We Can Walk Together

Monica Belton, and her mission to instigate conversation, and ’embark on a campaign to strengthen the resilience factor of BELONGING.

By Jessica Berg

In the Historic Ashburn Colored School, a one room school house built sometime between 1887 and 1892, which was used to teach Black students in Virginia during segregation, I met Monica Belton.

Image of the Historic Ashburn Colored School by Jim Barnes of the Washington Post

Monica, a School Social Worker, a certified trauma professional in education, and founder of R.E.C.E.T. (Resilient Experiences for Children Exposed to Trauma), was facilitating a workshop on racial microaggressions.  

Sitting in the late July heat in a building with no air conditioning or indoor plumbing, it was hard not to notice the tangible symbolism of this building. A monument to the divide in the equity of education in Loudoun County, and though the doors to the school closed in 1958, this divide in education for minority students still exists 62 years later.

Monica, the child of a Black father and a Puerto Rican mother, grew up in black community in Union Township, New Jersey and at the age of 12 she decided she wanted to go to a summer camp. Monica has an energetic tenacity, so her parents eventually agreed to send her to the wilderness camp, and not knowing much of the nature of this particular camp, when Monica arrived, she soon learned it was a program for at risk girls.

What happened to you?

It was this moment, this experience, this ‘shift in lens’ as Monica calls it, that set her on a path to understand emotions and behaviors of young people and ask, “What happened to you?” This question has guided her professional life, from navigating the trauma of severely disturbed children to a pimp that threw a glass coke bottle at her head when she was 8 month pregnant, she wants to understand the trauma that leads to these emotions and behaviors. She wants to empathize.

This moment and lens shift at a summer camp grew into returning to the camp every summer during high school to work. Monica later took position at similar wilderness camps in North Carolina and Georgia, except these were year-round, and she had to cut her own wood in the winter and feed it to a pot belly stove to keep warm.

After a few years in the wilderness, Monica moved west to Arizona, a place where no pot belly stove was needed to keep warm, and soon found herself enrolled at ASU, pursuing a bachelors and then a Master’s in Social Work.

Monica Belton

Monica remained in Arizona, working in alternative schools in a Social Worker capacity. A former co-worker, Sara Casey, who worked with Monica in the west valley of Phoenix says about Monica, “She brought enthusiasm and passion to her work every day. She went above and beyond countless times to support students, both academically and emotionally. Monica believed in every child and supported them in achieving their personal best.”

Phoenix was a tough area to work, and even tougher, as Monica puts it, to raise kids. Her two sons were growing up in an area where young boys of color are initiated into gangs early and often, she decided she wanted to move east. Loudoun County, a suburb in Northern Virginia, came offering with a job, and it is here where Monica has worked and lived for the past 11 years.

On its surface, Loudoun County has a great school system. It is a school system that prides itself on its academic excellence, graduation rates, college acceptances, and equity. On their website Loudoun touts:

From the 2019-2020 LCPS Fact Sheet

Loudoun’s 94 public schools offer more than 83,000 students an educational program that ranks among the best in Virginia and the nation. One of the fastest growing counties in America, Loudoun continues its proud tradition of quality public education, maintaining an outstanding record of student achievement despite the pressures of surging enrollment.

The student population has surged, and it has also become more with every passing year. According to the LCPS Fact Sheet for the 2019-2020 school year, the student population make up is 47% white, 22% Asian, 18% Hispanic, 7% African American, and 6% listed as multi-racial.

This matters. It matters because the diversity of Loudoun County students is not mirrored in the staff, administration, curriculum, and policies that govern LCPS. This disparity leads to a litany of incidents from racially insensitive lessons in elementary school to the lack of opportunities for Black students that are offered through programs like the Academies of Loudoun.

Parent complaints and an investigation from the Virginia attorney general’s office led LCPS to seek outside consultation from the Equity Collaborative. In a 23-page report stated, among other things:

  • Discipline policies and practices disproportionately negatively impact students of color, particularly Black/African-American students
  • Many English Learners, Black/African-American, Latinx, and Muslim students have experienced the sting of racial insults/slurs or racially motivated violent actions
  • People are unclear and fearful on how to participate in conversations about race, let alone respond to racially charged incidents.

The report led superintendent Eric Williams to issue a statement directly addressing Equity in LCPS at the start of the 2019-2020 school year saying in part:

LCPS is committed to providing a safe, empathetic, respectful and supportive learning environment in order to empower every student to make meaningful contributions to the world. When students and staff experience racial insults, slurs, and/or other hate speech, we lack the positive culture and climate that supports students’ growth.…

Every individual is valued in Loudoun County Public Schools. Let’s celebrate the diversity that helps define us as a school division. 

Then, in the spring of this year, all students, staff, and the rest of the world were quarantined at home when George Floyd was murdered on May 25th, 2020.

This murder was not the first gruesome display of unchecked racism in our country. It was not the first time the murder of a Black man by armed police officers was caught on tape. But it is the first time so many people were forced to watch a man being murdered, for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, because of the color of his skin

The murder of George Floyd marked a tangible shift in the Black Lives Matter movement and the conversation of race in this country. This shift is what brought me to the Historic Colored School in Ashburn on a summer night in July.

Monica, like so many other citizens, women of color, and educators, was fueled by the images of George’s murder, and her first thoughts went to the children, the young students, and especially students of color, and thinking what their reactions were.

How was this trauma going to affect them? How they were dealing with being Black in America in 2020? What were their experiences in a school system that claims to promote equity? What was LCPS doing to ‘engage in the disruption and dismantling of white supremacy, systemic racism’ as their equity statement asserts?

Logo From recetnow.org

Monica, still fueled by the same energetic tenacity she had at 12, and now with years of knowledge and experience, wasn’t going to wait for another statement from the county, she was going to act. R.E.C.E.T. was formed from this moment in history.

When talking about children and childhood traumas, Monica stated, “Children only have so much of a lens,” they are seeing this murder, but they don’t have the framework to process it because they themselves are still developing as humans. It affects them.

Monica, through R.E.C.E.T., aims to and push the conversation about race in this county and in the country forward. We need resources to help our children heal, and as educators we need to understand the experiences and trauma that some of our students enter our classrooms with. We need to ask, “What happened to you?” instead of perpetuating the cycle at the hands of a system that claims to ‘celebrate diversity.’

“You can only be heard by people who are listening.”

Monica is providing the safe space and the resources; we need to show up and be allies.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, Black people make up 12.7% of the population, and Virginia has the 9th largest African American population according to the Census Bureau. 12.7% of the population should not carry the burden of fixing a system of racism that they had no part in creating.

I asked Monica about reaching people who hesitant or unwilling to reflect on their own participation in a racist system, and she said, “You can only be heard by people who are listening.”

Monica exudes compassion and understanding. I sat with her and Wendy Caudle Hodge, former Chair of MSAAC, for two hours in the Historic Colored School talking about microaggressions, asking questions, listening, and understanding.

I call on you to do the same. I am asking you to show up and listen because if we are going to create a better county and country for our children, students, and community, then we need to work to change it.

Monica Belton

And, as a school system in Loudoun County, we need to be accountable to all of our students. We need to reflect on the education system’s role in enabling systematic racism to continue before we can claim to be actively dismantling it. We need Monica’s workshops to take place in every school building. We need to have the tough conversations. We need to address our own bias and complicity in continuing a cycle of inequity. We need to be actively anti-racist.

Monica is a powerful voice in our community. We need to listen.

To learn more about Monica, her organization, and ways to become an ally, check out: