Kelly Wickham Hurst spent about 20 years with Springfield School District 186. As guidance dean, she frequently took to social media to share stories of black students being treated unfairly, and her efforts to advocate on their behalf. Sprinkled in among those stories were hints that some colleagues resented her, like the time a teacher inadvertently flashed a text message over the classroom projector and students saw Hurst referenced by a derogatory term. So it was no surprise when she parted ways with the school district and started an initiative called Being Black At School.
Outside of the school district, and Springfield, and the state, Hurst is known by her social media handle, MochaMomma -- an homage to both her love of coffee and the color of her skin. “My dad’s black and my mom’s white,” Hurst says.Her skin tone (and her green eyes) may have contributed to Hurst’s belief that she was “an affirmative-action hire." “The first summer before my teaching, so 1993? I was going to meet the department chair," she says. "There were a couple of people milling around in the lobby area, and she walked by me several times. Finally I walked up to her and introduced myself, and it shocked her, which I didn’t know until many months later that what she was told was: ‘I got you a new black English teacher.’ She was probably looking for someone darker than I am. So I was directly told that I was an affirmative action hire.”
Q: So that started your tenure off here -- you’re the “new black English teacher” and you’ve sort of been looking out for black students ever since? Is that how you would…
A: Yes. I would characterize it just like that. Yes.
Q: But ultimately, over this past summer, you made the decision to leave Springfield School District 186.
A: Correct. I was asked to move schools, and um, it felt like a set-up. I felt like I was not given any opportunity to talk about my side of the story. I didn’t know there was a story until I was asked to please move to another school. I really had no choice but to attribute that to issues of race, because that’s what I continued to bring up and that’s what I continued to push back on, in terms of my own personnel issues and also for students of color.
Q: You felt like you had no choice but to leave?
Q: How common do you think that feeling is among your black colleagues?
A: Oh, extremely. There’s a lot of black colleagues that I got really close to that I may not have gotten close to other than the fact that we felt like we needed some sort of community together, because we just sometimes kind of walk out of the school day going: I cannot believe that just happened, or I cannot believe what I continue to witness, or I cannot believe that I bring issues up and they are summarily dismissed.
Q: But most of them are not nearly as vocal about it as you are.
A: No. I don’t have a filter on my mouth.
Q: You also have something most of your colleagues don’t have, which is a huge social media presence under MochaMomma. For example, how many Twitter followers do you have?
A: Eleven thousand.
Q: And you’ve been blogging for…
A: Eleven years.
Q: Do you have subscribers?
A: You can have subscribers. Blogs really go by how often people visit. Last I looked, it was about 25,000 impressions per month.
Q: So you’ve got a voice that is amplified beyond District 186, and you’ve used it to tell stories of what goes on in 186, without really identifying 186.
A: I tried to walk a fine line and it was never my intention or goal to tattle on just 186; it was my intention to say this is what it looks like inside American public education, and what I am reporting on is not unique. It is everywhere I’ve gone, it is the people that I’ve connected with, via my blog or via some social media, who say “Everything that you say is what happens here too. We don’t know what to do about it.”
Q: Being MochaMomma has also gotten you some…
A: It’s gotten me speaking engagements, it’s gotten me invited to different conferences, just to talk about being an entrepreneur, which is really what being an on-the-side writer was for me.
Q: It’s gotten you a little celebrity status. So do you think that may some of your problem has just been that maybe people are jealous?
A: Um, I did not originally consider that. It took me a long time to get to that conclusion, and I had to be told by a lot of people, because it’s not smart to be jealous of someone who is just trying to make your institution better. So once I finally understood that, I went yeah, that’s what it is. And I’ll be honest, I think that a lot of what’s happened I would say in the last decade is that they were very careful about wanting to reprimand me publicly, or wanting to take me on, because of that platform.
Q: Do you want to give an example or two of things that you saw happen? And I will tell you that I will run it past them to get their side of it as well.
A: I think what solidified it for me was watching a whole lot of things unfold that were unfair all the time. I mean, this was nothing new.
Q: So it was not one explosive incident…
A: Oh my goodness no.
Q: It was an accumulation of, I think academic people would say microaggressions…
A: Right. Once I became an administrator, what became very difficult was being the person that had to discipline the students when I knew that some implicit bias brought that kid into my office. So trying to have those conversations with people, and they didn’t want to admit any of it -- it’s not a fun place to be. We don’t want to talk about race in this country.
An incident that happened in the spring, where we had a white student that brought drugs to school, and was given all kinds of supports -- the social worker, psychologist, he had to see me so that he could get his grades up and I could help him with homework -- and the following week, another student who was black was absent from school and the principal called the police, and asked the police officer in the building to talk to him. Which is not protocol. It’s absurd. And I tried to make that point with her, to say calling the police on a black child sometimes has them end up dead. It was that serious for me.
Q: If I recall your account of that incident on social media, the black student’s mother approved.
