Meet Montgomery's Racial Equity Trailblazer: Dr. Sandra Donnay
By Anna Reinalda | February 1, 2022
Sandra M. Donnay, PhD, holds the distinction of being the first Black person elected to public office in Montgomery.
The township, incorporated in 1798, had a public works building named for Robert S. True in honor of local African Americans. It also had had its first Black police officer, Ismail Abdur-Rahman. However, it was a determined young woman, a mother, who broke the concrete ceiling when she decided to run for school board in 2013, a time when her daughter regularly experienced racial bullying at school.
“I was in graduate school studying the impact of racial stressors on children’s social and emotional development and academic performance,” she recalls, "as our daughter regularly experienced racial bullying in the district."
Donnay knew well the damage this could cause. "I have conducted research on the impact of negative stereotypes and discrimination on adolescents’ mental health and the academic performance of emerging adults, as well as on the impact of childhood trauma on adult cognitive functioning," she says.
“I decided to get on the school board,” Donnay said.
Donnay had spent more than 15 years primarily as an internal auditor in the banking industry. She is a certified public account (CPA). Driven to find solutions to what she calls "the pandemic of racism," Donnay returned to college and earned a master's degree from New York University in developmental psychology. She followed this with a doctorate degree from Fordham University in applied developmental psychology
Donnay turned her pain and struggle in into a passion project. In 2020, she launched a nonprofit organization, titled The Racial Equity Initiative, Inc. It is a think-tank devoted to dismantling anti-Black racism around the world.
On Martin Luther King Day, her organization held an online panel discussion titled “Just Discipline: An Antidote to the School-to-Prison Pipeline” to highlight the ill-effects of exclusionary punishment in schools, and the ways it disproportionately affects Black students.
The Montgomery News interviewed Donnay about her work, and her experience as a Montgomery leader.
Donnay said that, even as an elected leader, she encountered adversity and strife throughout her efforts to address bullying and the racial achievement gap in Montgomery schools. At an all-time low during her public service (2014 to 2016), the Montgomery school board president filed an ethics charge against Donnay with the NJ School Ethics Commission for revealing in an email to a group of Black parents that she felt that the district did not care about Black children. Donnay responded to the commission, calling the charge frivolous. Ultimately, it was dismissed.
“My expectations for support from the district were not realized,” Donnay said. “I experienced denial, racial micro-aggressions, and even support for negative stereotypes about Black people from the board. It was a stressful and toxic environment for me as I also experienced retribution as I publicly spoke about the district’s’ refusal to act to reduce racial bullying.”
In spite of all this, Donnay, who has lived in Montgomery for 14 years, was able to affect some advancement in the district with state-mandated harassment, intimidation, and bullying (HIB) training for district faculty.
However, Donnay said she didn’t feel that the district began to take the race issue seriously until over a dozen students spoke up about their own experiences with racial bullying, prompted by the murder of George Floyd in 2020.
“I demanded, in writing, an investigation into racial bullying,” she said. “This investigation was carried out by the district attorney, however the district failed to fully disclose the results of this investigation to the public.”
Looking at the school board today, which represents an array of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, Donnay said things are looking much better than they used to.
“The current racial and gendered diversity on the board is fantastic, as research indicates that inclusive environments change ingrained negative stereotypes,” she said.
Donnay’s work within the township continues, and since her days with the school board, she has extended efforts to engage with the Montgomery Township police on racial issues.
“Given the historically antagonistic relationship between Black communities and law enforcement, I had been thinking of having a meeting between the Montgomery police department and some members of its Black community for several years,” she said. “Although we don’t always see eye to eye, I feel the officers were forthcoming, receptive, and brave, given that such meetings could be contentious.”
Although her time with the Montgomery Board of Education has come to a close, Donnay remains focused on improving the education of Black children across the country.
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Donnay's Racial Equity Initiative hosted a virtual panel on January 17, featuring Dr. James Huguley and Shawn Thomas of the Just Discipline Project, and Rudy Bankston who shared his story about how a middle school expulsion changed the course of his life.
Bankston told the attendees that as a rising sixth grader, he was so excited to finally start middle schoolbecome a middle schooler. But shortly after school started, he was moved from his grade-level classes, to classrooms for advanced students.
“I went from a class that was pretty diverse to a classroom that was mostly white,” he said. “In this other class room, I didn’t feel connected to anyone. I was just being tolerated, one of the few students of color, and after a while I just checked out.”
Conspiring with his friends on how he could get placed back in the mainstream classroom, Bankston’s plan involved some disciplinary hijinks.
“It worked,” he said. “We became labeled as ‘those kids,’ after that.”
Not long after, Bankston remembers playing in the woods with his friends after school one day. They were playing with toy guns, and somebody saw them.
“It was reported back to the school,” Bankston said. “One day I was in class and the security guard started questioning me about having a gun. They immediately put me in handcuffs and walked me out of the school.”
He was expelled, even though the gun was proven fake. Following his expulsion Bankston was placed in a detention center for several days, the youngest person in the facility.
“My defense mechanism wrapped around being tough because I didn’t want to be taken advantage of,” Bankston said. The tough guy facade soon began to overshadow Bankston’s identity.
Going through his adolescence in the company of other Black young men who had similarly fallen victim to an oppressive system, Bankston became entangled in a murder case.
“I was sentenced for something that I did not do,” Bankston said, noting that it was 20 years before he was released. “That expulsion from middle school changed the trajectory of my life.”
Recognizing the harsh impact of exclusionary punishment on his own life, Bankston has committed to repairing the school systems in Madison, Wisconsin, where he now lives.
“When I came home, I had prevention on my mind, rather than just intervention,” Bankston said. “These predominantly white educators were never talking about race, ever. There’s a lot of unlearning that needs to happen.”
Huguley and Thomas, who work on the Just Discipline Project, are developing a set of training systems and disciplinary alternatives to suspensions and expulsions.
“This is vitally and life changingly important work,” Huguley said.
“Black children are suspended over four times more than white children,” Donnay told the panel. Huguley and Thomas are driven to obliterate that statistic.
Using mindfulness, integrative, and restorative practices, the Just Discipline Project aims to extend the same generosity and understanding to Black students that most White students receive by default.
Although the Just Discipline Project is based in Pittsburgh, these issues are not exclusive to western Pennsylvania – New Jersey exhibits the same trends.
“In New Jersey, we boast about having the best school system in the country, yet shameful numbers of poor Black children in New Jersey and around the country do not reach state and national standards in reading by the end of third grade,” Donnay said. “This leads to a variety of social problems including school drop-out, teen pregnancy, low earnings, and even criminal justice system contact.”
Moving into February, which is nationally recognized as Black History Month, Donnay urges Montgomery residents to continue challenging themselves to develop awareness of the way the country’s violent racial history continues to affect the social climate.
“Racism lives and thrives in environments of ignorance and denial,” she said. “It is important that the truth around the national and global contributions of Black people … even under unspeakable oppression, must be told.”
The Racial Equity Initiative, Inc. is currently accepting donations to help spread advocacy and education about racism and to improve the lives of Black people. Donations can be made online.