When I started this blog in 2017, I didn’t really know anyone. I had migrated over to school diversity from related, though distinct, topics in education policy and was only beginning my career anyway. A few weeks after my first post, I got a twitter DM from someone who wanted to talk. It was the first time anyone from the school integration movement had reached out. Of course, it was Courtney.
It also was the beginning of a friendship that – despite the fact that we never met in person – was deeply influential for me and ended far, far too early. Courtney Everts Mykytyn passed last week after a nonsensically random series of minor events led to an awful car accident. Among other places, it’s been reported in the Washington Post, on Diane Ravitch’s blog and announced in a short, heartfelt podcast by Integrated Schools, the organization that Courtney founded. (If you haven’t, I recommend listening to that.) Rep. Bobby Scott even entered a tribute to Courtney in the official Congressional Record, saying in part: “I challenge this body to honor Courtney’s legacy in the months and years to come by taking the necessary actions to support and advance school integration.” Like so many others, I’ve felt gutted since her loss. As part of my own grieving process, this is my attempt to make some sense of an incomprehensible loss and what it means to move forward now.
When Courtney and I talked in March 2017, it couldn’t have been a better time for me to meet her. It’s hard to admit this now, but it took the 2016 election for me to appreciate the real depth of white supremacy in this country. At the same time, I was finding my footing as a new father, my daughter having been born that October. Starting from that call, Courtney’s friendship had a major impact on how I navigated these big changes.
For those who aren’t familiar, Integrated Schools has a mission that’s both straightforward and bold: they organize white parents to choose integrated/integrating schools for their children. This video gives a great short overview. There are about 20 chapters across the country led by parent volunteers who facilitate conversations about school integration in their home districts. The organization is developing a workbook for how white parents in schools/communities of color can be partners and not colonizers in their new schools, and it holds workshops and parent meetups around the country. Integrated Schools also has an extremely popular podcast (>70K downloads), an online book club, among other projects.
In more than a few ways, the mission of Integrated Schools is so smartly tailored to the current context for school integration. Especially since the late 90’s, large numbers of school districts have been released from court orders that required specific policies/practices for school desegregation. During the same time period, school choice has become a much more prevalent part of the educational landscape, both via charter schools and policies that allow parents to choose among traditional public schools in their district, regardless of their attendance zones. Given these political realities, the success of contemporary school integration depends largely on parents using voluntary choice for the purpose of integration. That’s the relatively straightforward part.
The bold part is that this mission runs counter to the prevailing trends across virtually all of American educational history, in which white families have ruthlessly resisted even modest efforts at school desegregation.
To be sure, there are other organizations with similar missions across the country (see, for example, groups in Richmond, Denver and Wake County, NC) and white support for school integration has always existed, despite what you’d assume from popular media coverage. Nonetheless, in the contemporary landscape, Integrated Schools is a leading, powerful voice.
In particular, Integrated Schools is rightfully bold in the way it talks about the moral imperative on white people, given our resistance to integration historically and currently. Courtney was powerfully clear on this: “We’re the ones who kind of made it all fail. Really fixing it has to be on us.” When white people disassociate with the history of violence and plunder in our past, we can so easily replicate racist policy. As a white person, I feel more confident making this argument in my writing and personal conversations largely because of the path laid out by Integrated Schools.
Key to its mission, Integrated Schools simultaneously recognizes the moral imperative on white people and the importance of de-centering whiteness. It’s obviously an enormously difficult thing to balance. This podcast episode is a great example, though this is something that Integrated Schools strives for in all its work. The workbook project mentioned above is also a key part of this effort: based on conversations with parent volunteers across the country, teams are drafting a guide about how white parents can enter integrated/integrating schools without taking over or dominating the families who were there before they arrived.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that I think about what it means to de-center whiteness just about every day in my research, writing, parenting, personal interactions etc. Like many major concepts/beliefs that undergird racial justice work, Courtney was brave in leading public conversations on this, even as she was openly working out what it meant for her. Her courage has made it possible for so many others to continue the conversation and related advocacy.
There’s actually a lot more- the organization’s emphasis on integration as distinct from desegregation is a big one, for example. But, if I listed everything I learned from Courtney/Integrated Schools, this post would be impossibly long. And, if I’m being honest, analysis of the organization is a nice but only temporary distraction from the sadness of Courtney’s loss.
Over the years since that first call, Courtney and I talked regularly and worked together on various side projects. At one point, we posted news roundups on each other’s blogs, alternating the weeks that each one of us would cover. After the white supremacist tiki-torch rally in Charlottesville, I emailed Courtney to process things. I always felt safe fumbling through my developing understanding of being a white parent in a racist society or figuring out how to orient my work towards racial justice. And, Charlottesville was one of those moments. I had lots of those kinds of conversations with Courtney. I know many others did (and more often than me)- I have no idea how she found the time or the emotional energy. Those conversations seemed to give her energy, even.
As the Integrated Schools podcast took off, I was thrilled the world (and really, the world) got to hear her voice. We continued to work together when possible. On meetings sometimes, she’d make fun of me for something like growing my beard too long. We were both members of a communications sub-group through the National Coalition on School Diversity and we were considering writing an article together – she had emailed me about that the day before her accident.
Courtney’s warmth was just so genuine. Nearly all of the people that I’ve met in education have deeply personal reasons for coming to this work. For some people (myself included) those reasons can sometimes operate in the background. Courtney was the opposite. Personal connection and “the work” were inextricably linked, because of course they are. This line, from a recent email, was typical Courtney: “really happy that we are working together in these little ways to do this work. just glad to be in it with you!”
My friendship with Courtney, and the little projects we did, helped connect me to a world I knew very little about when I started the blog and shaped my developing understanding of living and working in a racist society. And, I wasn’t at all unique in this. There are so many others who hadn’t met her in person, but who nonetheless found similar meaning in their relationships with her. I knew this at the time, but it’s been all the more apparent in the days since she passed. This article, for example, published by someone who I had not met or interacted with in any way, basically sums up the depiction of Courtney that I have been trying to muster in my memory/writing about her:
“She was direct and funny and self-deprecating and curious. She neither puffed herself nor her work up, which only made me want to get more actively involved. No matter what city I named, she had a list of people with whom she could connect me. She challenged me directly at multiple moments— every single prod was helpful.”
I hope that these kinds of testimonies can come together in a way that continues the good that she set in motion in this world. Courtney was a true organizer, who believed that social change happens one conversation at a time. The only way this tragedy can be even more tragic is if we stop.
Courtney and I ended that first call dreaming of finding some source of funding that would enable us to work together over the long term. We said we’d meet in person then and raise a glass together. I very honestly believed that would happen. In addition to the obvious and crushing sadness for her family and close friends, when I heard of her passing, I immediately became sick realizing that we’d never meet at all and thinking about what the school integration movement has lost. Since then, that feeling hasn’t gone away, but it’s been joined by others- awe for what she inspired in me and for the network of people that she created to continue working for racial justice in education.
And, somehow it will continue. Yesterday, after working on drafts of this post, I finished reading “How to be an antiracist.” The very end reminded me, of course, of Courtney: “Once we lose hope, we are guaranteed to lose. But, if we ignore the odds and fight to create an antiracist world, then we give humanity a chance to one day survive.” Because of Courtney and the organization she started, many many more people have been moved not only to enter the fight themselves but to pass that along to the next generation.