Police serve as mentors for Elkins Park School Leadership Academy

Cheltenham School District Superintendent Wagner Marseille speaks at the Elkins Park School Leadership Academy Tie Day ceremony in 2016.

Dear Cheltenham Community -

As superintendent, I try to be mindful of the enormous responsibility and weight my role carries — words matter. We should attempt to be in a good place when we communicate with one another. I also know this: as a person of color, especially a Black male, my words and actions are received and perceived differently from my White counterparts. That’s not an indictment of my colleagues, but a simple fact of over 400 years of American history. During 2020, not a day went by when race wasn’t a topic on the news or front and center on our mobile devices.

One of my mentors — a white male who has dedicated more than 40 years to fighting racism and inequality — understands the fact that the world wouldn’t give me the same grace as a leader that was afforded to him. He said, “Wagner, I can speak to white privilege, institutional racism and the murder of Trayvon Martin, and I will be received differently than when you say those exact words. They will see me as a change agent, but see you as an angry person of color, who should be thankful to have been elevated to such leadership heights, calling them out.”

[January 6], at 2:30 p.m., I was on Zoom with CSD Assistant Superintendent Dr. Tamara Thomas Smith, Dr. Barbara Moore Williams, our cultural proficiency, equity and antiracism consultant/colleague, and CSD’s Supervisor of Gifted and Professional Development Mr. Matt Pimental discussing the professional development our cultural proficiency cadre and building principals were going to lead for the remainder of this school year. We discussed how important our work was to this district and its benefits to our community in better preparing our students to be socially conscious, culturally responsive, and equity-focused leaders. During that conversation, a barrage of notifications about the situation at the Capitol interrupted our work. We stopped to watch and hear what was taking place.

So after [the day’s] events at the Capitol, I waited to communicate my thoughts because I wanted to be reflective and not angry. I teach my daughter that the first person out of the blocks doesn’t always win the race. I tell her to practice patience, find herself, her words and emotions then communicate. What a wonderful world it would be if we all practiced some version of that.

Though heinous acts of violence were committed in the Capitol in 1954, I want to be clear that [this] insurrection by the domestic terrorists and looters who stormed the Capitol in an attempt to overthrow our electoral process was one of the worst attacks on our democracy since British forces set the Capitol on fire in 1812.

[January 6] did not come as a shock to me. After all, we have known this situation was coming for months. Our President employed inflammatory words and actions to encourage, promote and incite their behavior. If the last sentence offended you, I suggest you stop reading.

When we turned the calendar to 2021, I was optimistic that some of our darkest days were in the rear view. I welcomed the new year with open arms and a sense of brighter days to come, but I could never have imagined just six days into our comeback, I would witness such an attack on and desecration of the Capitol, the “People’s House,” and an outright betrayal of our (imperfect) democracy.

I spent the night processing America’s hypocrisy and its democratic ideals. As a Black person, I know and was again shown evidence of the deference afforded to some groups. Recall the images of the protests across this country after George Floyd’s murder. Now juxtapose those images with what you saw.

I send my condolences to those who needlessly lost their lives. However, if you compare the tactical response (or lack thereof) with that of this summer’s protests, the issue of racial inequity is irrefutable. If those individuals who stormed the Capitol were men and women of color, we all know we’d have seen a different outcome. By no means am I advocating for more violence. Simply put, I want you to see what I see: the deference afforded to some and not to others. I want you to see how those men and women were allowed to walk through the barricades and into the sacred halls and chambers of the People’s House. They took pictures in offices mocking officials and destroyed and stole property, but were not seen as a threat. Yet, those who look like me are met with the worst type of treatment and violence.

I am not angry with the storming of the Capitol. The man who holds the highest office in the land invited them and stated he would join them in marching. I am not angry about the level of restraint law enforcement displayed or the stark difference in treatment of protesters. I am, however, heavyhearted as I try to explain to my 11-year-old daughter — yet again — why the world will see her and her actions differently and that she needs to be prepared for that. No father, no parent, no guardian should have to continue to share such dark warnings and strategies with their children, regardless of age.

As parents, guardians and educators, we carry a tremendous responsibility. How can we develop the minds of our citizens to create the space to help our youth find meaning in the world they inhabit? I leave you with a quote from one of our fifth graders whose teacher provided the space today for students to share how they were feeling in light of recent events: “We can’t expect 2021 to magically be better than 2020. We have to make it better ourselves.”

Dr. Wagner Marseille

Superintendent, Cheltenham School District 

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