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Lunch with Mimi: Seria Chatters Is Championing Equity in State College Schools

In July 2018, Seria Chatters became the first-ever director of equity and inclusivity at the State College Area School District. She is also an adjunct associate professor of Counselor Education in the Department of Educational Psychology, Counseling, and Special Education at Penn State, instructing and supervising master’s and doctoral level students. Chatters draws from both her personal and professional experiences to develop equity initiatives, programs, and processes across the school district.

Born in Tampa, Florida, she grew up on military bases in Florida, New Mexico, North Carolina, Nebraska, and Germany as a daughter of a U.S. Air Force chief master sergeant. In addition to moving a lot as a child, she had to overcome being bullied as an African American with albinism who was also legally blind. Through the support of her parents, she has used this personal experience to help others, particularly kids, learn how to change the school environment by working toward equity.

Chatters earned a business and administration degree at Midland Lutheran College in Fremont, Nebraska, before receiving her master’s and doctorate degrees in counselor education and curriculum and instruction at the University of South Florida at Tampa.

Town&Gown founder Mimi Barash Coppersmith sat down with Chatters via Zoom to discuss the inspiration for her work, and the challenges and rewards.  

 

Mimi: Well, you have quite a job. When did you arrive here?

Seria: We moved to State College in 2013.

Mimi: Was it the jobs that led you here?

Seria: I was hired at Penn State as an assistant professor of counselor education on the tenure track. I was the coordinator for clinical mental health in schools and communities at Penn State. When I got hired into that role, the dean of the College of Education at that time, Dean [David] Monk, was key, and also helped support my husband to get a job at the same time. He was the kind of person that made me, as a faculty member, feel like a special person. He was very easy to connect with and talk to. And when I decided to go over to the school district, I told him before I even applied that I was interested in the job because I just respected him. I did not want him to think that I wanted to leave because I was unhappy with my job.

Mimi: But you followed your heart.

Seria: I did, because I wanted to work more closely with children. That is what wakes me up in the morning and motivates me. David Monk met with [Superintendent] Bob O’Donnell, and worked out this process where I’m still teaching and do a lot of work in equity at Penn State and the College of Education, but 80 percent of my responsibility is in the State College Area School District.

Mimi: Tell our readers some of your basics in approaching the challenge of diversity, equality, treating others like you want to be treated yourself.

Seria: When I was hired into this position, Dr. O’Donnell wanted me to connect with kids. He wanted this to be a very student-centered position. We started talking with kids and providing opportunities for kids to learn more about equity. Many people don’t know what equity is, and they don’t recognize when you say that someone is marginalized, what it means to be pushed out to the margins.

Mimi: Or called a name.

Seria: For some people, they’re thinking of sticks and stones, you should be OK with this. But one of the things that we talk about is recognizing how these kinds of behaviors escalate into larger things. There’s this photograph called the Pyramid of Hate.

The Holocaust involved the murder of millions of people, but people don’t recognize that Germany didn’t jump to the Holocaust. There was a process that happened to where people became more and more comfortable with people ousting Jewish people, to where when those things were going on, there were people who were living just like you and me, and this was going on in their peripheral. Still, they weren’t aware of it, or they rationalized why it was OK. It’s what we try to talk with kids about because it’s about kids who are Jewish, Muslim, Black, white, and Latino.

Inaction in times when hate is taking and impacting the lives of marginalized groups is happening now in cases involving police brutality against Black and Latinx groups and individuals with disabilities, inequities and racism and oppression in systems such as schools, healthcare, and government, etc. There are other groups that people don’t even typically think about that can also experience marginalization. Military populations and namely, veterans, are also very misunderstood about what causes people to serve. Even within the military and among veterans, persons who are oppressed due to their social identities can experience multiple forms of oppression and discrimination simultaneously.

Race is one of the areas we’ve been focusing on. Race intersects with other social identities and exponentially increases experiences of oppression and prejudice. For example, women from various religions may choose to cover their hair. However, if a woman who has brown skin covers her hair, [people] will immediately assume that she is Muslim. She could be Catholic; she could be some other religion; she could be just covering her hair. It’s her skin color that causes people to make assumptions about her, her intentions, and her religion.

Mimi: When I was a child, I was so insulted when people said, “Funny, you don’t look Jewish.” And I was taken aback when I was called bad names because I was Jewish. So, I understand every word that’s coming out of your mouth. And the political climate that we’re still in exacerbates the job you have to do, doesn’t it?

