How Pa’lante is Facing the Dual Pandemics of COVID-19 and Anti-Black Racism (Romeo Romero Sigle…

How Pa’lante is Facing the Dual Pandemics of COVID-19 and Anti-Black Racism (Romeo Romero Sigle Interview Part 4)

We got the chance to talk to Romeo Romero Sigle, Assistant Director of Pa’lante in Holyoke, MA, about the history of the organization, Pa’lante’s current youth-led and anti-racist work, and how the group has adjusted their practices and strategy during COVID-19. This is part four of a four-part blog post about Pa’lante. Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

This interview was conducted prior to the beginning of the school year.

How has COVID-19 impacted Pa’lante?

It had a very, very big impact on us, because so much of what we do is in-person connection. And we’re a school-based program, so when schools closed in March we very quickly switched to Zoom’s platform. Our Zoom meetings were pretty well attended and we continued working on our campaign for the random search policy, and we actually won that campaign during COVID. And then we’ve done a lot of celebrating of the seniors who are moving on because we usually do that in person. But largely the circle process we haven’t done too much over Zoom just because it really does take away some of the magic of it.

Even if we do go back [this fall] we’re probably not going to be able to have all of our peer leaders in the same room, we’re not going to be able to pass a talking piece between people, and we may not even be able to take students out of their classrooms. There’s a lot of logistics that we don’t even really know. I have to imagine we’ll be able to do something, whether it’s over Zoom or in person. We’re still waiting on more information before going into planning mode, so there’s mostly a lot of ideas and trust that we will still get to do important work.

We’re currently in a moment where movements for anti-racism, which have been going on for years, are in the spotlight. Has that impacted Pa’lante, either in how others view you and support you or the work you do yourselves?

Students were ready and prepared, and a lot of our students were out there protesting, speaking at rallies, and really calling for that kind of change. And I know students now are really motivated more than ever to get police out of schools — it’s something we’ve talked about for a long time and it’s never felt like we’ve had the political leverage to truly make that happen until “defund the police” started becoming a household phrase. We’ve actually had some pretty open conversations with our administration about what police look like and why Pa’lante doesn’t stand for police in schools, and we’ve never been able to have those conversations before. So even doing that has felt like a positive step in the right direction.

And Pa’lante leadership has been really pulled into thinking about what anti-racism looks like for our school. Our whole district recently decided that they have the intention of becoming an anti-racist organization, so if anything, people are looking to us as experts, for something that they are now realizing they don’t know a lot about. I think we’re well-positioned to continue to make positive change in terms of racism broadly and the relationship between racial justice and educational equity.

Where does restorative and transformative justice fit into the movement for anti-racism?

I think that most people who will probably read this interview know that mass incarceration is a problem in the United States. And so it’s natural to say “defund the police” and “abolish the police” and “abolish prisons”. But those movements will not work unless we have an alternative. We need to know what the next step is. And I think restorative justice and transformative justice really invite us to 1) think about the world beyond the conditions that currently exist and 2) to think about how the strongest thing we can do is if we have communities that have strong enough relationships, then we don’t need police, because we’re able to hold ourselves in that community without an outside force coming in and creating more havoc than before. Restorative justice helps people figure out how to have healthy conflict, and transformative justice helps us think about how to have a world without police and what that looks like, and both of those are really necessary to the current demands of the Black Lives Matter Movement.

What are some goals that Pa’lante has, both short-term and long-term?

One of our primary goals is having a full-time staff person at the Dean campus who can hold down both during-the-day circle work and afterschool YPAR work. It’s really important because that school is a technical school and historically has been underfunded and under-resourced, even in comparison to Holyoke High which is underfunded and under-resourced. Creating equity between those two campuses is a huge priority.

More conversations about anti-racism in school, particularly police in schools, is a big goal for a lot of students right now. Thinking about our next YPAR project — it seems like there’s a lot of energy for students to start thinking about removing our School Resource Officers in the district and replacing them with a different kind of SEL support. Other goals are to increase parent involvement in our community advisory board, and the biggest goal probably is figuring out how we can continue to do our work during COVID, which is just this big looming question that will probably divert a lot of our attention at least for the next six months, if not for a year or two.

How Pa’lante is Facing the Dual Pandemics of COVID-19 and Anti-Black Racism (Romeo Romero Sigle… was originally published in Nellie Mae Education Foundation on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.