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Nightmares Came With Dream Job District 81 Equity Team Member Quits After Year Of Rewards, Threats

Kids at Garfield Elementary School might go back to playing boys against girls in kickball.

When they shout for a new second-baseman, they may no longer be reprimanded, “Baseperson.”

On Friday, Mona Mendoza walked away from her dream job as an equity worker in Spokane public schools.

It’s a job she helped create when District 81’s equity team formed a year ago. Their goal: to make kids of every race, gender and sexual orientation feel welcome in schools.

Sometimes, that means telling teachers how to handle racial discrimination. Other times, it’s as simple as reminding kids that words like “baseman” and “guys” exclude girls.

Mendoza describes the year as challenging and rewarding. But it also was emotionally exhausting, packed with controversy and criticism from people who thought the district could find better ways to spend $200,000.

Several teachers accused board members of adopting a “politically correct” agenda that assaults religious values.

One critic spit on a woman she mistook for Mendoza.

“This was my dream job,” said Mendoza, 42. “I helped create it and I wanted to see it come into fruition.

“But I need to be in a safer environment. And Spokane doesn’t feel very safe, especially around racism.”

Superintendent Gary Livingston said Mendoza’s position on the four-member equity team will be filled quickly. Despite the controversy, he said he’s committed to tackling discrimination and harassment in schools.

“The fact is, as a community, we’ve been experiencing some problems that have to be dealt with. It needs to be dealt with in terms of kids, because they are the future.”

Mendoza is leaving the city that’s been her home for 25 years, since she moved here from Los Angeles to attend Whitworth College in 1972.

Since then, she’s taught history, social studies, health and physical education. She also earned a master’s degree in counseling.

But she’s never been a teacher who goes home each night and quietly grades papers. She’s active in the teachers union. She’s involved with Hands Off Washington, a gay rights organization. She paces sidewalks collecting signatures for an initiative to end job discrimination based on sexual orientation.

“If you’re the least bit uncomfortable with equity, you might not like her,” said Steve Ward, principal at Garield, where Mendoza taught physical education part time last year.

But her enthusiasm and honesty helped make her an invaluable teacher and adviser at the North Side school, especially during racial disputes, said Ward. “She’d be just brutally honest with me, which is what a person in charge needs - not someone who’s just agreeing with me because I’m the boss.”

About a year ago, Mendoza went from advising harassment victims to becoming one herself.

Someone used a knife to trash her office at Garfield and slash a photograph of her and a student. They also scrawled a message on the board: “Die, Lez-bitch, die.”

Police investigated but couldn’t single out the culprit.

Still, Mendoza said it wasn’t until after The Spokesman-Review published an article about the new equity team in January that she felt pelted with prejudice.

District officials spent hours on the telephone, explaining to angry callers why they decided to spend about $200,000 a year on the department.

They opened letter after letter from people who either thanked them profusely or suggested they’d lost their minds.

Many critics were incensed with Mendoza, who described herself as “feminist-Chicana-lesbian-activist.”

“I don’t go around saying I’m an Irish-American-heterosexual-Catholic-activist,” said Patrick Carroll, who teaches algebra at Garry Middle School. “When she does that, I feel like she’s promoting a different agenda than education.”

Another man wrote: “How dare you people have the gall to subject impressionable young people to the efforts of homosexual activists paid for with public funds?”

Five instructors - a music specialist and four teachers from Lidgerwood Elementary School - wrote: “When you promote an avowed ‘feminist-Chicana-lesbian-activist’ as an equity facilitator, you’ve gone way beyond tolerance to a ‘politically correct’ agenda which is an assault on the religious values that are also to be respected.”

Mendoza expected some people wouldn’t understand or agree with the equity team’s goals. But the response was overwhelming, she said.

“I wasn’t prepared for the kind of hatred the department received.”

Even routine training sessions with teachers and students can be taxing for equity workers, said Linda Takami. Takami works full time in the equity department, while Mendoza’s and Michael Folsom’s equity positions are half time.

“It’s emotionally draining, because you usually are dealing with issues of the heart.

“The hard part is because it’s not a tangible issue. You can’t hand somebody just a book or a piece of software to help them learn about it.”

One recent morning at Franklin Elementary School, Mendoza talked to 20 third- and fourth-graders about one of those intangible issues - the language of diversity.

“A lot of young people like to be called African American, but I find some older people prefer to be called black, because that’s what they’re raised with,” Mendoza said.

“Euro-Americans are people that came from Europe, just like African Americans way back were kidnapped and brought to this land.”

She had them practice saying “multiracial” instead of “mixed.”

On easy days - and this was one - her audience applauds when she’s done. But the other days have worn her down, along with what she describes as increasing bigotry against gays, lesbians and people of color in Spokane.

Saturday, she took the last of her packed boxes and moved west. She’ll live in Seattle with her partner, who’s also a gay and lesbian rights activist.

“It’s time for me to refuel my own soul,” said Mendoza. “Right now I need to be nurtured, supported and given back to as a person of color.”

In Seattle, with its larger, more diverse population, Mendoza hopes she and her partner will be able to walk down the street holding hands without getting as many glares as they do here.

She hopes to go to parties and gatherings where she’s not the only one who understands her Mexican heritage. She wants her heart to dance like it did the time she joined hundreds of other gay and lesbian Latinas and Latinos at a Seattle fundraiser.

“I’m not going to feel isolated as a person of color. I’m going to go into stores where I’m not the only person of color.”

After 20 years with Spokane schools, Mendoza said she doesn’t feel guilty leaving the equity team because she knows it’s headed the right direction.

This week, she’ll start her new life by collecting signatures for Initiative 677, aimed at stopping job discrimination based on sexual orientation in Washington state.

After that, Mendoza isn’t sure whether she’ll work in education, counseling or some other role. She has no plans to live in Spokane again. But she’s sure her goal of living and teaching equity will remain a big part of her life.

“I do it because I really don’t like injustice,” she said. “I’m not willing to stand by and see oppression occur.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 color)

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