Seria: It makes it harder because a lot of people think that my job as director of equity is political. Actually equity, equality, and humanity have been politicized. Creating an environment in which all individuals can feel welcome and experience a sense of belonging is political when we as humans minimize or deny individuals rights based on their various identities.

An ongoing example of working to make a more equitable school climate can be illustrated when we think of religions and High Holidays. Although there is a separation of church and state that extends to public schools, many districts still tend to celebrate Christmas in subtle and overt ways that can cause individuals that observe religions other than Christianity or Catholicism to feel uncomfortable. Students and families who observe religions such as Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and others have expressed that they are not upset by the presence of these celebrations at the end of the year; it is more about the absence of recognition and celebration of their or their families’ religious beliefs that become hurtful and othering.

Mimi: We have made progress on that issue, in my opinion. It’s on calendars now.

Seria: It’s on the district calendar; that’s something my office worked collaboratively with the SCASD Equity Religious and Spirituality Issues Workgroup, co-led by Aaron Kauffman. We have Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; we have the High Holidays; we have various religious holidays. Of course, as soon as you start recognizing holidays, many other religions that you hadn’t thought about start coming to you and saying, “What about my religion?” We are working to be more inclusive of many religious and spiritual beliefs.

Mimi: How do you handle this very complicated situation? Because it takes a lot of time; decades, centuries.

Seria: I realize that this is a relay race. It’s not a sprint. This isn’t going to be over because I became the director of equity in the State College School District. It’s going to live past me.

Mimi: To what extent do students play a role in it?

Seria: We have a high school group of students called the SCASD Peer Advocates, led by Ashley Diaz, the SCASD/PSU equity liaison and Peer Advocates coordinator. They are a group of students who go through 50 hours of training that we call our Social Justice Summer Institute every summer. And then they’re tasked with looking to see what ways they can change their school environment by working toward equity. Last year, we had 45 high school students between State High and Delta. This year, we had another 40 students. Currently, we have 70 students in total. They have created a number of different initiatives in their schools that they are leading.

Our Student Voice Workgroup, co-led by Delta senior Sophia Galvin and a group of Peer Advocates and advised by SCASD board member David Hutchinson, has students from fifth grade through 12th grade that come together once a month to talk about equity issues in their school. Kids from every school in the district come together to talk about issues and how we can work together to resolve them in our schools.

Mimi: How do you measure your progress?

Seria: One measure of progress is the percentage of students and faculty that are engaged in equity work because equity is something that we all should be working toward. One of the things that we do to gauge progress is how we are disseminating this information to larger groups of students, because it helps students better understand themselves. But it also helps students to connect with one another. One of the major things that we’ve been working on is changing our curriculum, what we are offering to kids every day in their classrooms.

Additionally, we are working toward changing policy, revising our strategic plan, and ensuring that the families we are here to support feel the change in the district. We also regularly survey, talk to students and families, and evaluate what we are offering.

Mimi: To what extent is there interaction between your goals and mental health issues?

Seria: I’m a licensed professional counselor. A class that I teach at Penn State is an internship for clinical mental health counselors. When we talk about equity, mental health is something that any of us can be impacted by. Some people may have a higher likelihood of being impacted by it because their parents have had depression, or it can run in their family. But even right now, during COVID-19, we’ve seen a rise in mental health issues like never before, even among children. A person could also be impacted so negatively by mental health that it can be considered a disability, like a person suffering from severe depression for a long time. And disability falls under equity issues. Mental health falls under equity issues.

In our district, we have our school counselors that focus heavily on mental health. We have our My Mental Health Matters Club. We have an integrated mental health team that I co-chair with Jeanne Knouse, director of Student Services. And then I also supervise – they’re in my course that I teach – four interns that are getting their master’s at Penn State that are also doing their internship, 20 hours per week, in our district to support students and their mental health needs. So, there’s lots of different ways that I connect with groups that are supporting mental health. And then, I also work collaboratively with our director of special education.

Mimi: You and I have something in common as first-generation college graduates of immigrants. I can remember when it was tough to be in school and I had to come home and ask, ‘What does it mean to be called a kike?’ What made you so strongly convinced that you could make a difference in a huge problem, and choose it as a career?

