Sonoma State University talk focuses on educational needs, inequities of Sonoma County’s Black youth

The discussion centered on how to make sure Black students get what they need to thrive in school.|

On an otherwise quiet Sonoma State University campus, a group of people, almost all of whom were Black, came together Saturday in Rohnert Park for a discussion that focused on Black youth and how to make sure they get what they need to thrive in school.

“When we look at education, there’s a lot of disparities,” said Joanna Paun, a Petaluma City Schools board member. “But the one that stood out most to me was that even though Black students in our county and in our district are only 1% of the students, they make up 7.7% of suspensions and they are behind in every category.”

Paun, as did many of the others who spoke at the event, urged parents to be involved in making sure their children were getting an equal and good education. She suggested parents use, as a tool, the state-mandated School Accountability Report Cards found on school or school district websites.

"I just encourage everyone just to ask the questions, to actually do the research and look at the data,“ said Paun, who was one of about 30 people who attended the discussion.

The event, billed as a community town hall to create a “welcoming space for discussion between Black students, staff and faculty, as well Black community members in Sonoma County,“ was produced by the university’s Hub Cultural Center as part of its Black History Month event schedule. The conversation touched on housing, mental health and finances, but centered on the needs of youth.

“It was the perfect beginning to getting some momentum behind the Black community,” said Tramaine Austin-Dillon, the cultural center’s manager, who organized the event with Tina Rogers, a multicultural arts educator. “There were people there that I had never met. There were people there that I was able to hear their passions and what they're really good at. And so I think now we can be really strategic about how we move forward.”

A common theme among those in the audience who spoke was that Black youth are treated unfairly in schools, starting in preschool — and elsewhere.

“Our young Black kids are suffering,” said N’gamé Gray, who heads the grassroots Santa Rosa-based NuBridges Youth Collaborative . “You know, they can't even go anywhere without being looked at other than as a thug or whatever they are portrayed in the media. Because when they look at us, that's the first thing they see. They don't see the education behind us. They don't see our character, they see the color of our skin, and then they decide what we're going to turn out to be once they start interacting with us.”

Others suggested that parents lead Saturday school sessions, and that older community members could step in to support hard-pressed younger families with babysitting and even visits to teachers and school counselors to advocate for students.

“When some of us were growing up, we had that village, that neighborhood,” said Arthur Chaney, president of the nonprofit 100 Black Men of Sonoma County, Inc. “Kids don’t have that neighborhood nowadays and so they miss that.”

Underlying much of the discussion were painful realities including recent data contained in the 2021 Portrait of Sonoma County that show Black county residents have a life span 10 years shorter than any other ethnic or racial group in the county.

“That’s outrageous. There’s something going on. We’re hurting and suffering,” said Claudia de la Pena. “We all need to come together under one umbrella as a collective and do something about that.”

Equally present, though, was an appreciation of Black people and culture.

“I was a preschool teacher at Head Start and I used to beg for Black children in my class because I knew how they were. I knew how they felt. I knew what was needed,” said ReEllis Dotson-Newman. “And a lot of times the teachers are not in our mindset. They don't understand our culture … because we do things different and it's OK.”

The crowd applauded when Evette Minor said: "We have to work for things, right? So it's a give and receive. There are so many things we can do as a community. But it is important to have that sense of community. We have a lot of events going on and Black history is 365. Not just this month. So we need to continue to have the programming and then make sure we show up.“

Austin-Dillon said that is the plan.

“Education was a huge theme that kept coming up. So I want to get a stronger sense of how we can engage that area,” he said, “and I think from a sense of just celebrating Black joy, like being able to have a sense of community in Sonoma County, I want to do more events like this where we can come together.”

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 707-387-2960 or On Twitter @jeremyhay

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