The power of one: Portage’s first DEI Coordinator Chris Harris strives for inclusivity
March 17, 2021
Chris Harris has been teaching young-5 students for nearly two years. This school year, however, presented many new obstacles for Harris, who was tasked with the instrumental role of guiding the youngest Portage students into the public school system in an entirely virtual classroom. His days were spent maintaining and capturing the focus of his students, alongside quarantine life with his wife and three daughters. His children have been in Portage for four years, during which time Harris and his wife had made it a priority to educate and empower them, embracing their Black excellence in a predominantly white community.
Without knowing it, his efforts to embrace diversity and inclusion with his daughters were about to be taken to the next level.
In January, Harris began his tenure as the first ever Diversity Equity Inclusion (DEI) Coordinator in Portage Public Schools. This would bring a whole new set of challenges, especially considering Portage’s recent history of insensitive incidents within the community.
“Being black in America, it’s kind of embedded in you to be leery about this type of work, pushing for change, pushing for equality or pushing for equity. I know what they’re gonna say, there’s a black man with dreads on the cover of the Portage little pamphlet thing,” Harris said. “I know that this work is important, but I’m not doing this for them. I’m doing it for the migrant family that literally just moved here from El Salvador. It’s coming. I get it. And it’ll be tough when it’s here, for me and my wife and our kids. But this is important work. People have done much more with much more pushback.”
Experiencing educational inequity
Harris’ compassion for education started young, and he is consciously aware that support needs to start early: “I know the value of education and how transformative that can be. I have people who have supported me, through my education and through my career. And also see what can happen if people don’t receive that same level of support in terms of their academic career,” he said.
Growing up in Grand Rapids, Harris was bright and felt represented in his community, but when he switched to a new and advanced magnet school, things changed. “I go from this all black school where I was one of the highest performing, thrown into the situation where there are 100 seventh grade kids and like, eight of us are black,” he shared. “That was my first time being the first the only black kid in the room. Then you start to internalize it. I wonder if they know that I’m the only black kid here. I wonder if that Asian kid feels the same way. I wonder if that girl with the hijab feels the same way that I do.”
This feeling stuck with Harris as he began to comprehend the disparity harbored in education at a young age. He didn’t realize at the time that his feelings mattered, that like any student, he deserved to feel seen and represented.
Harris graduated from East Kentwood High School, and upon beginning his studies at the University of Michigan, he hoped his matured peers would be different at this level. “I got to Michigan, one of the best places in the world is Michigan is great. There was a lot of stuff going around campus however, including blackface at frat meetings, and you kind of realize that, then it becomes more concrete for you, as (college students) you’re old enough to kind of like, verbalize and understand the history and the conflicts of all the stuff that’s going on,” he said.
Out of these experiences of disparity and discomfort, Harris knew he wanted to make a change to combat injustice. Harris explained, “I fell in love with the idea of youth service, probably in undergrad, whether that be working with a leadership conference for high school kids, or working with the local high school program for civic engagement and leadership development. It was just like, something clicked, something’s made, and it fits your personality. And it fits your lifestyle, and it fits your own story.”
After college, Harris would live all around the country navigating life as an educator. He knew from the beginning that his purpose was not just important, but necessary. He made the choice to pick schools like the ones he encountered growing up, where his teaching could be empowering and an image of hope for students of color: “I was having a long commute to the areas that I wanted to work in, I wanted to work, because, I knew that those kids needed me and I needed them. Like it was a dual relationship, I felt like I could really provide a level of insight as being a man who’s conscious of both of these identities.”
Through his teaching and the growing of his family, Harris would refine and feel completely in touch with his focus and overarching purpose as an educator. “Over time, as we’ve had our daughters, as we move around the country, being an educator, I work with different groups of people. And becoming more of a passion, in terms of like, we need to make sure that these people are supported and welcomed, and loved and championed, and that they have somebody who’s genuinely standing up for them,” he explained. “Everyone should feel loved, welcome, accepted and encouraged.”