Seria: Two lights in my life have always been my parents. My mom moved here from Trinidad. My dad is from Georgia and was in the military. My dad didn’t retire until I graduated from college. My entire life, I moved from base to base. My dad’s last move was when I was in college in Nebraska, and he got stationed in Georgia. That was my first time really being far away from my parents. My dad always held various leadership roles. He was a strong African-American man, and very kind. He passed three years ago from early-onset Alzheimer’s. The doctors felt that he had it from his late 40s. I was a caregiver for my dad for his last years over a decade in life with my mom.

But before he got sick, my dad always talked to me about his love for people, his belief in people, how much he valued people, and how much he worked toward all people being successful. He used to always say to us how much differences bring value to every situation. He said if we can remove the barriers of prejudice and discrimination, to where people could feel like they could bring their whole selves to the conversation, he would say, “Just imagine the number of solutions that we would be able to find.” Everybody always had the kindest things to say about my dad even after he retired, and they didn’t have to say kind things about him anymore. He valued multiculturalism; he valued diversity.

My mom, who came to this country when she was a teenager, always talked to us about the value of hard work. She always reminded us of her experiences when she came over with her mother, working various jobs, including working in the fruit tree groves to pick fruits, even when she was in school. No matter how tired she was, she went to school.

My mom always impressed upon us the value of education, and the value of the American dream, that if you work hard in this country, you’re going to be something. And that’s something that my mom, my grandmother, everyone valued.

I was bullied mercilessly in school, but she always tried to make sure that she held me up because, with us moving around all the time, I was always the new kid. So, that within itself makes things hard. But being the new kid who is also legally blind, wearing thick glasses, having a very different kind of look, I was attractive to bullies. But my parents always told me that even though I’m legally blind, I could do anything that I put my mind to.

My mom always said, “What we have done for you, it is your responsibility to do it for others.” So, I can say that from the time that I was a young kid, struggling through a lot of things, my parents instilled that in me. With my dad being in the Air Force for 27 years, I had a strong love and value of America and what America stands for, and the opportunities we can provide here. When I decided to become a professor, I wanted to teach, but I always kept connected to that diversity angle, of thinking that I wanted to help kids who may be struggling.

Mimi: You’d never guess you were legally blind.

Seria: When I talk to people about privilege, some people will immediately get angry and say, “Why are you talking about privilege?” Even I have privilege. And I recognize that I am privileged because I’m legally blind, but there are some people who you can tell that they’re legally blind; they’re required to walk with a white cane, they can’t hide their disability. So, in being able to hide mine, I recognize that that is a privilege.

The facts show that, unfortunately, it is difficult for people with disabilities to get jobs. If you have an obvious disability, people are less likely to hire you. Discrimination is illegal, but research and the demographics of our workforce proves it still happens in interviewing and hiring. The question is, if my disability was more visible, would I have been able to make it as far as I have? Yes, I work hard. But it could prevent me from even getting in the door. Those are the things that I say when I talk to people about diversity and equity, and inclusion.

I never leave myself out of those things. I recognize that my skin color, I’m a Black woman, but I’m this color. I have albinism. When I’m standing in a group of white people, you probably would not be able to pick me out and say I’m a Black woman. And that’s a hereditary condition. But it gives me privilege. And the world sometimes discriminates against people with darker skin. I didn’t do anything to earn that. So that’s my privilege.

What’s motivated me is my experiences. I’ve had some hard roads, but I’ve had many blessings. What my dad did for my siblings and me – I have four brothers and sisters – it was a complete honor for me to take care of him. I miss him every day, but he is my 100-percent motivation.

Mimi: What’s the most rewarding and most difficult thing about your job?

Seria: The rewarding thing is the people, including the students, faculty and staff, and families, and the connections that I have the honor of making. The most challenging thing are the assumptions that people make of me and the work that I do. People sometimes assume because of my appearance or because I am championing deepening our district and community understanding of systemic racism, oppression, and various forms of discrimination that, if they are white, I don’t represent them or aim to exclude them. Championing equity and inclusion in our district makes our district a better place for all students, including white students. When we neglect to advocate for access, opportunity, and inclusion of marginalized students, we harm our society as a whole.

Mimi: Well, people who want to make a difference keep their heart into making that difference. And I have a feeling that you’re one of the best of that blessing that we have in humanity. And I have to say that what I love about it, too, it’s a certain partnership between this remarkable school district and the remarkable university. Trying to give a special gift to students who are learning something that they perhaps couldn’t have learned at home is a blessing to the whole area. My hat’s off to you.

Seria: That means so much coming from you. I read your interviews all the time. I was honored to be interviewed.