If you’re not already aware, right before the new year a Black man was arrested at a Huntington Bank in Cleveland, Ohio, for cashing his check. Let that sink in. For cashing a check he earned, he was arrested. Over the course of last year, we have seen many instances of people of color being profiled, singled out and arrested for doing normal everyday things.
Sometimes I wonder if people truly understand why educators need to teach social justice, why teachers need diverse perspectives in their curriculum, why educators must show children people who reflect them while they are learning. And then, another one of these stories happen. Whether it be someone who is upset because they see people of color in a certain neighborhood they are not “supposed” to be in, or there is a pool party in a certain complex that people of color are not “supposed” to frequent, or someone is calling the police because of a water stand, or a BBQ, or a picnic, or *fill in the blank*. Time and time again—it hurts.
As I read the story I sat there thinking, what will I tell my son? How can I prepare him? Not only do I need to have a talk with him, which I have already, about how he is not to make any sudden moves if he is stopped by the police and how to comply, but now I must say to him, “Son, be careful if you go into the bank to cash your payroll check and be sure not to make any sudden moves.”
It is so reminiscent of the Jim Crow era when Emmett Till was mauled, beaten and drowned because he allegedly whistled at a White woman. It gives the implication that there are certain things that people of color are not supposed to do, not supposed to say, not get the very privilege of just simply living a life. Going about life on a day to day basis, doing basic things that everybody else gets to do. In some people’s eyes, we must conduct ourselves “accordingly” or face consequences.
So, what does this mean for education? Well, it means a lot of things. First of all, when Secretary of Education Betsy Devos decided to eliminate the discipline guidance that was established by the Obama administration, she basically sent a signal that she did not care about the school-to-prison pipeline or students’ civil rights. Earlier last year on an interview with “60 Minutes” she admitted that she had not even visited struggling schools, schools with discipline issues or schools that need attention.
By now, we should all know how a lack of discipline guidance for schools influences the school-to-prison pipeline. But I want to share what might be less familiar, what my friend Sharif El-Mekki calls the school-to-activism pipeline.
We have to show students that they can change the narrative. If they see something in their community or school that they do not like, they can do something about it. We have to show them that their voice matters, their lives matter, they MATTER! Show and teach all of them that they are not a threat based on the way they look. That it is OK for them to go into a bank and cash a check; it is OK for them to enjoy themselves at a pool party and it is OK for them to live their life. We have to dispel myths, bust stereotypes and encourage them to be their very best selves.
We have to create an environment where they are unafraid to take risks, where they believe that they can be anything. We have to have high expectations. We have to show them that we believe in their ability to be successful. We show them these things through rigorous work tasks and support—if we give them a task, we must show them how to do it. We need to show them that they are loved. We need to show them that they have power.
Real change, social justice and the school-to-activism pipeline start in our classrooms. If we want to change the world, we have to start with ourselves and then with our students. Tupac Shakur said, “I’m not saying I am going to change the world, but I guarantee that I will spark the brain that will change the world.” We have that power, educators. We might not change the whole world, but if we just spark the mind of one child in our classroom, we can make a difference.