To educate about and dismantle local racial educational inequities, Arlington Partners Against Racism (OnPAR) hosted a panel discussion on “Racism and Identity in Dutchess County Schools” at the Vassar Farm on Sept. 21. The panel was the first-in person event held by OnPAR, bringing over 75 attendees in community to build momentum for OnPAR’s work in Arlington Central School District (ACSD) and beyond.
“It’s trailblazing and it’s letting parents and other allies know that they don’t have to stand for what’s going on in their [school] district,” said OnPAR co-founder Nyhisha T. Gibbs, with a Masters in Public Administration useful for management in public and nonprofit sectors. “You do have a voice and you can use it. We want people in other districts to see what we’re doing in [Arlington] so that they can start their own anti-racism group because it’s happening in so many districts.”
The event began with tabling to network with organizations such as Defense of Democracy NY, the ALANA Center, Dutchess Pride, the NAACP and more. This was followed by a student performer, Gibbs, who introduced the event and a panel discussion. Panelists included Bilingual Consultant and Dialogue Facilitator Maritza DelRazo; Program Coordinator for CPS’ Supportive Parenting Program Nika Lynch, Clinton Elementary School Principal Dr. David A. Scott; and Vassar Professor Kimberly Williams Brown.
“[The panelists] expressed the depths of the problems we are working to fight: speaking to the forms of racism that they have witnessed or heard about, what the biggest issues are contributing to or caused by racism in Dutchess County schools, the role of sharing stories and how we can heal from racism as we work towards anti-racism, integration and equity,” said Burnam Summer Fellow Sophie Mode ’25, who helped to organize the event. “Once [attendees] see the extent of the problem, they feel that moral obligation to do something about it.”
Afterwards, attendees were split into discussion groups such as “running for the school board” and “disproportionate discipline,” and were given informational material along with concrete actions to take. According to Professor Eva Woods Peiró, finding people willing to do this work can be difficult, so this event was critical in mobilizing action.
In 2012, the New York Dignity For All Students Act (DASA) required ACSD to implement equity work through a consulting company with the input of stakeholders including OnPAR co-founders, parents, Gibbs, Woods and Professor Shona Tucker.
“We’ve put our kids through this district and we have long been in a kind of silence,” Woods said. “We know what the problems are. We know what we need to do. We just need to do them and it was just not going anywhere. It was just constant paralysis.”
Several consulting companies, tax dollars and surveys later, nothing changed for Woods. OnPAR was founded in October 2020 by Gibbs, Woods , Tucker and Professor Taniesha Means out of the continued racist incidents and practices at ACSD that culminated in the forceful resignation of former Deputy Superintendent and equity leader Dr. Jonathan Brown. Gibbs believes Brown should have ascended to the vacant Superintendent position.
“This person of color was forced to leave and enough was enough. I just couldn’t take it anymore,” Gibbs said.
From their website, “On PAR helps create new and transform old policies, practices, and structures to ensure that all district members are supported and can thrive. On PAR also works directly with students, teachers, and administrators across the District to eradicate barriers that impede marginalized members’ well-being and success.”
OnPAR maintains close ties with Arlington High School (AHS) through its My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) chapter, a safe space for boys of color founded by the Obama administration, and has been asked to consult on various issues.
“It’s going to be interesting to see where we land this coming school year because a lot of our demands will have been addressed,” Gibbs said. “Now it’s making sure that they maintain them and not doing it to keep us quiet.”
To show the intentionality of discrimination rather than simple ignorance, she points towards the MBK chapter of AHS that was left out of the yearbook last year despite her advocacy. Also, despite Gibbs arranging a connection years ago, historically Black colleges are not present at AHS’ college fairs.
“I wonder, when is it ignorance?” Gibbs questioned. “I’ve offered my services. So now [AHS] can no longer say [they] didn’t know. So now that [AHS] didn’t do it, I feel like [they’re] ignoring me.”
From these setbacks, Gibbs and Woods emphasize the importance of relationship-building and celebration in the form of storytelling, music, food and being in community in OnPAR. Working together to build the event from the ground-up centered joy in challenging work. Gibbs takes inspiration from pioneers like Malcom X, Martin Luther King and Maya Angelou, as well as feeding off the energy of her co-workers and Mode.
“For so long, some of the things that I dealt with as my boys were coming through [ACSD], I felt like I was kind of siloed. It was just only happening to me,” Gibbs said. “It was nice to make that connection to know that this isn’t in your mind. It has happened to you and it’s happening to other people.”
Woods calls upon Vassar students who live right next to these disparities to break from the Vassar bubble through anti-racist advocacy. For example, students that reside on Vassar’s campus can speak at the public comments section in Arlington Board of Education meetings.
“The Board of Education listens to young people much more than they listen to older people like us because they know us,” Woods said. “We’ll be there and support because we try not to attend the meetings alone.”
To get involved, interested students can contact OnPAR through their website. One attendee, Emma Adams ’25, was inspired to join OnPAR after attending and currently designing an educational packet on housing and education in the local area with specific action items.
“[Vassar students] are always talking about getting involved, but no one knows how,” Adams said. “[The event] was definitely very inspiring [and the panelists’] passion inspired me to get more involved in [OnPAR].”