Seria Chatters is the first-ever director of diversity and inclusivity for the State College Area School District. She draws from both her personal and professional experiences to inform her work.
Before taking her current position, she was an assistant professor in Penn State's Department of Educational Psychology, Counseling and Special Education.
Chatters talked with WPSU about her first semester on the job and what she hopes to accomplish in the position.
Cheraine Stanford - Welcome to Take Note on WPSU. I'm Cheraine Stanford. Seria Chatters is the first ever Director of Diversity and Inclusivity for the State College Area School District. She draws from both her personal and professional experiences to inform her work. Before taking her current position, she was an Assistant Professor in Penn State's Department of Educational Psychology, Counseling and Special Education.
Cheraine Stanford - Seria, thank you for joining us today.
Seria Chatters- Thank you for having me.
Cheraine Stanford - So, diversity is one of those words that I think has been used so much that it's sort of started to lose its meaning. Inclusivity it is actually even getting to that point. Can you give us your definition of diversity?
Seria Chatters- Well my definition of diversity is unfortunately not anything new. Of course, it’s varied amount of identities that individuals carry within themselves and how they inform their work, how students engage with their educational experiences, all of those pieces are areas of diversity and the dimensions of diversity are quite vast. I think oftentimes individuals when they hear a person is Director of Diversity they immediately think race right but they forget about all of the other things like class and gender and age, family origin, all of those different types of things and so diversity is varied identities and those are the identities that are fixed for example your race as well as your age because although we do move through of course ages we can't change it at will and those that are more varied such as religion. When we talk about inclusivity, it is the measure of ensuring that everyone is able to engage with the educational process regardless of the identity that they hold.
Cheraine Stanford - You know you've said you wanted to spend a lot of your first year just listening and you've been in the job for a few months now. What have you been seeing or hearing or how's it going so far?
Seria Chatters - That's an excellent question because when I came in I definitely wanted to focus on listening and I really wanted to kind of be that fly on the wall so to speak looking and listening to teachers and watching teachers’ interactions with students, sitting in meetings whether it be administrative meanings meetings with teachers meetings with school counselors and watching and really you know not necessarily interacting as of yet. However, what typically happens with any position and as you indicated early on I'm the first ever is that when you come in, although your office is empty there's an imaginary pile in the middle of the floor of things that were waiting for you to walk into the door to handle and so although I wanted to listen and I have been listening there was a lot that I had to do but in addition to that when it comes to topics of race what we typically do not really engage with when we talk about race is that race and racism has been a problem in our society for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years and so there are individuals within our schools, our students of color, our families of color that also have been waiting for a position like this to come about and the issues that they are dealing with and engaging with have a sense of urgency around them and so although I may want to sit back and listen, it's really very difficult for me to do that when I have families that have immediate needs and students that have immediate needs to where I have to engage in those situations although I may not know the system as of yet. Our district, we know we have a lot of work to do and that is what I'm seeing it's coming down to conversations that we really need to for example work on our language. We really need to work on-- We had a training last year on implicit bias and us recognizing implicit biases that we hold within ourselves but the issues that we have as a District is professional development time right we have very little professional development time so although we need to start having more large-scale conversations and doing more large-scale training which I'm seeing we need around race, around issues of sexual orientation, around gender. What I'm looking to do now that I've been listening and I see that hey this is a need this need is definitely there but not only that when I'm quote unquote wanting to listen in meetings and actually engaging in these meetings and having to on the spot work on modifying language and different things like that, I'm getting ready to pull together a team to do a three to five year diversity strategic plan for our district because we really need to look at OK now that we know that these issues are there meaning that we us being here in central Pennsylvania we are not immune to what is going on within our society and these are issues that exist within our district now how are we going to get ourselves trained up to a place where we can start to say that we're working toward cultural competence and I want to be clear I always say to anyone that I go into cultural competence training in, cultural competence is not an end goal it's not a destination. You don't ever get there it’s you're constantly learning but for us what I'm seeing is that we need to be on this journey, so that's what I've been seeing on my listening tour or hearing and seeing in my listening tour is that we definitely need to be on this journey that we have a good ways to go but the excellent part about it thus far is that the school board, the administrators have been very supportive of us moving in this direction. I mean well they hired me but sometimes when someone gets hired, as we all know, you get in there and the support is not really there. The support has been there and I'm hoping that now that I've listened and I'm still listening in a sense, that we will start moving in the direction of working toward some of these goals.
Cheraine Stanford - In some of your trainings you do something where you ask people to describe the first bullying experience they had that they're comfortable sharing. I'm going to ask you to do that with us and what it taught you.
Seria Chatters - Wow! The first one! Man! I don't think anyone has ever asked me that question before and it's hard for me to remember the first one but I can remember the most impactful one. The one, the most impactful one happened when I was in high school and I was walking down the hall it was during class changing time and I heard someone kind of make a noise behind me and then I felt something hit me in the back of my head so hard that it felt, I swear I felt like blood trickling down the back of my head and I turned around and a baseball fell, was on the ground behind me and someone had thrown a baseball at the back of my head and at first I thought that maybe it was an accident but then hearing people laughing around me I recognized that it was not accidental but something I talk about in my workshops all the time is that I'm legally blind and so there really was no way for me to figure out exactly who did that and so I just kind of turned around and put my head down and walked to class because I really felt that there was nothing else that I could do. But throughout that high school experience I went to that high school for two years and then I moved and I was in another high school. Every single day, unless my mom who was a substitute teacher at the school for two of those years was substituting that day, I ate lunch alone like no one would sit and eat with me. I didn't have any friends and people would say nasty things to me. And the interesting thing is even as a kid, who was legally blind I was still on the dance team so I was not a kid that was not involved in school which oftentimes what people consider to be the typical quote unquote target of bullying is that loner kid. I was involved always in dance. I danced from the time that I was in elementary school all the way through college. I was highly involved in art as well and did a lot of art competitions but still was experiencing a lot of bullying and so that was the most impactful experience for me and I always remember you know I was although I was in a lot of pain I didn't want them to see me crying but the other part that always is impactful for me is that hurt so bad but I still went home and I didn't tell my mom or my dad about it because I didn't want them to go to school and make things worse so my mom was really angry because she didn't even recognize I was having any problems until you know the lump developed in the back of my head and I was starting to get nervous about you know what does this mean and I and then I told her out of necessity that you know I'd hit my head but I still didn't tell her that it was a bullying experience until years and years later because she was so vocal. She was the type of mom that would probably go into the school and flip tables and everything else and I was just like this and she was a substitute and also very close to the principal and so I didn't want to make it worse for me so I think oftentimes when parents think oh there's no way if my kid is going through that they won't tell me, I think I'm one of those examples of some of the worst experiences your kids will keep to themselves.
Cheraine Stanford - Can you just describe to us some of the challenges that you've dealt with in terms of disability and the impact that that had as you were going through school?
Seria Chatters – Absolutely. Well, I was legally blind from birth and you know due to my albinism. So I am an African-American albino and a part of that is having colorless retinas. So I'm also very light sensitive, sensitive to the sun as well. And so all the way through school my parents learned very early on that I was going to have visual issues and took me to the eye doctor so I was able to get glasses very early and I always want to stress that although I had these issues with disability in school, my mom was a fierce advocate in school and I think that that's important because oftentimes people equate kids having issues with parents being uninvolved and when a parent is not getting the support from the school, it doesn't matter how involved they are, how difficult it could be. So my father was in the military and so we moved around a lot and so that meant that every new school my mom was having to engage a new set of teachers and a new administrator into this IEP process and …
Cheraine Stanford - Can you explain what an IEP is?
