Alachua County Public Schools will have three Black women on the school board for the first time this November. All of them shared their stories of success this past weekend.
About 50 people gathered on a Zoom for the My Story, Our Story forum Saturday, where the three history makers shared their experiences. Tina Certain and Leanetta McNealy, who are currently on the school board, and Diyonne McGraw, who will begin her term later this fall, were the main speakers.
The forum was held by M.A.M.A.’s Club, a local nonprofit devoted to the arts and community action, and Indivisible Gainesville, a political nonprofit that works to increase voter engagement. It’s the third installment in a speaker series called Rooted in Love. The previous events were about resisting white supremacy and patriarchy.
Tina Certain described growing up with her grandmother in Crosstown, a neighborhood in Hawthorne, and attending school in the ACPS system.
Certain said she is herself because of her grandmother, who she described as a strong Black woman. She always understood the importance of education and heard how she was going to go to college.
Years later, Certain saw a consistent theme as her two, now grown, children attended school: rich schools got richer, and poor schools, poorer.
Witnessing these injustices over the years, she said she decided to make a difference. She worked with Gainesville for All Initiative, which addresses racial and economic inequities, and the Alachua County Education Task Force.
“What I found is that there’s a group of people who are so steeped in their tradition and in their systemic racism that they’re fighting with tooth and nail to not want any change,” she said.
Certain said she made the decision to run for office for the community.
“I am fighting really hard for every student that looks like me to be able to get a good education so they can make choices, to decide to go to college,” she said.
Like Certain, Diyonne McGraw spoke about her greatest supporters.
Her mother, who worked three jobs, including in social work, taught her that life was about giving, McGraw said. She learned knowledge was power and that education was a path, not a destiny.
“Life is never about yourself,” McGraw said. “It’s always about others.”
McGraw said she encountered racism in her 10th grade humanities class where she and six other Black students were forced to sit in the back of the room.
When McGraw spoke up about this seating arrangement, she said the teacher told her she was privileged to be in a predominately white school.
When McGraw moved to Gainesville in the 1990s, she said she found it to be one of the most racist places she lived. She said she spoke with her children when they were in second and third grade about racism in the county’s public school system.
“If we don’t turn our educational system around, we’re at a loss,” she said.
Like the other speakers, Leanetta McNealy grew up knowing the importance of education. She said her parents were educators and her grandma worked in a school lunchroom.
“You can imagine that at night when we came together for dinner what the conversation was like,” she said. “It was all about what? Education, in some manner.”
McNealy said she attended school when water fountains were segregated. She remembered her mother fussing when she wanted to try the water from the white water fountain.
“I had to try it to see if the water was different,” she said.
She said she attended two years of elementary school in New York because it was one of the few states her parents could pursue master’s degrees at the time.
McNealy’s love for teaching sprouted from a young age. She said she used to sit with friends and play teacher.
She said she has lived in the same house since she moved to Gainesville in the 1970s. She worked as a teacher at Littlewood and Prairie View Elementary Schools, curriculum specialist and a principal at what is now known as Duval Early Learning Academy.
After retiring in 2009, she ran for the school board because of her experiences.
“I decided that I wanted to be the voice for the Alachua County Schools and for the students and for the staff, for the teachers, everyone,” she said. “I felt that Alachua County children, and I still say the same, they deserve to have a high quality education.”
The next speaker series event will cover Black survivorship.