As a principal, I believe educators must stand together and continue to fight for equal access to opportunity for our poor children of color and to tackle bigotry head on. The struggle for racial equity did not end with the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.; it is alive and well and educators ought to be at the forefront of the movement.
The call for justice is ringing loud and clear and it’s high time for us educators to answer it.
Schools cannot imitate the practices of the penal system and expect students to not end up trapped in it. Schools are our country’s incubators of democracy. If schools do not help children develop their senses of empathy and justice, Dr. King’s dream will never be realized.
A Freedom Summer
A few summers ago, I was blessed to learn from Bob Moses, who is considered to be the architect of Freedom Summer, at a community organizing workshop hosted by DePaul University to commemorate that historic series of protests. He has continued to fight for justice and equity through the Algebra Project, which uses mathematics as an organizing tool to ensure every child has access to a quality public education.
Mr. Moses challenged everyone to demand their rights as constitutional citizens, namely, but not limited to, the rights of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
But civil rights are only part of what Black citizens are due.
Black Lives Matter demands that we be treated as constitutional citizens entitled to every right articulated in the Constitution without exception. When a Black life is lost or endangered by state or judicial actions, justice demands recompense, equal protection, and due process.
As my friend James says, “Black lives matter (too).” There’s an unspoken “too.” If your lives matter, our lives matter. To say Black lives matter is not to claim that other citizens’ lives matter less or that Black lives matter more.
This mantra is essentially the Golden Rule remixed.
At the school I lead, we say, “Be neighborly.” This is our version of the Golden Rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. When I hear Black Lives Matter, I hear the Golden Rule.
We develop the neighborliness of our students through Responsive Classroom Morning Meetings and Peace Circles. At the heart of our democratic experiment is our ability to see and experience the world from the perspective of others. What we need is more empathetic citizens with power and privilege willing to include the marginalized and disenfranchised.
Black Lives Matter is more than a group of protesters marching on streets inconveniencing commutes home or weekend plans. It’s an extension of the civil rights movement: abolitionism, bus boycotts, sit-ins and the Freedom Riders. If only more people could see this continuum.
Educators are working to make the role racism plays in daily life more apparent in order to end it. Illinois state law requires all schools to help students link historical events, like the Civil Rights Movement, to current affairs.
My own school district here in Chicago has worked with Facing History and Ourselves to teach students how to prevent acts of bigotry. The Pacific Educational Group is dedicated to helping schools tackle interpersonal and structural racial biases. The group’s founder, Glen Singleton, believes we can eliminate racism by the third grade.
Our systems of education and justice are failing our Black students the most. To fix this oppression will take the hard, dedicated work of countless leaders. What if all school and government officials, especially those in the criminal justice system, had to complete trainings committed to uprooting racial bias?
Educators cannot change the past; however, when many are quick to shut down or remain ignorant of present events, we can respond differently.
We can approach the moment with empathetic ears, open minds and the generosity of spirit. I know in our school, we will continue to lead circles to create space for our students to express their feelings.
We will continue to take moments to step back and reflect upon what these tragedies have wrought. We will continue to be neighborly when others want to build walls of separation.