Detroit school district marches against racism, for equity in education

Schools chief talks race, justice exclusively with Advance

DPSCD rally in Detroit, June 11, 2020 | Ken Coleman

Hundreds attended Thursday’s Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD) peace protest that marched for slightly more than one mile along Larned Street from Martin Luther King Jr. High School to downtown Detroit. During the 90-minute demonstration, marchers chanted “Black lives matter,” “We all rise,” and “D-P-S-C-D.”

Nikolai Vitti, DPSCD general superintendent, talked exclusively with the Advance about being a white man leading a majority Black school district in the largest majority African-American city in America.

Along the march route, Vitti told the Advance, “Today is about solidarity within the district. And sending a message to the city, not only to our children, that we stand with them and that we’re sick and tired of what’s been happening for centuries in this country regarding how our Black children and Black people in general are treated in America. 

“Public education has always been the vehicle for equal opportunity, but that equal opportunity has not always been realized because funding for schools is inequitable — not even equal but inequitable,” he continued. “So today is about coming together and remind those in power and reaffirm for us in the district that we still have work to do for our children.”

DPSCD Superintendent Nikolai Vitti speaks at the June 11 rally in Detroit | Ken Coleman 

Vitti has led Michigan’s largest public school district, which has 50,000 students, since 2017. The majority African-American district has about 50% of children who are from households that live in poverty, according to the federal government. He has said that his school has been marginalized by Republican-led Michigan legislatures. 

Vitti, who is white, grew in Dearborn Heights located just outside of Detroit. He is married to an African-American woman, Rachel, whom he met in college. They have four children.

“As superintendent, you deal with issues of race on a day-to-day basis,” Vitti said. “You can’t lead this district and not deal with race. If you don’t deal with race, you’re not being an effective superintendent. In our family, race discussions happen on a day-to-day basis. 

“When you are Black or Brown in this country you can’t avoid the color of your skin. The conversations have been difficult this week and in past weeks. It’s hard. It leaves me angry. It leaves me sad that we’re still having these conversations after centuries and decades. For my kids, it’s really about talking with them about their responsibility now and in the future to continue to promote racial justice and equality.”

Lamont Satchel Jr. speaks at the June 11 rally in Detroit | Ken Coleman

The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday dismissed an appeal in a case that argued Detroit students had a fundamental right to literacy under the U.S. Constitution. The court allowed a settlement signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to move forward but did not set a precedent. 

The march was held in response to George Floyd, an African-American man who was killed on Memorial Day at the hands of Minneapolis police. It is one dozens of demonstrations held in Detroit over the last two weeks. More than two dozen other Michigan cities and hundreds across the country have held protests against police brutality. 

Vitti was joined at the event by Detroit Board of Education members Angelique Peterson-Mayberry, Misha Stallworth, Deborah Hunter-Harvill, Corletta J. Vaughn, as well as students, parents, and other members of the community.

“As a young Black man, as a student, I shouldn’t have to be here,” said Lamont Satchel Jr., a Cass Technical High School student. “I shouldn’t have to stand in front of you and speak about what’s right. I should be able to walk out on the street and know that my life is protected.”

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.