Mukilteo School District’s ‘land protecting’ director of equity

Gerry Ebalaroza-Tunnell helped lead rallies against new observatory in Hawaii
By Brandon Gustafson | Aug 21, 2019
Courtesy of: Absyde-Ann Kaiulani Dacoscos Gerry Ebalaroza-Tunnell (right) at a rally earilier this month in Tulalip opposing the construction of a new observatory on the Mauna Kea summit in Hawaii. Ebalaroza-Tunnell is the Mukilteo School District’s first-ever director of equity and is a native Hawaiian.

Over roughly the last two months, the state of Hawaii has been in the news worldwide regarding protests of a proposed observatory atop a volcano on the island of Hawaii (commonly referred to as The Big Island).

The proposal would put an observatory (known as the Thirty Meter Telescope, or TMT) on Mauna Kea summit. To Native Hawaiians and indigenous groups around the world, Mauna Kea is sacred, and perhaps justifiably. Towering above the ocean floor into the sky, Mauna Kea is the highest mountain in the world at 33,500 feet from base to summit.

The TMT project has a price tag of roughly $1.4 billion, according to multiple reports, and according to a Honolulu Star-Advertiser story, one TMT leader described the project as “decades in the making.” In Hawaii, rallies have been held against the project, which included actors Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Jason Momoa.

But did you know that rallies were held here in Washington? And that one of the Mukilteo School District’s newest employees has been at the forefront?

Gerry Ebalaroza-Tunnell was hired by the district toward the end of the 2018-2019 school year to be the Mukilteo School District’s first-ever director of equity and is a native Hawaiian, who was born and raised in Honolulu. And despite not living in Hawaii since 1983, she says that time and distance will never erase the fact that she will always be Hawaiian.

“Being far from home, I felt a call to show support and stand in solidarity,” she said.

Ebalaroza-Tunnell helped put together rallies in the area over recent weeks, such as in Tulalip on Aug. 3 and others such as on 128thin Everett, Alki Beach, Green Lake, and at the Bite of Seattle.

“These rallies, I don’t look at them as protests,” Ebalaroza-Tunnell said. “We’re protectors of sacred land. Over the last six to eight weeks, there has been a rise in Aloha. The kind of mutual causality that expresses the idea that what we do to the Earth, we do to ourselves. And people around the world are rising and standing with us against the desecration of sacred lands.”

Ebalaroza-Tunnell said through this process, she’s worked with Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) and Kama’aina (“Children of the Land”) transplants and other Indigenous people in the area.

“I put out a Kahea (a call) on social media to let people know what we were doing, why we are doing this, and how we will gather with Aloha as the foundation,” she said. “In Marysville, my cousin Absyde-Ann Kaiulani Dacoscos works with Tulalip schools. In collaboration, we were able to activate the hearts of other indigenous people and allies to rise together for the protection of sacred lands.”

The Tulalip rally had more than 100 people attend and, as an educator, Ebalaroza-Tunnell and others used the time to let people know what’s going on more than 2,700 miles away.

“We are not anti-science, but we are anti-desecration of any land that is considered sacred,” she said. “There are already 13 telescopes on the Mauna (mountain), and at its highest peak, where the heavens meet the earth, is where they want to place the TMT telescope. This kind of science lacks the understanding, respect, and care for the Ka Honua (Earth), and the reciprocity and honor in recognizing the interconnectedness to all things.”

She continued, “This is the kind of science that deems indigenous knowledge as a deficit. The type of science that is ignorant of the existence of Mana (power; spirit), the life force that connects us to all other life forces with Kanaka (self), Ohana (family, nation, tribe), Āina (environment; the land which feeds), Kupuna (our ancestors), Aumakua (our family gods, spiritual beings) and Akua (God).”

Despite the seemingly harsh criticisms, Ebalaroza-Tunnell said there is a place for science and indigenous values and cultures to live in harmony.

“As an Indigenous scholar working within Western academia, it is always a good time to educate on the juxtaposition of Western philosophy and Indigenous epistemologies,” she said. “There is room for western science and Indigenous ways-of-being to co-exist. We just have to find a way to get there.”.

During these rallies, the Hawaiian flag has been flown upside down, Ebalaroza-Tunnell said, to signify a nation in distress. Recently, however, the flags have been turned right side up to symbolize the pride of being Hawaiian and from Hawaii.

“I have never seen how people from across the world gather the way we’ve been gathering,” she said. “We’re all proud to be Hawaiian, and it’s showing.”


Working in the district

As mentioned previously, Ebalaroza-Tunnell was hired by the Mukilteo School District a few months ago to lead the district’s efforts to build and sustain a culture of equity and inclusion for all students; help eliminate racial disproportionality between student groups; and direct initiatives related to diversity, equity, and outreach.

One thing Ebalaroza-Tunnell loves about the area is the easy access to the water.

“Being born on an island, I have a deep connection to it,” she said.

This will be her first full school year with Mukilteo School District, and she will be in a role the district has never had – director of equity.

“It’s a new position, and I’m honored to lead the way on helping Mukilteo become a school district that’s equitable and provides access to an excellent education for every child,” she said. “Leading the charge on equity work takes a lot of heart and a lot of Aloha.”

One of the more challenging aspects of the job is getting people to acknowledge levels of oppression and racism.

“It can be triggering for some. We have to talk about race and be able to have conversations about race,” Ebalaroza-Tunnell said. “We need to be able to bring equity to the table … and if we don’t acknowledge that institutionalized and structural racism exists in our district, we’ll never be able to get past it. We need to acknowledge, educate, and then have actions that dismantle systems of oppression. It takes time.”

Ebalaroza-Tunnell is a big fan of the Kaizen Method, a transformative methodology to creating continuous improvement based on the idea that small, ongoing positive changes from everyone can reap major improvements for all.

“Small changes reap great improvements,” she said.

Some changes have already been made in the school district. For example, the district’s new equity statement is posted on its website, and the Mukilteo School District is acknowledging the indigenous lands in which it inhabits.

Going forward, Ebalaroza-Tunnell hopes to see the implementation of more culturally relevant curriculums in the district, as well as the hiring of a more diverse staff that “represents our community and our schools.”

She also wants to see more work done with non-English-speaking students.

“The language we use to talk about students matters,” she says. “It reflects and shapes our perceptions, and most importantly, our expectations for student success. Sometimes the words we use to talk about students have biases within them we never intended.

“It’s easier to focus on our good intentions than to dig deeper into the implicit biases behind our words and actions. I don’t understand why we currently view our non-English-speaking students as having a deficit, yet we encourage our English-speaking students to take foreign languages, which is then seen as an asset.”

For parents and students interested in learning more about her and her beliefs, Ebalaroza-Tunnell encourages they come to the district’s office for a cup of tea.

“I’m calling it ‘Tea with G,’” she said, laughing. “It’s really important for us to create and maintain community partnerships.”




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