Members of Winona Area Public Schools’ (WAPS) new Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee (DEI) recently began to work through how to organize the committee’s membership. 

DEI met for the first time on September 28 after the WAPS School Board dissolved the district’s former diversity and equity committee, DEC, without consulting DEC members. Some School Board members said developing DEI as an official School Board committee elevated the committee and gave it a more direct line to the board. DEI currently consists of three School Board members: Stephanie Smith, Karl Sonneman and Steve Schild. 

A group of about 10 community members, including members of local organization Winona Residents Organizing Against Racism (ROAR), attended the DEI meeting. At a few points during the meeting, members of the public attempted to speak. They were told they could not. This is in line with usual practice at government meetings where community members speak only during hearings or public comment periods. Sonneman and Schild said that typically, community members do not speak outside of public comment periods at regular School Board meetings, and the board members could talk with members of the public after the meeting. The board members did speak with some community members afterward. 

LaShara Morgan, who attended the meeting as a member of the public and ROAR and organizes Our Voices (a group for Black students and students of color), said in an interview that she understood it was common practice for community members to not speak, but she had concerns about it, and she wants the voices of people of color to be heard by the district. “When you are trying to put together a committee to discuss and to make positive changes … with a particular group of people, those are the people you should be hearing from,” she said. She continued, “I think right now it’s a rush to get this committee going, but I’m just hoping that it’s done right.” 

One major choice DEI members face is deciding who will serve on the committee. Developing a racially diverse membership was a goal of, and challenge for, DEC. Many of DEC’s few members of color said the committee was not welcoming, and they would not want to invite fellow people of color to join. 

The DEI’s conversation focused on having a diversity of community members, staff and students, and acknowledged that the committee wants to hear from community members. Smith floated the idea of having nine community members on the committee, as well as a teacher from every school and a student each from the middle school, high school and learning center. Sonneman said he would prefer there be no designated slots for certain staff. He would also like to set a maximum number of seats for staff. Superintendent Annette Freiheit said the committee could set membership targets, but keep membership flexible based on who applies and the experiences they would bring to DEI. 

Morgan said she hopes the committee ultimately includes people of color with lived experience, in addition to trust and rapport, with fellow people of color. Someone from outside a community can look in and say what they want fixed and tell the members of that community what is needed, Morgan said. “I feel like there’s been a lot of that,” she said. She added, “It’s a lot of people believing that they know more than what the actual people that are suffering know.” This is not the best way to determine what the community members want and need, she said. “You have to first hear from the people you are trying to work with,” she said. A talk between community members of color, School Board members and district staff would be valuable as DEI begins its work, she added. 

Another question DEI members are working to answer centers on how people will apply to be part of the committee. Schild said he did not want the application to be generic. “I think given what’s been said about the value of lived experience, I don’t want to look at this as a standard form,” he said. Smith agreed, saying she wants the committee to review and edit the application before it opens. Morgan also agreed and noted that she does not want the application questions to be generic in a way that makes anyone feel they could serve on DEI. 

A question mark remains regarding how committee members will be chosen, as well. Sonneman said that at the next meeting, he would like to discuss how members will be selected, once applications are turned in. For other School Board committees, which do not include community members, the board appoints members of the School Board. 

DEI members also started to discuss School Board members’ future role on the committee. Schild said he would like School Board members on the committee to vote, while Smith said she did not necessarily think they had to be voting members. School Board members sit on other district committees as non-voting members. 

Additionally, DEI members are beginning to ponder the committee’s future work. Schild said he would like the committee to receive data about test results and discipline rates.

For now, the committee appears to have moved away from being divided into subcommittees. Schild said he would like the committee to meet monthly, and he would prefer to have one committee without subcommittees, to start with. Freiheit recommended that the full committee meet monthly for its first year. It could then be determined whether to split the committee into two subcommittees that would also meet monthly and could have time to break out from the full committee to work, she said. Sonneman agreed with the whole committee meeting for the first year. 

Between now and the next DEI meeting, Smith said she would complete outreach to community members regarding what they view as topics for DEI to address. 

DEI will next meet on Thursday, October 14, at 6 p.m. in the WAPS District Office.