Woman placing a Diya lamp during Diwali Himani goyal, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Part of the purpose of our work, “is to create a community effort to raise self-awareness and build leaders here in Farmington,” chirped one of the board members during a November 14 Board of Education meeting.

After several Farmington High School students showed leadership and supported the need to have Diwali — one of the largest Indian festivals, celebrating “light over darkness” — as a school-sponsored holiday, the Board of Education then denied that request. Jewish holidays, such as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, were simply omitted from the 2022-23 school year.

But the public outcry from the South Asian and Jewish community obligated the Board of Education to revert their decisions to the 2022-23 calendar: Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah have been reinstated. Diwali will fall on a weekend in 2023 so there will be meetings in the future to “explore” its reinstatement.

As of late evening December 5, there were almost 1400 signatures on Change.org, “Standing in Support of Religious Diversity in Farmington Schools.”

This prompted the Farmington Board of Education to begin their December 5 meeting with a much more serious tone, reiterating parts of the statement that they had shared with the public: “The Board’s decision was based on the best interests of the Farmington School Community and was not discriminatory or anti-Semitic in any way. The BOE denounces all antisemitism and racism in all its forms.”

On December 5, I would have liked to see the Board of Education take accountability for how their initial painful decision reverberated in the South Asian and Jewish communities in the Farmington area. This meeting was a prime opportunity to explicitly recommit to diversity, equity, and inclusion, emphasize the importance of calling people in, and name the consequences of omitting and erasing people’s religious and cultural holidays.

Equity and inclusion require self-reflection, reflexivity, and a commitment to valuing and hearing the needs of the marginalized.

Instead, the Farmington Board of Education in many ways, largely reiterated their reasonings from their initial meeting and discussed how they were impacted through “disparaging” responses and “accusations” from the community.

Sana Shaikh

Board members comments surfaced themes of academic rigor and engagement, COVID learning loss, how they had the “best interests of the students” in their heart, and the importance of “moving forward [despite] weathering [this] storm.” One board member shared, “what is disheartening is that instead of having a debate on facts, some chose to label our actions as racist. We are not paid to do this…”

There were calls from those attending the meeting for the board to apologize. Instead of responding to that request, those requesting the apology were named as “disruptions” at four distinct times.

Though there was a passing remark by one BOE member on how she “was sorry” by how this decision was felt, it was blurred by the “sorrow and disappointment” that she felt by how the events had transpired.

The tone of the December 5 and November 14 meetings were quite different. There was hope on November 14. On December 5, the meeting was more charged; there seemed to be more emotional fatigue and hurt.

At the initial November 14 meeting, Farmington High School Indian American students had been trying to show the board, in the most respectful and relatable way, that their stories mattered, that their religious beliefs and their cultural traditions mattered. There were vignettes of feeling isolated, growing up with intersectional identities and wanting to belong, and the constant need of balancing tradition with succeeding and doing well in school.

The content of the speeches was compelling and data-centric – one student shared that there were 800+ South Asian students at Farmington High School and Diwali was the third-largest celebrated holiday after Christmas and the Chinese New Year. Another did a comparative analysis with Avon Public Schools where they do, in fact, have school off for Diwali.

For the Farmington Board of Education, the over 60+ minutes of civil, eloquent, public comment supporting these three religious holidays was not enough to change their minds during the initial meeting. It was when they started facing community and political pressure that they changed their tone and approach to the 2022-2023 school calendar. The levity and laughter of the November 14 meeting disappeared, and a more somber tone emerged.

As a South Asian mom with two small kids that are potentially entering Farmington Public Schools next year, the Board’s original decision and subsequent rationalization was harmful to their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. While our family does not celebrate Diwali or Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, creating that gesture of goodwill and inclusion is important to see how committed schools are to preserving family culture and tradition.

The need for Diwali as a school-sponsored holiday is to create an inclusive culture for the desi-American community that attend Farmington Public Schools. This action would have shown South Asian families that their cultural and religious beliefs matter and that they did not need to choose between preserving tradition and getting an education. Moreover, a commitment to equitable decision making obligates us to truly hear the needs of each respective group and, while the students were listened to and lauded for having “cohesive arguments,” I am not entirely sure they were heard.

On December 5th , there were calls for reflection from the Board of Education. For future healing, I hope those were heard.

If anything, these conversations around cultural and religious holidays show us the importance of being involved in civil discourse, engaged in local education matters, and keeping abreast of policies that impact our lives and the lives of our children. We cannot be complicit and silent when there is a misalignment between a commitment to values and the acting out and living out those values. Finally, what is most evident is that diversity, equity, inclusion are not simply buzzwords: they are the way that we need to start to right the wrongs against historically marginalized populations.

Farmington Public Schools continues to be ranked as one of the best in the state as it relates to academic rigor. Is the Board fully committed to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging efforts? The jury is out on that one.

Sana Shaikh is a member of the Connecticut Mirror’s Community Editorial Board.