SPIRE Journalism Fellows and 9th grade Will Rogers High School students, David Sinclair and Michelle Olmedo, had the opportunity to interview Kathy Taylor, a panelist in Tulsa Debate League's upcoming event "Debating Educational Equity". The event takes place Friday, May 11 at 6:15 PM at the Lorton Performance Center and features student debaters and community leaders Ray Owens, Nancy McDonald, and Hannibal Johnson.
Through Together Tulsa's partnership with Tulsa Debate League, SPIRE Fellows sat down with Kathy at 36 Degrees North to talk about her thoughts on educational equity and related issues in Tulsa.
DS: First question... when you are our age what did you want to be when you grew up?
KT: I wanted to be a journalist. I love writing and sharing stories, and I felt like at the time, you know, journalism was really the way our democracy moved forward - journalists were the true tellers that ensured people had the information they needed to make decisions on voting and investment of tax dollars.
MO: Speaking of media telling the truth, do you think that minorities are portrayed rightfully in the media?
KT: I don't think either women or minorities are portrayed rightfully in the media. We all have implicit biases and unconscious biases, and that often comes out in reporting. I notice it particularly against women because I ran [for Mayor] as a woman. They would talk about what I wore and not what I said; if my hair changed, they would note it. I know that a lot of times when we talk about violent crime in Tulsa, we often refer to it happening where it happens if it happens in north Tulsa, but, if it happens in the rest of the city, we don’t have a geographic distinction. So I think it’s something that we have to change. There’s some great implicit bias training that people can do that a group of us in Tulsa are trying to help companies do more of. But journalists - they should understand, because their words can unknowingly shape bias - for minorities and women.
MO: Do you think the media would be a right path to take when it comes to changing people’s minds about racism and those types of topics?
KT: Yes, I think the media can play an incredibly important role in the way they cover things and the things that they cover. … But I think we have a responsibility as citizens to call out the media if they are acting in what appears to be in a racially- or gender-discriminating way. I think we all have a responsibility. It can't just be on the shoulders of the media - we have a responsibility to call it out as well as citizens.
DS: Do you see any connections between educational equity and the teacher walkout?
KT: Absolutely. You know education is the equalizer, and Oklahoma is a high-poverty state, and if we expect to develop the workforce of the future that could be competitive in a global economy, we have to fund education properly. I’m involved in Reading Partners, which helps K through 3 literacy, and I’ve been in schools in Tulsa where they can’t take books home because they don’t have enough books in the school. We can expect teachers to operate in that environment and teach in a way that allows kids to be successful in life. It was time for the teacher walkout - I’m sorry it had to come to that and that I had to see our city and state on national news for having not only some of the lowest paid teachers but also the lowest per pupil expenditures. I think we’re somewhat fortunate in Tulsa - if you can say that - because we do have a number of foundations that are helping kind of fill the gap in areas in high poverty schools. But I chair an organization called Impact Tulsa, and I look at the number on education equity every single week and we are not doing justice to our students. And so I’m thankful for the teachers who have the courage to walk out and the organizations that are supporting kids and families while the teachers do so.
DS: What is something you think is helping make social change?
KT: I think we understand - we started in 1955 with Brown vs. Board of Education - separate but equal was not okay. But we're now beginning to understand that equal doesn’t mean every kid gets the same exact amount of dollars. Because a kid from a family that has two Ph.D-educated parents and a kid who maybe is in foster care have two completely different sets of needs. One may not need assistance with food and clothing and additional literacy help, and the other may. And so equal doesn’t mean equal dollars - it means equal opportunity. I think in Tulsa with Teach For America, with City Year, with Reading Partners, with Communities In Schools, with the great work that the Food Bank is doing, that we are beginning to help - the work Impact Tulsa does to identify where we can strategically place our assets - is really helping us get to equal opportunity, not just equal dollars. The strategy the George Kaiser Family Foundation is leading called BEST - the Birth to Eight Strategy for Tulsa - is really beginning to have a multigenerational approach to help make sure mothers have the proper nutrition to giving them information on how to care for a child, what the best way is to make sure their child is ready for school. ... Oklahoma is one of the few places in the nation where we have two great things going for us: We have free pre-K and, in Tulsa, we have free two-year college degrees at TCC. That is very unusual. But what we found was that people were not taking advantage of those opportunities on either end of the spectrum. So what we're doing is creating programming to help people understand that pre-K doesn't mean optional; it means getting your kid ready for kindergarten, and there is space available. And then letting kids know that if they complete a form, they have the opportunity for a two-year college degree, tuition-free. Those are two really great things we’re doing. We just need to get the K-12 piece down.
