create good public schools.
Similarly, when two good people considered part of the “ed reform movement” got engaged some six years ago, Westbrook and company found their wedding registry online and picked it apart on the blog, posting derogatory comments about the gifts the couple hoped to receive.
She is the loud mouthpiece for the privileged in Seattle’s education circles, the Donald Trump to a “community” that has consistently been prone to moral misjudgment and to operating from a place of closed-minded privilege.
But she’s gotten enough attention for long enough that she now speaks on behalf of huge groups of people whom her views and her words very much don’t represent — students of color, for instance. Low-income students. Students and families in south Seattle. Anyone committed to equity and keeping an open mind.
Melissa Westbrook’s well-traveled opinions are negatively impacting students of color and students from low-income backgrounds.
Westbrook has failed to display a nuanced understanding of race, systemic racism, nor how she and her children have benefited from their privilege.
To wit: she has said on Twitter that she’s “not all white.” That may be true in some sense, but that comment only serves to fully illustrate her privileged understanding of race.
People do not look at her and see a nuanced DNA test. They see a white woman. Because that’s what she is: a white woman living in a $1.5 million home in a segregated (white) neighborhood. She’s white.
Being “white” isn’t some scientific thing. There’s no biological basis. It’s just a rough estimate of one’s skin color, as well as the main determining factor in whether or not you’re privileged or discriminated against in this country.
So, Melissa, as someone whose grandmother was something like one-eighth Native American, I hate to break it to you: you’re white. And for the purposes of a conversation about race and privilege and education, there are not degrees of whiteness. Being “not all black” won’t help my young son with brown skin and tight curls be filtered to the white side of his teacher’s implicit bias.
But until you begin unpacking what that means, Melissa, you will continue perpetuating dangerous misconceptions and racist undertones.
In talking about the ed reform movement and its “narrow” vision during the Seattle Voices interview, she begins talking about the students ed reformers typically focus on, which are students of color and students from low-income families, whom she refers to as “at-risk”:
“You are talking about human beings, and you are talking about the ability to influence what those children can take in,” Westbrook said. “Being mindful of, they spend most of their time at home. If you want to put all the ills of public education on the backs of teachers and educators, I don’t think that’s a logical or fair thing to do. And so, I don’t see that narrow focus.”
Let’s crack the code here. “They spend most of their time at home” is code for blaming families, blaming parents, instead of putting the onus on the public schools their kids are legally required to attend.
She goes on:
“Summer school is a very basic thing, but when you’re talking about at-risk kids, they need that continuity of sustained learning throughout the summer, and then, if you don’t have these basic things in place, everything else falls apart. One thing that seems to resonate with a lot of people is the idea of bringing back CTE — Career Technical Education — and we used to call it vocational ed. And this is really true. You need kids to come out of high school college-ready, but many kids are not going to go to college, but they’re going to go on to other careers, because we will always need auto mechanics, plumbers, electricians…”
Code: “At-risk kids” means students of color and students from low-income backgrounds. CTE means low expectations for these kids. We need some kids (hers, for instance, whose college status she mentions earlier in the interview) to come out of high school ready for college, but poor kids and kids who don’t look like hers should be happy becoming plumbers. That’s probably tracking.
It’s definitely racism.
Data shows unequivocally that Seattle schools are failing students of color, that the opportunity gap is growing and that the district has been disciplining students of color (specifically black boys) at disproportionate rates.
Westbrook’s response to this has been to fight the reform movement tooth and nail, to fight charters, and then to propose nothing that focuses on these students who most need a privileged voice in their corner, who most need interventions on their behalf to protect them from the prevailing smog that labels them as dangerous instead of college-bound. She demonizes the people advocating for students she herself calls “at-risk.”
Given Westbrook’s voice in the city, this is more than just a personal blindspot. It is helping to perpetuate a city-wide racial blindspot.
I don’t intend for this to be a warpath. But if Melissa Westbrook will not stop advocating against our most vulnerable communities, we at least need to make it clear to the general public what she’s doing.
Please join me in reading her words with several grains of salt, and in renouncing the idea that her campaign against our most voiceless communities and most vulnerable students represents the best dialogue Seattle has to offer in the ongoing urgent conversation about education and equity.
Matt Halvorson is a parent blogger in Seattle. He blogs at riseupforstudents.org