BY JESSE WILLIAMS/ZIP06.COM • 03/31/2021 08:30 A.M. EST
It starts with the children.
That’s what Devan Cowles-Garcia realized last summer. Sitting on a Madison Diversity and Inclusion Committee Zoom meeting, she watched and listened as her screen lit up with drawings of swastikas, and racial slurs emanated from the speakers. The invisible, as-of-yet unidentified “Zoom bombers” saw her on camera—an Afro-Latina woman in a sea of White faces—and called her out by name.
The people responsible for this racist act, Devan was later told, were between the ages of 12 and 14. The FBI had already been involved with at least one of them, who was responsible for similar incidents. She says she was told that essentially, there was nothing to be done.
“When you’re 12, 13, 14, you know better. And it was just appalling because nothing could happen,” she says.
That wasn’t enough for Devan, and wasn’t acceptable. Less than a year later, a path of outspoken activism has led her back to her alma mater, The Country School (TCS), where she has brought her voice and her knowledge to bear against systemic walls of racism and ignorance, starting with children of approximately the same age as those who thought they could intimidate her on Zoom.
“I’m a bold person in general,” she says.
Coming from a family of powerful women and discovering a more diverse world after leaving majority-White Madison for college, Devan has always been on track to fight on the front lines against the kind of racial injustice that is woven into much of modern society. Though she doesn’t describe herself as a lifetime activist in the traditional sense, her new position at TCS arose from activist action.
At a Black Lives Matter rally in Madison in 2020, Devan spoke to The Source, and among other things, talked about treatment that she characterized as racist and omissions in her education about Black history and issues as a student at TCS.
TCS administrators reached out to her after reading the article, and invited her to speak at a virtual alumni day event to share her experiences.
“I just shared my drive for racial justice and [against] systemic racism, and educating people, trying to just educate as best I can,” she says. “Everyone was really appreciative of what I had to say, just what we can do in our community.”
That led Devan to an even more direct involvement with TCS as she was invited to join the school as an inaugural Elmore Teaching Fellow, a program that brings outside voices in to work with both students and faculty on racial and diversity issues and pedagogy.
This opportunity, which Devan says has given her a tremendous amount of space and freedom to bring important, specific ideas and address often ignored issues facing Black, indigenous, and Latinx people at TCS, and she credited administrators and the school community for their willingness to listen.
“I think it’s super important to be aware of environmental factors, privilege, all of that, and it seems like everybody is very conscious of that there,” she says. “It’s nice to see a change.
“The biggest thing is that everyone there is open to listening to me—what I have to say, [and] asking questions when they’re not sure how to approach something,” she says.
There is nothing token about her role either, according to Devan. Though she is only on campus one day a week, TCS has given her “free range” over what kind of topics she wishes to cover, which include everything from the kind of discrimination or bullying Black women face from their hairstyles to the lack of diversity in the school’s teaching staff.
Both of these topics have come from very personal places, Devan says, as she faced having almost entirely White faculty in her school career, as well as how peers and adults treated her hair.
“It’s super important that a faculty with not a lot of diversity [are] also aware of these inequalities, of the privilege that is there, because they’re the ones that are teaching the students. How can you have someone teaching if they don’t fully understand the picture?” Devan says.
“They’re very adamant about making these changes and continuing this,” she added.
Devan also gets to sit down with the TCS student IDEA Alliance, which allows her to engage in conversations outside of academics with 8th grade students. Those conversations included sharing her experience with the “Zoom bombers,” which she says was an “eye opener” for the TCS middle-schoolers.
“I told them what happened,” she says. “They thought it was so crazy their peers could do this.”
The opportunity to return to the school she attended as a young girl and work from the ground up, seeing change made to the kind of structures that harmed her, from Euro-centric beauty standards to a lack of lessons on Black history and issues, is pushing Devan to continue her activism.
She described how hopeful it felt to see TCS making strides toward more diversity in its curriculum and community, but was slightly less hopeful for immediate, broad changes to address systemic racism at large.
“I’ve asked this recently to everyone around me as well as my 8th grade history classes, and even myself,” she says. “Do I think that I will see race equality in this country in my lifetime?
“The short answer is no,” she adds. “I don’t think there are enough people who are ready to have uncomfortable and tough conversations, who realize racism is still a problem. A lot of people want to just ignore it.”
In Madison, though, Devan intended to continue being a part of those difficult conversations. When asked what Madison most needs to look introspectively as far as issues of race and diversity, she laughs.
“Do you want me to send you a list?” she says.
But bringing in a more diverse community through expanding housing, transportation, and work opportunities for people of color is a start, she says, and gives people the chance to understand those who they might otherwise stereotype, misunderstand, or look down.
“Proximity is the number one most important thing,” she says.
All of that will require work—the kind of work Devan is already doing at TCS—and she says she remained hopeful more of the community would join in.
“You have to continue to be actively anti-racist to see change,” she says.