Seria Chatters - The IEP is the Individual Education Plan which is a process for children who are assessed as having disabilities. The school puts this individual education plan in place in order to ensure the child is getting accommodations in the classroom. So for me the accommodations would be like enlarged textbooks. Potentially having someone going from class to class with me to take notes because back in that time teachers were still using transparencies and different things like that and I couldn’t see what was being put up there so having someone take notes in class for me and some other things that they did is they thought at one point that I may be totally blind so they taught me Braille. I was trained in using a cane. I would be taken out of school sometimes and I'd be blindfolded and asked to navigate spaces without sight. Different things like that so all of those things were accommodations within my individual education plan and so but those individual education plans are typically very state centric So if you're moving from one state to the next, the types of accommodations that may be offered, the type of even education that the school has around kids with disabilities, private schools are legally not required to adhere to IEPs and charter schools for example, they can say that they cannot accommodate a child and tell the child they need to go to public school and then also I lived overseas as well and although our Department of Defense schools which are schools for kids in the military they are required to go by the same guidelines, the adherence to it can vary. So I have been in classes where teachers have refused to give me the notes that I needed, they have refused to give me things ahead of time in order for me to be able to participate in class when I was in high school as I said I was in art, that teacher would take pictures for example of stills that we were required to draw and enlarge them on the wall so that I could actually see it and draw it and because of that I entered an international art competition and I was a silver medalist in art. I moved to Nebraska and that teacher refused to give me any accommodations and said that she felt that accommodations were cheating and so basically told my mom that as long as she left me in art she was going to fail me so I actually when I was a sophomore and wanted to go to Parsons School of Art and Design and become an artist but after that I lost my love for art and even though my mom tried to engage me outside of school, I mean I just didn't, it was like a fight with that teacher for months and I just lost the love for it and decided not to do it anymore so there was a lot of back and forth. I had some really wonderful teachers on and I always remember my art teacher in Germany. His name was Mr. Plattus who accommodated me and just really fostered my love for art and creativity and then I had some really you know not so good teachers but I think that that what I always like to impart to people is that sometimes when you hear someone say ‘oh there's no way that teacher would do that’ or ‘there's no way that teacher would act that way’, that people are human and so just like you have you know a variety of different people some people are really really strong advocates for race relations for example but not really big when it comes to disability and it's important to understand that we're all people and so you know there's no telling what a person could and could not be doing when it comes to students.
Cheraine Stanford-If you're just joining us this is Take Note on WPSU. I'm Cheraine Stanford. Our guest is Seria Chatters, Director of Diversity and Inclusivity for the State College Area School District.
Cheraine Stanford - You have children of your own now. What lessons have you shared with them that you've learned?
Seria Chatters - Well the interesting thing about kids is they could be around you like my kids, I have two boys and a girl and my boys are in middle school my daughter's in preschool and my boys, I have been taking them with me a lot more when I do talks and letting them sit in the audience and I've shared-- at one point they were like ‘Mommy I didn't know that you were an albino, what's that?’ and so the interesting thing is that I talk about these things all the time around them but how much they really engage you know in what you're saying is interesting so I've taught them a lot about bullying prevention, I've taught them a lot about speaking up for others like they'll come home and tell me something is going on at school and I really sit down with them and I'll say ‘So what do you want to do now that you’ve recognized that? What do you want to do about it?’ and you know and I'll say to them ‘You don't have to do anything about it’ but they're like ‘well you're my mom so I kind of have to do something about it’ and I’m like ‘no you don't have to’ but I really encourage you to think about what would you like to do.’ My son mentioned something a couple of weeks ago about his hair and how he really did not like people touching his hair. He has a mohawk and you know we talked about micro aggressions and how micro aggressions being these many micro insults of individuals kind of making an individual or a child feel like they’re other and oftentimes people think that it's a compliment like oh you know you changed your hair today but for a child who's getting that from their peers and from their teachers how it can be like these little paper cuts of making them feel like they don't belong and so I said to him I said well you know ‘how does that make you feel?’ and we talked it out and he said “I just hate it I hate it! I said so you know like I said I would say to him ‘so what do you want to do about that?’ and he said well ‘I don't know I just would like to tell people’ you know and I said ‘Why don’t you think about doing a presentation?’ so he's putting together a presentation on micro aggressions that he wants to do at school so I really am working with my kids to advocate for themselves but also to be advocates for others. I always wish that I had an advocate in the school if-- I had a peer one year my eighth grade year where we had moved and I had went to four different schools my eighth grade year and our last move in Germany I met a student there and she met me my first day. She took me around the whole first week. She and I became really good friends and then it was a military school so she ended up moving probably about five or six months into the school year. But I always remember her and I remember her name and I remember how that made me feel as a new kid to have this kid with me, she introduced me to her friends, when people would try to make fun of me she stood up for me and I would really like more kids to have that experience but it came from my peer and not from my parent and so that's why I take this job very seriously in trying to get some peer advocates in our schools because sometimes you don't want your parent to be the one standing up for you because sometimes it can make it worse. It would be so nice if it came you know from someone in class with you so I'm trying to train my kids to become those kinds of kids as well.
