Everyone Belongs Here Becomes an Unofficial Alameda Motto
A poster designed to stand up against bullying finds universal fans.
Ella Burk, who helped design the poster, said the shield is symbolic of the civil rights war being fought.
Photo by D. Ross Cameron
Last year, my youngest daughter, Raina, participated in her first protest, part of a districtwide response to racist graffiti found at Edison Elementary School soon after the 2016 presidential election. Like other students, teachers, and parents of nearly every Alameda school, she held up a sign with the words “Everyone Belongs Here.” Even, hand-painted across a cardboard canvas, the words delivered a powerful message of inclusion and unity.
Since then, the message has grown more widespread. Along with the official poster taped to school windows and walls, Everyone Belongs Here appears on buttons sold at Books Inc. and elsewhere, even fairy doors, and plans for an Everyone Belongs Here T-shirt are underway. In today’s political climate, it’s a message that resonates with Alamedans who feel inclined to share its sentiment. However, the Everyone Belongs Here campaign, and the prejudices it seeks to end, is far from new.
Ella Burk, now an Encinal High senior, was part of the Everyone Belongs Here campaign from its inception in the 2014-2015 school year, at her first meeting as a student representative of the LGBTQ Roundtable. Founded in 2012 by LGBTQ community advocate Sean Cahill and student program administrator Henry Villareal to keep Alameda classrooms safe from bullying and address curriculum and issues related to LGBTQ students, the LGBTQ Roundtable is a district-appointed advisory committee of teachers, parents, staff, and community members. On the day Burk got involved, the roundtable was hard at work designing a poster that, according to district liaison Terri Elkin, “would signal to kids that they found a safe place.”
Before Everyone Belongs Here, such a safe-space type of sign did not exist. “Individual teachers may have created or acquired a sign online,” said Olivia Higgins, LGBTQ Roundtable chair. “But as far as I know, this was the first sign supported by the district.”
Designing the poster was truly a collaborative effort. Burk, along with other students, came up with the visuals, ultimately a rainbow shield against a backdrop of inclusionary federally protected classes and an intolerance pledge; and Gene Kahane, a teacher representative for the LGBTQ Roundtable, assisted the adults in coining the slogan.
“There was some concern that the shield was too warlike,” Burk said. “But we are battling a war—a social kind of war, a civil rights kind of war. It lets people know they’re protected behind the shield as it goes up against these prejudices.”
Kahane can relate to the symbolism of the shield. “The poster has come to be ubiquitous, but its background is rich and complicated,” he said. “As much enthusiasm and wonderful feelings the poster and buttons create, it’s important to acknowledge the past that’s been difficult.”
Kahane referred to 2009 and subsequent years, when controversy surrounding “Lesson 9,” an AUSD curriculum designed to teach elementary school students not to bully either the children of gay parents or children perceived to be or identifying as gay, became a national attention-grabber.
Some parents went to court in an attempt to exempt their children from the curriculum for religious reasons, but a judge denied the request. Other opponents called the curriculum “pro-homosexual” or “immoral.” Lesson 9 was later amended to include an anti-bullying message that included all six California state-designated protected classes: race/ethnicity, national origin, gender, disability, religion, and sexual orientation.
“Even after the adoption of Lesson 9,” Kahane said, “there was no requirement to introduce these lessons in the classroom. There was a lack of oversight. The LBGTQ Roundtable was formed to carry out these lessons.”
Superintendent Sean McPhetridge, who has been instrumental to the roundtable since its founding, says he credits the roundtable for including a message of love and respect for all. “With this poster,” he said, “the LGBTQ Roundtable has moved from the ‘me’ to the ‘we.’ ”
The rainbow is an element the group feared might alienate those who don’t identify as gay or queer. However, McPhetridge, who has approved every iteration the poster has undergone, agreed with the Roundtable that the addition was important. McPhetridge said the rainbow within the poster’s shield is a nod to the rainbow flag designed by the late gay activist Gilbert Baker of New York, his work for gay rights, and the gay liberation movement.
Another important feature, one that can be easily overlooked upon first glance, is the pledge to abide by the poster’s message. Higgins explained, “Teachers are not required to post the Everyone Belongs Here flier in their classroom; they only post the flier if they stand by the message.”
Higgins said the flier has been almost universally accepted by teachers and administrators looking for ways to show support for students and families.
“Feeling like you belong is essential to being fully prepared to learn and thrive,” Higgins said. “Unless a teacher explicitly states they are an ally of the LGBTQ community, or any other historically marginalized group for that matter, there is always an underlying question: Does this teacher support each part of my identity? Will I be challenged or disrespected for who I am or who I love? Having a flier that highlights all protected classes with the words ‘Everyone Belongs Here’ sends the simple yet powerful message that everyone is welcomed.”
Beyond the poster, Everyone Belongs Here is a mindset, one that’s been endorsed by multiple organizations, including the city of Alameda, the Alameda PTA Council, the Alameda Chamber of Commerce, Alameda Harvey Milk Day, the Alameda Education Association, and Alameda Family Services, along with social justice advocates and everyday citizens across the country. It has led to the creation of three additional AUSD roundtables, the Black Achievers Alliance, the Alameda Latino Community Achievement Network Cultivating Education, and most recently, the Jewish Roundtable.
“I am absolutely blown away by the popularity of this campaign and, more importantly, the significant impact it has had throughout our city and beyond,” Higgins said.
According to Elkin, strong sponsorship also provides a sense of security to teachers who worry about being personally attacked or questioned for hanging the poster on their classroom wall. “All these organizations are saying ‘this is a good thing to do.’ We’re not saying you won’t have a parent who’ll say something to you about it, but we have a way to deal with it and we have the support of all these organizations so you do not need to be afraid.”
The LGBTQ Roundtable agreed that one benefit stands out to them most: the campaign’s positive impact on students.
Kahane, who has taught in Alameda for decades, said the campaign has helped him become a better teacher. “I thought I was aware of and sensitive to all my students,” he said. “This has profoundly increased my awareness of [the LGBTQ population’s] invisibility, the struggles they still have, and the hateful language and actions they still experience.”
Others added that the student voice has brought valuable energy, information, and perspective to the roundtable.
“The high school students at the table have proven time and time again to be the true stars … not only leaders of the roundtable, but fierce social justice advocates within their schools,” Higgins said.
A shining example, Burk has come a long way since her first roundtable meeting. “The shield and the poster for me represent a gateway into advocacy,” she said. “This cool thing I am a part of has affected every public school student. I feel really lucky to be part of a roundtable that has been fighting for equality and opportunity for LGBTQ kids, and all kinds of kids … Whether you like it or not, pay attention to us because we deserve that.”