MO: Do you think having a debate over this is healthy to make change?
KT: I think having a debate about education and educational equity is absolutely good. I think having the data - it seems like we operate a lot on sound bites because we get so much information coming at us we don’t always, as I said earlier, take the time to verify that. So having the data - and I would refer you to Impact Tulsa’s website, where you’ll see the inequalities, particularly by race, that exist in our education system. It’s important, I think, to draw those out, talk about - you know - what the solutions are. We have, as a country, recognized that separate but equal was not okay since 1955, but as a country we haven’t made the progress we should have. So it’s important to talk about it, talk about solutions.
DS: How far would you say we’ve come from segregation era?
KT: You know it just seems like not far enough in a long time. I feel that we certainly worked on the many different plans on school integration. I don’t think we’ve been as aggressive in housing integration. That’s really where the hard work is now. Our community - as most metro cities - even San Francisco, which you think of as a liberal city - is very segregated from a housing standpoint. So I think that’s where the next work is. And the data will show you we simply, frankly, aren’t serving - the group we’re serving the least is young men of color. That’s the group we have let down the most. We have got to figure out a solution to that. We cannot allow part of our population to not get the education and educational opportunities that everyone deserves. … We’re simply not causing it to happen and we have to figure out why.
DS: What do you mean by housing integration?
KT: I think our communities are still - and I mean the laws would require us to have every realtor say they can’t discriminate based on race in the sale or rental of homes - but I mean our neighborhoods are still segregated by race. You know people will say, for example, the Latino community is predominately in east Tulsa, and the African American community is predominantly in north Tulsa, and the blue color community is primarily in west Tulsa. … I think it [housing integration] needs to be a very high priority for all communities that want to move forward and I think that will impact our education equity as well.
DS: What more can the community do to make a difference and what more can people in power do?
KT: Not accepting the status quo. It takes courage to call out things. And in Tulsa, I often talk about it as people in Tulsa are nice; they don’t want to call out kind of the obvious inequities and discrimination, and I think that if you are a person in power, it is your obligation to call it out and help propose solutions. I mean I feel like I see Mayor Bynum doing that in a very good way with the community policing initiatives, the leadership initiatives, and Tulsa initiatives. I mean he recognizes that our community has unequal opportunity for people, and he’s calling it out and helping propose solutions. But it takes all of us. Even if someone in power does it, then all of us have to support and continue to join in that fight then it's only sustainable for as long as that person is in power. I think we have an opportunity this moment where some of the horrible things that have happened over the past year - both to people of color and to women - to really galvanize change in a way we haven’t seen happen in the recent past.
MO: We talked about the teacher walkout and funding. So do you think education needs more funding or do we need to kind of establish where money goes?
KT: We need more money. There's no question about that. Teachers you know - schools have become a place where teachers aren’t just required to teach math and science and english, but especially in Oklahoma, where we are a high-poverty state, kids come to school with all kinds of needs that teachers have to deal with. And they need to be valued as one of the most important professions because they are preparing citizens of the workforce of tomorrow. You know I have companies sometimes tell me, ‘Well you just need to get me a better workforce.’” I say, you don’t just grow a workforce overnight. You grow it from zero to whatever age someone is when they start working for you. If you want a great workforce, you have to invest - we absolutely have to invest more in education on a more consistent basis, both teacher salaries and in our facilities generally.
DS: Is there anything else that you want people to know about?
KT: I’m inspired - I know this, both the journalistic endeavors and the Debate League, are extra things that you do at school. I know you have a lot of demands on your time, and your Instagram account and all that, and so I just am very impressed with the two of you and the work you’re doing and it makes me very hopeful for the future.