Cheraine Stanford - And you touched on this a little bit but I did want to make a point because you said that you were involved. I mean as much as you were you know legally blind and dealing with these other things you were involved you did some modeling, you also are a singer from what I understand. And so what gave you the courage despite having these issues in school to still participate and do all these other things?
Seria Chatters - I mean my mom was always the kind of mom that I don't really feel that she ever treated us like we had a disability …
Cheraine Stanford - And you're saying we because your brother also …
Seria Chatters - Yes, my brother also is albino. My mom had four kids and two of us had albinism and she never treated us like we had a disability. She would say to us ‘try it’. When we say we want to do something like ‘Well, you know I don't think I could see’ she would say ‘try it’. She let us dream and I think that that's one of the things that really helped me but in addition to her helping us dream she supported us. She was always and still is driving us anywhere we needed to go. She always told us as long as we were you know getting our academics and also making sure that we were being involved she didn't care she had to get us to practice at 5 o'clock in the morning which was the time for our practice for drill team she got up and she took us and she always was a fierce supporter of ours and so I think that because of that you know she ended up having two kids that were visually impaired both of us have Ph Ds and you know my sister is a nurse and my younger brother is a captain in the Air Force and you know she really supported all of her kids and I think that that's really what helped us to dream and hope to become you know bigger and better things.
Cheraine Stanford - And I mean now you're in a position where you're supposed to be helping the school district become a place that hopefully no student would have some of the experiences that you did. The district’s school climate policy has some lofty goals I think, calling for every school community member to be treated with dignity, have the opportunity to learn, work, interact, and socialize in physically, emotionally and intellectually safe, respectful and positive school environments. Is that possible?
Seria Chatters - I think that is a goal that as a director of diversity and as a district that we should always strive for. I think that earlier today I was having a conversation with someone and they said that sometimes you have to separate professional goals from personal goals, right? So when we talk about for example conversations about race would we like everyone to either be focusing on anti-racism work or an anti-bias or not biased at all? Yes, we would like that. Is that realistic in the society that we live in? Absolutely not. However what goal can we aim for? What we can aim for is we can ensure that we as a district are putting professional goals in place. What we are saying is when you come to State College Area School District and you are serving State College Area School District students, they deserve an environment that is respectful, that accepts them and provides them opportunities to see individuals who are like themselves in their curriculum and around them so that means that they have to be able to see themselves in what they engage with on a day to day basis and you as a teacher need to be able to teach that in a professional manner.
Cheraine Stanford – You’ve dealt with a lot of challenges some of the bullying experiences that we didn't even get to talk about, you should never have experienced, no child should. But that's also led to where you are in life. What are your thoughts about that?