A: Correct. When I found out that our school resource officer was asked to speak to this child, I was a little incredulous, and pushed back on that. And when I did, my boss said to me, “But I’m going to ask another one, the young black guy who’s also a police officer, to come talk to him.” And then I was just flabbergasted that she felt that it was necessary to call two police officers on a child for truancy. But we had a known drug dealer in our school building that she didn’t ask the police to speak to. And she said, “I asked his mother and she said it was okay.” I went and contacted the mother -- not because I didn’t believe [the principal], I believed [the mother] said it was okay. I believe it was sold to her in such a way that we were going to do her child a favor by bringing police into a situation where police had no business being.
Q: Was the mother aware that there were these other options -- for example, the services that were provided to the white student who brought drugs?
A: No. She was not aware. She said, “I thought that you, as a school, had my best interests at heart,” and I assured her that that’s not the way we should’ve handled it.
Q: Let’s go on to what you’re doing now. So you’ve started a business?
A: I also call it an initiative. This is an initiative that I would like to be able to effect policy with.
Q: And it’s called Being Black At School. You refer to systemic racism in schools. Why don’t you give me the building blocks of that? It’s disparate discipline, disparate access to advanced classes, it’s… what else?
A: We don’t reward students of color as easily as we do white students. We don’t nominate them for things. We don’t give them recognition, we don’t give them awards or rewards. White students are more represented in the advanced-placement and dual-credit courses. That’s in high school, but if we’re going to go ahead and walk it all the way back, from elementary to middle school, teachers get to make recommendations about where students should be in classes. And yes, there’s absolutely some tests and assessments that also tend to deny access.
Q: I want to just clear up one thing. In all the time that I’ve known you, and watched what you’ve posted on Facebook, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you accuse anyone in this school district of being an intentional racist. I think what I’ve seen you complain about is more [people who] don’t want to make waves, want to preserve the status quo. So do you think they have a bad heart? Or do you think it’s kind of normal … and that kind of is the problem?
A: I like the way you characterize it, because I think it’s exactly what I’ve done: I indict the system. I don’t say “this person” and I’ve rarely named people unless it’s been kind of egregious. I also know that whiteness protects itself. It privileges white students, it is always going to protect itself, so it does not like it when you pick those scabs and say, “You’ve got some problems here, and by the way, it’s kind of stemmed on race.”
You know, the black students that I had to discipline, that came to my office, almost 100 percent of the time would say, “I absolutely did that behavior. I did that thing they said I did. But so did some white kids, and they are sitting in those classrooms getting an education, and I’m in here, and I’m going to get another consequence, and then I’m going to fall further and further behind." That’s a systemic issue.
Q: So what are you doing with Being Black At School?
A: I’m building it into two things. There’s a business side, and a non-profit side. The non-profit side is going to be the thing that effects policy. The business side is the consultant side.
Q: Your professional career has been mainly in Springfield, and by your own account, it’s got some problems. Now you’re presenting yourself as a consultant. There are some districts ahead of Springfield on this path, and you haven’t worked at those districts. So how do you feel that you can be a consultant when you haven’t worked in a district that gets it right?
A: That’s a good question. I feel like personally, I feel like this is part of my own trauma working within a system that didn’t believe me, didn’t trust me, didn’t think I knew what I was doing -- I think I have had personal successes. I hate that they’ve come about because I have not trusted the system to do it right. And so, I have had my own meetings with black students. I have had my own meetings with black parents, in order to say “Here’s how you navigate the system.” And those have been, on a much smaller scale, successful. I wish that they didn’t have to be so sneaky. I wish that we could’ve addressed this as a whole system. But I’m spending a lot of time, doing a lot of research and visiting a lot of school districts that are getting it right. And that has helped me tremendously and humbled me, because I have looked at things I’ve done in the district and thought “I could’ve done that so much better.” Or “WE could’ve done that so much better.”
I don’t think I know everything. I absolutely don’t. And I think that that’s actually my superpower.
The District does not comment on individual past or present employees. Further, under FERPA and the Illinois School Student Records Act, the District cannot discuss any incidents regarding individual students. However, we would like to share some of the initiatives that have occurred or will occur in the coming months.
Having a forward vision for the work around issues of student support, race and equity in District 186 is very important to Superintendent Jennifer Gill. Last June, District 186 embarked on the first-ever Braided Behavioral Support Training with teams of educators from all of our schools. This event challenged the schools not to focus on just one approach but to braid together a variety of support systems in order to improve behavioral and academic outcomes for students. This week, we have a team attending a workshop regarding trauma-informed and resilience-building practices, which includes information about the CDC-Kaiser Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. This program is sponsored in partnership with the Illinois Education Association and our local Springfield Education Association. Next week, another diverse team of district leaders, administrators and teachers will attend the International Institute for Restorative Practices training, which will provide direct training on strategies to build supports in our schools for all students and families. Over the past two summers, we have had a number of administrators and teachers attend the AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) Cultural Proficiency Strand. We continue to be partners in the community work being led by the Race Unity group in Springfield. Every level of District administration as well as security staff have viewed the Racial Taboo film and it is now being shown in individual school settings. In addition, we are partners in and fully support the work of the SCoDR (Springfield Coalition on Dismantling Racism) and have had a large team of educators attend the Crossroads Anti-Racism Training initiative over the last two years alongside community and faith-based organizations.
The District is intent on scaffolding our approach and having a growth mind-set. While we own the past, the District embraces a forward-looking vision that will strengthen our system.