(This is part of a series of profiles of local interesting people during February's Black History Month commemoration.)
If there’s the enticing smell of soul food wafting in the hallways of in the heart of Studio City, Calif. most likely it’s because Andrenetta Washington has something to do with it.
For the past 17 years or so she has been spearheading the Walter Reed Middle School’s February Heritage Days. That’s a day that the teachers are encouraged to come together to bring some of the authentic ethnic cooking of their heritage, and share it together with other members of the staff.
And during the month of February, in honor of Black History Month, she dresses in clothing that is African or Native American, from her own personal ethnic background. She can be seen during the month in comfortable colorful outfits, something she has done most of the 38 years she’s been at Walter Reed. The skirt is called a “lapa” and she has tons of material and also clothing representative of her Mohawk Indian heritage.
“The black experience is something everyone can learn from,” Washington says. “We share what we have done, and how it is integrated into our culture. . . . All struggles are common in all heritages and I use that as a teaching tool.”
Since 1976, she has taught math, science and physical education at the school, and she shows how their ethnic histories can relate to laws, their schoolwork, their family struggles and more, all in a sharing and caring way.
“I love it when I see a spark in their eye when I say something that they recognize as pertaining to their own color and diversity,” Washington says. It could be as simple as recognizing an ethnic print on a fabric and identifying the country where it’s from.
“The problem in general is apathy,” Washington acknowledges. “We don’t care enough for each other. It’s still the ‘Me Generation’ and it needs to be the ‘We Generation.’”
Washington lives in Carson, and she was born and raised in South Central, not far from 85th Street and Hoover, where the Los Angeles Riots began. Both of her children attended Walter Reed, and her son now teaches at King Drew Medical Magnet High School. Her husband, Henry, is a celebrated Southwest College football coach.
As far as racial equality, she remains circumspect.
“I’ve seen things go forward and go backwards,” she says. “You just have to keep going forward yourself.”
Without going into specifics, she said she has seen moments of racism and ethnic inequality within the Los Angeles Unified School District system and the education system overall during her decades as an educator.
“The way it is now, is the way it’s always been,” Washington explains. “Some people take it for granted and think the struggles are over… People really worked to fight and it was not just about color, but all cultures struggle. We owe a debt for what has been done before, but we have to continue if it still the same social injustice.”
While growing up, her mom gave everything she could, even though she was a woman who never finished college and there were seven sisters and two brothers.
“My mom had a positive attitude always, and that helped us,” Washington recalls.
“There are underlying struggles even though we have a black president,” Washington says about Barack Obama, whose election as president has not quelled racial inequality overall.
Students today are often shocked to hear about the racial struggles their ancestors faced. Washington conducts trivia contests, poetry contests, Friendship dances, creating African masks and having a Black History assembly that helps show the culture. Then, there’s the “Soul Food Extravaganza” where the faculty shares food of their cultures.
“I want to show all students what you can achieve, and not use the excuse about why you can’t make it,” Washington said. “You have to show the history of struggles.”