Moving forward at York Tech
Carla Christopher is a prominent community member in the York City area, between her time as the city's poet laureate, her work in the mayor's office and her volunteer work for a number of organizations. But in just a few weeks she'll add another title to her name: equity coordinator at the York County School of Technology.
The school created the position after a video taken inside the school went viral and picked up national media attention. The video showed a group of students walking through the school holding a Donald Trump campaign sign with some saying "white power" in the background the day after November's election.
Allegations of minority students dealing with harassment throughout the campaign came to light, causing responses from crisis teams and Gov. Tom Wolf. Protesters took to the street in front of the school, saying the administrators had been closing their eyes to racial tension among students for quite some time.
After having so many different resources make their way to the school to provide training, facilitate discussions and speak with students about the incident, the school realized it needed someone right in the school to do some of those actions all the time.
Her background: Enter Christopher, who has worked with minority groups and promoted cultural diversity for a number of groups throughout her decade here in York County. She moved to the county from Baltimore to take care of her niece, who was in the foster care system. She told herself she was only going to stay for two years, but each time she started to leave the area, something else called to her.
"As soon as I would get ready to leave, there would be some other thing I was so committed to, where I felt I was making a difference," Christopher said with a laugh. "Then I finally realized, 'Girl, you’re not going anywhere!'"
She became more deeply involved in the community when she was named poet laureate for York City in 2011. Poets laureate are appointed by community members, professors, other poets and sometimes elected officials. They are the official poets for the area where they are appointed and can be expected to compose works for certain events.
From there, she worked in the mayor's office in 2014 as the cultural community liaison, where she worked on the city's economic development through partnerships with artists. In 2015, she began working with the Strand-Capitol Performing Arts Center and William Penn Senior High School to teach creative writing and community arts to students using issues going on in the community.
In her spare time, Christopher volunteers for several local organizations, including the Racial Justice Committee in the YWCA, the American Civil Liberties Union and Equity First, which she created and is now president of.
Equity coordinator: So when she heard York County School of Technology was looking for someone to spearhead efforts toward being an inclusive school, she jumped on board and was interviewed. She was ultimately hired and will begin work Feb. 20.
The position is new, so her responsibilities and exactly what she'll be working on are still up in the air. One of her main goals is to connect the outside community with students, faculty and staff in York Tech and strengthen that community relationship.
She also wants to present a number of educational series on equity, diversity and other cultures. She pointed out that York County School of Technology is the most diverse school in the county. The high school takes students from all parts of the county and of all backgrounds. With so many differences, she said, she's not surprised there have been issues.
She doesn't want the students and faculty in the building to think of equity as a bad thing. She wants them to see it as an exciting opportunity to learn about other cultures and why equity matters.
"I think when we only talk about diversity and equity in response to negative events, it makes it feel like a punishment rather than an opportunity," Christopher said. "I want them to understand equity and diversity are things we are lucky to have."
Student voice: A key in her vision for the school is allowing everyone to have a voice, including students. She's noticed this is a goal the high school has as well. In fact, York Tech students interviewed her and were key in deciding whether she should get the position.
"When we're losing the input of some of our best and brightest, we're losing for all of us," she said.
Students talk about racial bullying at York Tech after video.
She noticed the school took steps even before interviewing her to include students in discussions about moving forward after the racially charged incidents they were experiencing. She didn't want to go to a school that was creating the position just to say they did so after fallout. She wanted to be sure she would be making a difference.
When she talked with the district during her interview stages, she saw and heard about students and staff already working together and creating programming.
"I believe they want real change and real progress, and they really do want to do what's best for the students," she said.
In her 10 years in York County, Christopher said she's seen a lot change and improve when it comes to equity and diversity. The city has been hosting more culturally diverse events, and she's seen growth in the community arts and culture, particularly among minority groups.
However, there's more to be done, and she believes more places should be facilitating open dialogue on tough topics such as equity, she said. She's hoping her position as equity coordinator will help do that for the students, ultimately bettering York County as a whole.
"If we are ever going to create a York County where people can work together and where we can have a just society, we need to start with our young people, and we need to start places where we can have those dialogues," she said.