Nonprofit TIDE works to remove barriers for kids in Petaluma

Perhaps you’ve heard the saying that a rising tide lifts all boats.

In Petaluma, a TIDE is working to lift people of every creed and color, promoting social and racial justice in the south county community and, soon, beyond.

In this case, TIDE stands for Team for Inclusivity, Diversity and Equity. It represents a grassroots nonprofit that works with youth, communities, and schools to ensure that people — especially young people — are treated inclusively, fairly and with dignity.

According to co-founder Sarah Seitchik Sebastian, the group has established programs at six public schools in Petaluma, and aims over the next few years to grow across Petaluma and the county as a whole. She added that particularly after a year that has seen issues of social and racial justice thrust into the national spotlight, an expanded focus on equity is more visible in the mainstream and impossible for people to ignore anymore.

“We can only move at the speed of trust,” said Seitchik Sebastian. “It’s a marathon, but the more of this work we do, the more listening we show we’re committed to doing, the more we facilitate the kinds of conversations that lead to change, the more people can move forward together in solidarity. These conversations and deep growth can lead to greater representation of the people in our community in the decision-making processes that affect our systems, which will bring about equality through the process of equity.”

Humble beginnings

TIDE began out of empathy. In February 2019, after hearing stories of racism and discrimination from high school students and community members who described the challenges they faced going to school and living in Petaluma, 17 community members from nine different schools got together to form the group.

Gradually, the gang of 17 grew and branched out into smaller “affinity groups” at individual schools. These smaller organizations began working within each school community to help foster conversations between educators, school officials, parents and students.

As Seitchik Sebastian explained it, these conversations are designed to lead to greater understanding and acceptance of differences.

Chelsea Tran, a TIDE volunteer who prefers to go by the name Tran and uses they/them pronouns, agreed. Tran was a member of TIDE’s founding team, and stays on top of issues in the Old Adobe Union School District by communicating with constituents, coordinating with other social justice groups and attending school board meetings.

“We can’t change the past, but if we don’t do something now about the future, we’re complicit in perpetuating these inequities,” Tran said.

Between August 2019 and February 2020 TIDE hosted six community trainings that were free to teachers and school staff. More than 170 participants attended, including teachers and administrators, from 15 different schools and six different school districts. Topics included: building equity literacy, navigating dissent, intersectional allied behavior and dismantling white privilege.

Since then the organization has gone virtual, continuing trainings and other coalition-building activities on Zoom.

Last fall, the group raised $12,000 to provide child care during distance learning for working families. TIDE also received a $10,000 grant from the Sonoma Vintners Foundation to advance equity in education.

Over the years TIDE has engaged in activism, in some cases engineering real policy change.

The organization was part of a push to ensure that Petaluma City School librarians have two half-day professional development days.

It also launched “Listening Lunches” in Petaluma City Schools to discuss specific matters related to inclusivity, diversity and equity with teachers, administrators, staff, parents and community stakeholders.

“TIDE is a wonderful example of how community and schools can work together to provide a wraparound supportive environment for all our children, but especially those who are minorities of any kind,” said Sheldon Gen, a board member with Petaluma City Schools. “By doing so, we can eliminate the opportunity and achievement gaps that continue to plague public education.”

Anatomy of a training

Perhaps more than anything else, TIDE trainings have become critical points of connection with the community.

Some of these trainings are only open to school employees, though most are open to the public at large. Many of the workshops are run by social justice experts who help participants come to terms with their own privilege and understand how to be more open minded to differences.

One of the regular leaders: San Rafael consultant Tarah Fleming.

Fleming described the trainings she runs for TIDE as “anti-racist,” and said during the two-hour sessions she tries to raise awareness of how our nation’s system of white privilege plays itself out in the day-to-day life of the Bay Area. She noted that while some may bristle at the notion of a white woman leading these groups, she tries to focus on the process of understanding privilege and being sensitive to it.

“I am developing a framework of what I like to call allied behavior,” said Fleming, whose business is officially named Start Dialog. “A lot of the work is me modeling what it means to be conscientious of that and being sensitive to others. If I can do it, you can do it.”

So far, TIDE has capped participation in Fleming’s workshops at 25. She was scheduled to deliver a three-session round of workshops starting April 18, and classes were filling up quickly.

Tran said these sessions are powerful because they inspire people to think more deeply about how they can become better versions of themselves. Ani Larson, principal at McKinley Elementary School near the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds, agreed.

Larson participated in one of Fleming’s recent workshops, and she said learning about how she can promote equity and inclusivity on campus already has made a difference at the school.

“This series of workshops fully funded by TIDE so that educators could attend was an eye-opener in the sense that I thought I knew a lot about equity and diversity, but realized that this work is ongoing and we never can take a minute to think we know it all,” Larson wrote in a recent email. “Doing the work makes you aware of the issues. It heightens awareness. It has made me a better leader.”

What’s next

TIDE has grown steadily since its inception and looks to expand its reach over the next few years.

In the immediate future, this means branching out with new chapters into more of the public schools in Petaluma proper. Down the road, Seitchik Sebastian said it likely will mean expanding into other communities as well — already TIDE has fielded interest from several Sonoma County cities.

Also on the horizon: Expanding the coalition. Currently TIDE works closely with several other organizations across the county. Some of these partner groups include Northbay LGBTQ Families, Petaluma Blacks for Community Development, Equity in Education Initiative, Save Your VI, Petaluma People Services, St. Joseph's Community Investment Department and Amor Para Todos, to name a few. Seitchik Sebastian said the organization will seek to strengthen these alliances and forge new ones in the months and years ahead.

Finally, TIDE will continue to expand the way it approaches equity and justice. Maytte Bustillos, an advisory board member and local educator, said the organization recently has created a subgroup to rethink how to create an organizational structure without hierarchy, bias, or connection to capitalism in any way.

She added that this approach undeniably will empower those who previously have been marginalized.

“We’re always looking to dig deeper,” she said. “We seek to create a space where all the barriers to entry have been changed.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct one instance in which Chelsea Tran’s last name was misspelled.

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