When first moving to Portage from Nashville with his family, he hadn’t intended to teach in Portage. He first thought his purpose was working in KPS, aligning with his goals and mission as an educator. He knew that all students needed aid and proper guidance, but also understood that students of color in historically redlined white flight communities needed it most. “I am going to drive 25 minutes up the street and go work for KPS on the northeast side at Northeastern elementary school,” he said. “You know, like, once again, the demographics are starkly in opposition to Portage’s. But that’s where I wanted to teach.”
From teacher to district leader
As an educator and a parent, Harris had a unique and pivotal perspective with the announcement of Portage’s new DEI position last fall. “Being a parent first then coming into the district as a teacher gave me a little bit of insight as well as just experience with how our daughters as women of color navigate this school district. When I first saw the position I was surprised by the district’s decision to make this decision to make this stance for this type of work,” he said.
As a father of children in Portage, a black man, and a teacher who came to education in what he described as an “unconventional yet very intentional” way, Harris had some immediate thoughts. “There is always a little bit of wondering in terms of like ‘do they really mean to commit to this type of work?’ I think that is kind of the PC culture whether it be corporate or education,” he explained. “Standing for diversity, equity, and inclusion, and ableism, and culture for all this stuff. I was curious enough to believe that this position could actually work.”
Once he had faith in the position and the work behind it, he knew had to contribute and apply. The application process strengthened his belief that the work was possible and the district’s intent was true. “I can see that they are down for this. They need this work, they really want to transform the culture and community that is Portage,” he shared. “That is not to say this is a bad community, they want to be progressive, they want to push and definitely change student lives as we kind of venture on this type of work. I’m extremely surprised, I’m extremely motivated, I’m extremely humbled, and I’m extremely supported as well as we start to go on this journey.”
That’s not to say that the decision to leave the classroom was easy. “ It was bittersweet because I knew I was going to have to leave my kids.That was the biggest decision for me, what was this going to look like for my young five group,” said Harris. “This was literally their first experience with school. Having a young five child of my own, I know what she feels about school and how she interacts with her classmates. I was lucky enough to create some really special relationships. It was a no brainer. I’ve done this work before, I feel confident in knowing I can continue to build relationships with not only staff members but also students and families like we can get this work done.”
Beginning the work
Harris first interacted with the students in his new role when speaking with the Superintendent Student Advisory Board. “Do you think this can work?” he asked the group, and he spent the hour listening to them talk about their experiences with diversity in Portage. While most were optimistic and hopeful, one student couldn’t deny their troubling experiences with the real world. Senior SSAB member Khadijah Siddiqui recounted the moment: “Mr. Harris asked if students believed his plan could work, and I felt like I should say yes, but something inside made me hesitate,” she said. “I am usually a positive and optimistic person, so I was startled by my hesitation and tried to work through why I felt this way.”
Siddiqui’s initial fear is rooted in the world around her and how society has treated women like her who celebrate their culture and hijab. “The fact of the matter is that these battles of equity, diversity, and inclusion are currently being fought at prestigious universities and at workplaces,” she said. “I know that my parents and many other adults currently face microaggressions and are not given well-deserved opportunities in their workplace even after years of education.”
While she wanted to be optimistic, the truth of the real adult world ahead left her uncharacteristically concerned. In the conversation that followed, many within the meeting realized people are quick to assume that change is possible without considering the real world circumstances. “I was thinking that if changes are not being made at these universities or for highly educated professionals, then what chance does a majority white, small-town public school have. It felt naive and overly optimistic,” she said.
As the meeting progressed, Siddiqui became increasingly optimistic that Harris’ work was possible in Portage. The turning point? He not only recognized that she wore hijab, he also pronounced it correctly and without hesitation. “The reason I felt hope was because I realized that just having someone properly address my headscarf brought a smile to my face,” she said. “If just a little bit of education enlightens students at Portage Schools, it could make for a more inclusive and understanding group of individuals. I was so focused on the bigger problem, but was thinking maybe these small steps of celebrating each other’s cultures and religions are what we need to start with.” Siddiqui now had hope that more adults and leaders in the community can recognize and embrace more cultures.
