By Jean Noël Mugabo
Julia Hazel, Director of BIPOC Career Pathways and Leadership Development at Portland Public Schools, said that her jaw dropped when she found out she would be given one of 10 coveted 2023 Black Excellence awards by the Third Place. Hazel was given the award in recognition of her work in education and community empowerment.
“My jaw dropped when I saw the email,” she said. “You sometimes wonder, ‘Am I doing enough?’ And so for someone like [Adela Muhammad, The Third Place founder], whose vision I trust so much, to recognize my work and say, ‘You are on the right track, you are really making a difference,’ – that really means a lot.”
Education is a family career
Hazel’s desire to make a difference through education is deeply rooted in her family’s history. Both her paternal grandmother and grandfather were educators, and her aunt taught at a community college. Hazel said she grew up believing in the importance of education and educators.
“My grandmother was a seventh-grade English teacher and my grandfather was a college professor at a historically Black university [HBCU] in Ohio,” Hazel told Amjambo Africa.
When she was in ninth grade, Hazel made her first foray into education when she and her church youth group organized a vacation Bible school. Hazel taught the fourth graders and loved the experience, which she said ignited her passion for creating engaging activities for young learners. That passion continued to grow over time, and eventually she became a teacher, earning a bachelor’s degree in biology and with a minor in education, and then a master’s degree in education. She gravitated toward working in elementary schools.
Her first teaching jobs were in New York, and then in 2012 Hazel’s path brought her to Maine, where she found that most teachers were white. That meant she often found herself as the sole teacher of color, which was very different from her experience in New York.
Leading the charge for diversity, empathy in education
Hazel was lonely when she first started teaching in Maine, but she did revel in the vibrant mix of racial backgrounds, cultures, languages, and income levels of the students, and said that diversity provided a rich and rewarding environment for teaching and helped reduce the isolation she experienced. However, sometimes she felt invisible to her peers and colleagues, and wondered if she should explain her experience to them. She was concerned about being labeled as the teacher who always raised uncomfortable topics.
“But people were behaving in ways that they had no idea were problematic,” she explained.
Eventually she connected with Fiona Hopper, a white colleague with whom she had taught at Portland’s Reiche Elementary School. They both recognized the need for their colleagues to gain a deeper understanding of the history of racism in the U.S. and its continued, pervasive impact on society. They embarked on a year-long journey to develop a semester-long in-house, graduate-level course to provide educators with the knowledge and tools they needed to comprehend and effectively address issues of racism.
The staff were enthusiastic and appreciative about the course, which proved to be an essential first step toward fostering empathy, understanding, and awareness among educators. It was first offered in 2017. Hazel felt she was beginning to create systematic change within Portland schools, which would benefit herself as a Black teacher and improve the experiences of other staff members of color, and students as well. Though others now teach the course, it has become a vital tool for fostering empathy and addressing racial issues within Portland’s educational community.
Portland Public Schools (PPS) demographics have changed since Hazel first arrived in Maine. As of December 2021, 11% of staff identified as BIPOC – an uptick, but still a small percentage given that the student BIPOC population is 50%. Hazel knew that isolation was unhealthy for the personal well-being and professional growth of BIPOC teachers, so she began informally reaching out to BIPOC educators and suggesting meet ups at local restaurants. Initially six people attended, and gradually the gatherings became monthly gatherings and eventually expanded beyond Portland schools. Her dedication to supporting BIPOC educators and creating spaces where they could be fully seen in their humanity led to her next project: the Educator of Color Report, designed as a tool for all educators. The report’s content was based on interviews with 36 teachers of color in PPS.
In the spring of 2021, Hazel was officially appointed Director of BIPOC Career Pathways and Leadership Development. She now provides full-time support to BIPOC staff, and also works on developing career pathways for all district staff. Her role was created with the goal of sparking systemic change within the district and was a recommendation of the Educator of Color Report.
The report paints a picture of what it is like to be a BIPOC teacher in the PPS, shares advice on how to effect change in the school system, and highlights what white people can do to help. It closes with two metaphors that emerged from conversations with the 36 educators who were interviewed: “the impenetrable wall of whiteness” and “the smog of cultural racism.” The report states: “We hope that the metaphors and accompanying images enable those who have not experienced racial bias and inequity to imagine their significant impact.”
Hazel’s impact as an educator, mentor, and advocate for change in the schools resonates deeply with others, as her recognition with the Compass Career Award for her leadership and advocacy shows.