“David Woods II, PhD” reads the sign as you enter Woods’ classroom. From wall to wall in his classroom, framed magazine covers from Rolling Stone and The New Yorker line a table. The cover of the magazines feature Black artists and art.
The magazines are laid out intentionally. They’re meant to start conversations, to get students and adults thinking about race.
That’s Woods’ goal too.
Woods is an English teacher at Wahpeton High School, a father of four and an artist. Woods originally moved to North Dakota to play football at Valley City State University.
In November 2020, he became a Wahpeton City Council member. Woods is the first Black man to serve on the city council.
His run for council started with a broken light pole in his neighborhood that he, admittedly, called the city council out for. The light pole, a conversation with family and friends, and his sense of justice led him to run for city council.
Woods believes justice is achieved through representation. That idea of justice through representation is something that was instilled in Woods when he was growing up in Anchorage, Alaska. He found that all groups of people had some form of representation in their community.
“To put it honestly, a homogeneous town elected a black guy to city council, and I know in North Dakota — especially in Wahpeton — that's not what they first see. They don't see me as a Black guy or whatever, but we are where we are in the world. And so when I sit back every once in a while, it's like, ‘They elected a Black guy to city council.’ It's more profound to me than it is for other community members,” Woods said.
His election win is another step toward his goal of creating a better world for the next generation.
“It's part of the process where, with a lot of African-Americans they feel that they need to make it easier, each generation needs to make it easier for the next. And so that's all I'm doing,” Woods said.
Part of making it easier for the next generations is showing the multidimensionality of blackness. As David says to his students every time on the first day of class, “What you think you know about me is totally wrong.”
Yes, Woods said, he likes the culture, he likes shoes, but he also loves lefse and knoephla soup. Blackness isn’t monolithic. It’s complex, intricate and diverse.
The process of changing people’s ideas about Blackness and race is slow, it can be frustrating and exhausting.
“I knew from a very young age that was my job. You just keep on, you keep on pushing. You see people in the past, you see African-Americans leaders in the past and you see them now and they're just going. There's no pause button on this, if I don't do it, who's going to deal with it?” Woods said.
When Woods does have a breakthrough and perceptions are changed, it doesn’t usually manifest itself as an explicit outward expression of understanding. It’s more subtle: a facial expression, a brief statement, “Oh, okay.”
He started teaching in Wahpeton, but left to teach a diverse group of students in Fargo at Woodrow Wilson High School. After eight years at Woodrow Wilson, he returned to Wahpeton High School.
“I absolutely loved it (teaching in Fargo), I loved every bit of it, but my children are getting older and it’s an hour away. I thought I could make a lot of difference in this district and Mr. Clooten agreed. Does that, even a little bit, have to do with me being an African-American? No, it has a lot to do with me being an African-American and I understand that. I play a role here. I was the only black teacher in Fargo — I'm the only black teacher here. From a young age I just knew it was going to be like this.” Woods said.
To Woods, Black History Month is a time to give credence to those who blazed the trail for him. But the mission, making life better for the next generation, doesn’t just begin on Feb. 1 and end in March, it’s ongoing.
“I hope that the example I’m setting for the people of Wahpeton transcends Black History Month,” he said.