‘A Space For You’ is fighting school district’s ‘longstanding challenge’ — racism

Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff

Microaggressions are cumulative and every unintended racist comment feels like a stinging paper cut,” said Jessica Airhienbuwa at an anti-hate rally Guilderland High School students organized last May. “They are small … but over time, if you get enough unhealed paper cuts, you might just find yourself bleeding all over the place.” Matthew Pinchinat, listening in the background at left, has come up with a way to help students confront microaggressions.

GUILDERLAND — Two troubling racist incidents in the Guilderland schools this fall have spurred Matthew Pinchinat to create a way for students and others hurt by racism to let their voices be heard.

Pinchinat, formerly a Guilderland history teacher, now fills a new post at the school — director of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

“I went from one love to another,” he said. The common passion is for students.

This fall, written passes were circulating among students at Farnsworth Middle School, giving the holder of the pass permission to say the N-word, Pinchinat said. “Permission was being given outside of the protected group,” he said. “No one should give permission to use that word.”

The other incident was at Guilderland High School where racist words were written on a school library book — John Howard Griffin’s 1961 “Black Like Me,” Griffin’s account of traveling through the Deep South with his white skin colored black.

In both cases, students brought the problems to the attention of school leaders, Pinchinat said.

Pinchinat and the high school principal, Michael Piscitelli, then met with students and asked how to support them.

Together, Pinchinat and Piscitelli made a video where the pair speak the words “students said they need to hear to feel safe and feel heard,” said Pinchinat.

In the video, the two men — one Black and one white — stand side by side as they speak directly, looking into the camera.

Everyone has to feel not just tolerated but accepted, Pinchinat says in the video. 

“If you see something, please say something,” says Piscitelli.

“Nothing is too small,” says Pinchinat in the video.

That thought carried over into his developing a form students or staff or even parents or community members can fill out if they feel hurt by racism.

Students have shared with him, Pinchinat said, that, when they are faced with slurs or peers using the N-word, or with microaggressions, they often wonder: Are we crazy for feeling hurt by these things?

He wants students to know: It’s not OK; you aren’t the one that’s wrong here.

To that end, Pinchinat has created a simple form students can fill out quickly.

The initiative is called “DEI: A Space For You.”

He hopes very soon to have posters with a QR code publicizing the form and to have bookmarks made that give a link to a form that can be filled out online.

The form will ask basic information like name and the pronouns a person uses; it will also ask background questions — such as if the person filling out the form is a student, staff or faculty member, parent, or community member. It will ask the applicants if they want to meet in person, or talk over the phone, or meet through their computers.

Finally, the applicants will describe what they want to talk about. “That’s so I can do some background research and have an idea of how to enact support,” said Pinchinat.

The form is simple enough that it can be filled out in five or 10 minutes, he said, but people may also write pages.

“Folks are free to write however much they want,” he said. Pinchinat also envisions a student and parent might want to fill out a form together.

Some students may feel that just filling out the form is enough to make them feel validated, said Pinchinat. Others may want mediation to reconcile with the person who hurt them. Still others may want support from an administrator, in which case Pinchinat will arrange that.

He stresses that this won’t be a panacea. “It won’t stop all incidents,” Pinchinat said. “But it will show we do take them seriously.”

Asked how he would single-handedly deal with what may be a flood of hurt, Pinchinat said, “This is work I’m passionate about, work that is worthwhile — helping people feel safe and connected and comfortable and welcome.”

He also credited a “fired up” DEI Committee with which he meets regularly — the meetings are open to the public — and supportive administrators.

“Dr. Wiles,” he said of Superintendent Marie Wiles, “is always encouraging me to keep students as the top priority.”

Both the DEI committee and the director’s post were created by the school board in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Several Black Guilderland alumnae contacted school leaders to discuss the racism they had experienced.

The district, which was once predominantly white, has become far more diverse.

According to the State Education Department, the Guilderland school district has 190 African-American students, or 4 percent; 181 Hispanic students, also 4 percent; 647 Asian students, or 13 percent; 3 Native American students, or 0 percent; 169 multi-racial students, or 4 percent; and 3,617 white students, or 75 percent.

Pinchinat doesn’t have an end point in sight for the “A Space for You” project. “It’s not a sprint,” he said. Borrowing the title from South African President Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Pinchinat went on, “It’s a long walk to freedom.”

He continued, “What we’re fighting is a longstanding challenge. Our solutions need to be longstanding.”

He plans to listen to students at all levels to ask, “Is this working?” and to make changes to improve the program.

While Pinchinat says that technology is a powerful tool that can amplify good — like the video he made with Piscitelli or the online form — “it doesn’t replace face-to-face conversation.”

He enjoys visiting with teachers, staff, and students at all seven of the district’s schools.

Pinchinat shared a poster for the program with school board members on Tuesday. “Your voice. Your story. Nothing is too small,” it said.

The board was supportive of his efforts.

“Kids often learn from their parents,” said board member Barbara Fraterrigo, suggesting posters be placed in the library and local grocery stores to “expand to the entire community.”

Board member Blanca Gonzalez-Parker, a Guilderland graduate, said she liked the phrase “nothing is too small,” having experienced and witnessed microaggressions herself.

Board member Kimberly Blasiak suggested sharing the form on the district’s website so parents, particularly of the youngest students, would see it, “drawing the families in as well.”

“This work is reflective of what we all want in our community ….,” Pinchinat told The Enterprise. “Everyone wants a way to support our students and all the other stakeholders.”

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