Seria Chatters - I always say that I am where I am in spite of not because of. Because I believe that I really believe that the home environment that I came from, my mom my dad, my dad also, I haven't spoken much about him but my dad was a big advocate in my life as well but my mom was the one that was a stay at home mom and was always involved in the schools more than my dad. Both of them were always advocates for people of color, people with disabilities, very strong advocates within the community and I saw that as my role models and so I really don't feel that even if I had not had those bullying experiences that I would have come out the other side with not being an advocate of some kind. I think that this whole notion because you do hear it a lot to where saying bullying is a rite of passage, right? That it's just something that we're never going to be able to that people cannot live life or advance without. I always say that if approximately 20 to 25 percent of our students our youth express having bullying experiences and then we'll say between 75 to 80 percent expressed they have not, how did those other 75 to 80 percent of people make it through life without those bullying experiences if it was required? So I don't see it as being something that is required and we know that individuals like African-American students, Latino students, Asian students, students with disabilities, LGBT students, they experience bullying at a higher rate than your white, Christian, heterosexual, student and we could even put the other part of privilege out there-- male student. So if there are individuals who can advance and move through their educational process without experiencing bullying and they are successful and some of them become advocates I think that we need to give everybody else that opportunity to make it there as well without these bullying experiences. So that is a real passion area of mine. It was my area of research when I was an Assistant Professor and it's a passion area of mine now is reducing bullying with a specific focus on bias-based bullying. So I think that it's possible to get there without those experiences and I think that we need to give every student that chance.
Cheraine Stanford - And then what are your hopes overall for your position and more importantly the impact that you hope to have on the individuals, the students, the teachers, the paraprofessionals, the administrators? What's the impact you hope to have?
Seria Chatters – Oh, that's a huge question. That is a huge question. I will tell you that when I really feel that I will know that I'm starting to have an impact is when students are telling me that their experiences are different. I care about teachers and I care about administrators and parents but I think that who we are all coming to the table for are students and that's who we are all rallying around to ensure that their experiences are for example not as traumatic as their parents and I think that that is what we are moving toward. So when I hear and I have heard some things from students here and there that have told me that they're glad that I'm here which I'm happy to hear that but what I would like to hear is I'd like to hear a student say you know my teacher said this and then they corrected themselves and I really was happy to hear that or I had this conversation in my class that I never thought I would have in my class about race or you know before this may have happened but now this is happening or I'm a student that I identify as transgender and it was really easy for me to get all of my teachers to call me by my preferred name and use my preferred pronouns. That's the impact. I would like to have an impact where I am seeing students day to day those students that we are all here for stepping up and saying that their lives are easier that they are learning a lot more about themselves as individuals and also about their peers and that they feel that our environment is not only saying that it's safe and supportive but it is safe and supportive and I really would like you know how I know I would have made an impact is that also administrators and teachers would be coming to the table and wanting to do this because they see what the overall impact of it is and not feeling that it is something that they have to do. It's something that they get to do. We get to be this type of district and so that is my hope that we get there and I always say, I always couch everything and say I know it's rainbows and butterflies and unicorns… but it really comes down to that kid sitting in that desk that's coming to school every day, that kid who was always tardy who's now coming to school on time because he gets to come to school not he or she has to come to school so that's the impact that I hope that I leave and I just don't ever want anyone to have some of the experiences I had. I would like them to have the experience I had with that art teacher to where he opened up a world for me and I think that's our job as educators is to bring the world to our students so that they can then impact the world.
Cheraine Stanford - Seria thank you so much for being with us today.
Seria Chatters - Thank you. Thank you so much, Cheraine. I really appreciate the time.
Cheraine Stanford - Seria Chatters is the first ever Director of Diversity and Inclusivity for the State College Area School District. She draws from both her personal and professional experiences to inform her work. Before taking this position she was an Assistant Professor in Penn State's Department of Educational Psychology, Counseling and Special Education. Hear more Take Note interviews on our website at wpsu.org/takenote. I'm Cheraine Stanford, WPSU.