A family affair
When Harris and his wife chose Portage PS for their own children, they knew that they had to do whatever they could to maintain the celebration of black culture and black excellence at home. “I think sometimes being a person of color in a marginalized community, in a place where you are the minority, it can do something to you. You don’t have access to your own culture outside of your immediate circle. Our home is the only place where our daughters get black culture, they don’t get it at 12th Street, they don’t get it at West,” Harris explained. “And that was difficult for us. You know, that was hard for us. Although they should be able to make their own decisions, we want them to innately be themselves and be who they are unapologetically.”
One of Harris’ biggest supporters in his new role is his daughter Kailah Gaines, a seventh grader at West Middle. “His position means A LOT to me. He’s always wanted to do something like this, and so now that he gets the chance, I’m extremely proud of him,” she said, sharing her excitement for his work. “Also, as much as Portage Public Schools are amazing, there are some things that need to be done in the diversity, equity, and inclusion fields, and my dad won’t stop his hard work until it’s done.”
Gaines knows firsthand the impact and importance of his efforts. “As a Black student, I have experienced minor racism and / or microaggressions. Sometimes other students or even teachers make slightly racist comments but don’t even know it. It does make me feel like I do not belong in such a highly white community,” she said. “I come home every day to my awesome family and they remind me that us black people will always have to deal with racism, but it will get better.” She also realizes that the Black community is not alone in their experience.
“Blacks, Asians, Hispanics, Indians, Muslims, and even people of the LGBTQ+ community get looked at differently, talked to differently, taught differently,” she observed. “But, I think of it as we are all the same, even if we have different skin tones, ways of life, or beliefs. And that is what I want everyone in Portage Public Schools to see. . . we will all get through this together. It may take a little while, but once it happens, it will be one of the biggest accomplishments that Portage has had in a long time.”
Harris knows that the work ahead is nuanced, complicated, and deeply important. He understands the setbacks, but remains confident in his abilities nonetheless.“This is the country that we live in, it’s important for anyone who wants to dive into social issues, or anyone who wants to be alive,” he said. “You have to think about three things, you have to think about history, have to think about where we are right now, and you have to think about where you want to go.”
Looking forward, he is grounded with the knowledge that is bigger than just him, and that the district has a lot of work to do in order to create a learning environment that has students at the center and is inclusive for all. “In order to do that, you need to ask people questions, you have to let them talk about themselves and their experiences good, bad, the ugly, they got to give it to you. And that that is that is the only way that I can start this ball,” said Harris. “The intent is for us to get feedback and understand as a district, where we’ve dropped the ball. How often have we dropped the ball? You know, other hotspots? And how can we actively move forward. I think a lot of that is just giving people a chance to talk.”
Harris is making the most of the time he has left in the school year. He started with a listening tour, where he spent a virtual evening with students and families and every single one of the district’s schools. He also met with middle school and high school diversity clubs. “I’m glad that PPS hired Mr. Harris as the DEI coordinator,” said PNHS Empowered Club senior Jamillah Clark after she met Mr. Harris in their club meeting on March 5. “He is obviously dedicated to making a change for students of color, with disabilities, the LGBTQ+ community, and more. I’m very excited to see what he does in the future.”
Harris is also helping schools celebrate national diversity-themed months. He explained that he thinks celebrating all of these months is deeply important to establish joy and celebrate those that aren’t often included within the district. “I really want to do it and I know that there’s going to be a lot of pushback, and make sure that I’m ready for that fight. As parents and community members may have something to say about us celebrating or pushing pride in some of those schools,” he said. “I think that’s something that we still need. You know, many kids in high school are LGBTQ non-conforming. You can’t just ignore them. You can’t skate over this and assume that everything’s gonna be hush hush, and everything’s chill, like, no, that’s not how this works.” In addition to the monthly recognitions, Harris is also currently helping prepare teaching staff to support students during Ramadan.
Harris has had a long and intricate path to reach where he is today, and all along, one thing has kept him grounded: he always tries to maintain an open minded perspective that embraces change and growth. “Moving into this role, committing to diversity, equity and inclusion. You have to be selfless enough to put other people first, like this position isn’t about me,” he said. “It’s not about what I want, it’s not about Superintendent Bielang. It’s about making sure that other people feel loved and welcomed, and just as supported as everybody else.”