Michiana Chronicles: Humanizing language
I know Corey Harbaugh because he’s a nationally recognized leader in Holocaust education who led a teacher training workshop in Mishawaka last summer. Corey is also the curriculum director for Paw Paw schools, 45 miles north of Elkhart. He came to the district five years ago, hired by a new superintended to take on a difficult task.
We were inheriting a really divided community around the long-standing nickname; the Paw Paw schools nickname was the Redskins. Prior to the superintendent stepping into the role there had been some effort to retire the Redskin nickname. It was such a contentious issue and so many people in the town were opposed that that was the reason for the superintendent change. The prior superintendent was under such duress with members of the community that she chose to step down from her role. There was real deep division and very hard feelings. The Paw Paw school district at the time was under an investigation from the office of civil rights for having a racially hostile climate and it was related to the kinds of things that happened during and just before the decision to take on the nickname. Some things that were said and done in the schools and out of the schools made it difficult for some students who were either indigenous or were students of color. Everybody was so heated that that was the climate that I came into. Also our local indigenous tribe which is the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians were behind the idea that it was time to retire the nickname. So that was the context into which I stepped into the role. He (the superintendent) knew my history as a Holocaust and human rights educator and then that was an area of work that I had done and I was more comfortable maybe than other educators with talking about topics like inherited trauma and things.
We decided right away that our core mission is education and if we were going to do this it had to be within the realm of our mission and that was it was going to be an educational process. We had community input up until the time the decision was made but essentially the elected representatives of the community, those seven (school) board members, are the ones that had to vote in favor or in opposition of the recommendation to make the change. And, the superintendent did make the recommendation. It passed six to one at that time in favor to retire the nickname.
It actually remains a dynamic for many in our community who refused to give up their connection to the Redskin nickname and I have compassion for the kinds of memories, the positive memories, that people had related to being a student in Paw Paw. That identity is really part of who they are, and so this change is made and of course you know, I know, as teachers, that language changes, that our understandings, our cultural understandings change. We continue to get more information and grow and evolve as a people, but it doesn't change the positive memories that people have and the positive associations.
Also, it's possible on any topic to find people who feel the same way you do and it's possible within the indigenous community to find spokespeople who say, “Hey, we think the Paw Paw Redskins really isn't the kind of slight that some people think that it is.” And when that happens people on both sides of the issue can point to somebody and say, “Look, see, it’s not as bad as you all are making out.” And that’s difficult.
We as an educational community have a responsibility to our students. We understand the power of language, that it's often language that precedes conflict or even violence in a society and that the way that we humanize or dehumanize people through our language really matters. When it came time to make the decision there were people that out of this impassioned identity that they had with the Paw Paw Redskins were speaking from a very honest place of resistance, not necessarily thinking about the dehumanizing aspect or thinking about what it means to carry on a language tradition a hundred years later that we now know can look back at it. You know, Native American history is poorly represented in our curriculum and most students grow up not really understanding the deep hurts and traumas that were done to indigenous people all over this country including in West Michigan. Those of us who study history understand it maybe a little better and we have a responsibility to that history, even when people on the other side don't have any malicious intent at all.
Could you talk again about the connection between what you've learned by going through this process and being a Holocaust educator.
As a Holocaust educator, I know you, me, others in our field, we think about what is our responsibility to make the world better and part of that is the way that we speak and think about other humans. And so moving towards more inclusive and humanizing language only helps kids grow up thinking that there isn’t such a thing as a sub-class of human or that these humans are better than those humans or those humans can be used as caricatures or be poorly understood or can be dehumanized. With our responsibility to “Never Again” everybody’s humanity has to be dignified and preserved and protected. And human dignity at the end of the day has to be one of our most important commitments as educators.
Sid: That’s Paw Paw schools curriculum director Cory Harbaugh.