Meet Jannah Tate, Latin's Intern for Social Justice

By Tanya Calvin

If you’ve been in the library at all this year or have been to any of the Student of Color lunches, you’ve probably seen Jannah Tate. With her cool style and determined walk, there’s no way she hasn’t caught your attention. You might not have known, though, that she’s playing an integral role with her work at Latin. I got to sit down with her last week and get to know her, and I hope that after reading this interview, you will want to as well.

What’s your day like at Latin?

My official title is the Intern for Social Justice, and then recently I also received the title of  Co-Coordinator of Diversity in the Middle School, and I’m partnered with Jen Nabers [seventh grade English teacher] doing that. What I do is I teach part of the middle school affective ed. curriculum–it’s a section called Media Literacy. It’s designed to introduce students to thinking critically about the messages they receive from the media whether that be music, television, movies; we’ve talked about racial stereotyping in Disney movies, gender norms in advertising, and right now we’re working on a portion that’s dedicated to sexual orientation in the media. I also do the Students of Color luncheons with Mrs. Maajid in the Upper School. I also do Parents of Students of Color events after school, and I sit on the Faculty Diversity Council. We used to have a Director of Diversity but she’s no longer with us, so instead of just replacing her, what we’ve decided to do is incorporate all of the faculty in the school that do work concerning diversity, and then do a panel so we can all come together and use each other to make Latin “our” place. When there’s an issue, sometimes people ask me to come in and facilitate conversations. For example, when the ninth grade did their video banner for Spring Carnival, there was an issue with some of the lyrics, and Mr. Windus wanted to hold an open forum of dialogue, and he asked me to come sit in to help him with that conversation.

How long have you been at Latin?

This is my first year. I started in late August with the rest of the new faculty. I’m brand new!

Okay, so now that the school year is coming to close, how much progress do you think Latin has made?

It’s difficult to say since this is just my first year. I would frame that question as how receptive people are to my opinions and my concerns. Any time that I have felt bristled or concerned or confused by something that’s happened, I’ve felt that not only the administration but the faculty have been really thoughtful in their responses and open to my suggestions. With that being said, we’re definitely moving in the right direction. If I can come in brand new and for people to be so open to what I have to say means that they’re also open to change.

What was school like for you?

I’m from Washington, D.C. and I went to Georgetown Day School. It was very similar to Latin in the sense that it was predominantly white and that the majority of students were wealthy. It’s interesting to be working here now because I feel like I’m transported back there. I was one of, maybe, ten black kids in the upper school. A lot of the conversations and issues that I hear students of color having here are the same ones as when I was in school, and that’s kind of what drew me here to Latin. In terms of college, I went to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and got my Bachelors of Fine Art; I studied photography. It’s a research practice, and my interests are in issues of race and gender, so I researched those topics there and my research manifested itself in photographs. Now, being here at Latin as a faculty member and teacher, I use my background in visual culture and language to talk about issues of diversity.

What activities were you involved in in high school?

I was on student government all four years. I went on two different community service trips, one to a Navajo Reservation and the other to Ethiopia. I did slam poetry,  and I was in the Young Woman of Color groups, kind of like the affinity groups here, and Black Culture Club. I was very interested, even then, in diversity issues because it was something I felt was reflective of my experiences. I look different, so that meant that my experience was different and I wanted to talk about that. I didn’t want to just disappear in the background; I wanted people to listen and hear me. That’s why student government was so important to me. Even if you don’t agree with me, I want you to hear what I have to say.

Do you think that it started in high school, your passion for equality and social justice, or did it start in middle school or with your family? When did you decide that that was where you wanted to go?

I didn’t go to Georgetown Day School my whole life. I went to a really small, all black Baptist school from kindergarten to eighth grade. I’m mixed, though; my mom’s white. I fit in in that I felt the same, for the most part, as everyone else. It wasn’t until I got to GDS that the doors were blown off that and I was like ‘wow, I don’t have money.’ I lived in the suburbs, an hour away from school. My mom would drop me off at the train, and then I would ride the train for forty-five minutes and then walk to school. Not only was I separate from them in the sense that I was black and I wasn’t rich, I was also living out in the boonies and I couldn’t be a part of what they were doing because it was so much of an effort to get there. I was feeling all of these things, feeling both emotionally and physically isolated from my community and feeling both visible and invisible. Because I was black and there were so few of us, I felt like people were always looking to me with questions about stuff that I didn’t feel was representative of me. I remember one time I had gotten a new cell phone, but this was back in a time where you couldn’t get a new phone with all your information magically on the new one, so you had to carry around your old phone with all of your contacts. So some kid asked me if I sold drugs, because I had two phones. I was like ‘did you ask me that because I’m black? I’m not sure what made you jump to that conclusion’ So I was feeling all of these things but I couldn’t put it into words, but I had no language for it. In high school, my passion for social justice and diversity developed because I needed a way to make sense of what I was feeling and living. It’s so frustrating to be lit on fire from the inside and not be able to explain to somebody why you’re angry. It’s such a delicate situation, too, because you’re already isolated, and you don’t want to further isolate yourself by calling someone out and saying “you did this,” and when you’re one of the few, you want someone there to back you up. You feel like you’re by yourself on the front lines.

What would you say Latin’s biggest problem with social justice is?

I don’t think that it is a problem that is unique to Latin in any way. I think that one of the most difficult hurdles for any institution is getting everyone on board because we all have such different experiences and belief systems. In order to make a change, though, you have to have everyone pointed in the same direction. I would say right now the biggest issue facing Latin is getting everyone on the same path towards a more equitable community. There are people who don’t quite understand that people who might be having different experiences or might not understand the value of having conversations that address those different experiences. That’s our main goal at the moment.

If you could do one big thing here, what would it be?

I have more of a pet project. So, as I told you, my background is in fine art so I’m a visual person. I’m interested in visual language and culture. I would be really interested in running a topics course that uses visual images, like music videos, print ads, and current events, to talk about the issues that people face today. For example, why people dislike Kanye West. People always say that he’s an a-hole and that he thinks so much of himself. I’m interested in critiquing whether or not it’s that he’s so arrogant or whether we have expectations of people that look like Kanye West to be humble and appreciative of what they have. I would like to have those types of conversations on a larger scale.

Do you have anything else to add?

My desk is in the fifth grade office on the third floor of the middle school. If anybody has a question or would like chat with me, my desk is the one with all the art stuff on the walls and easy to discern from everyone else’s.