My heart aches. My heart has ached for quite some time now. Perhaps the ache is a combination of my personal trials as a Black woman who identifies with the LGBTQ community coupled with the continued senseless killings of Black people at the hands of police. Take the latest headline as an example; the latest headline depicts the most heinous killing, in broad daylight, of Mr. George Floyd by one callous police officer. This despicable murder is not numbing as others may have been; instead, the murder of Mr. George Floyd has sparked a nation-wide rage that is long overdue.
I have witnessed and experienced enough of my own trauma and devastation to last a lifetime. From a virus (Covid-19), that knows no boundaries to the lasting consequences of slavery from over 400-years ago. Yet, today my heart aches more.
Across the country, I see inequities play out in school systems that often leave our children feeling hopeless. Manifested in that hopelessness are often actions some would label as thuggish as several protests have left businesses burned down, workers once again unemployed and incessant violence throughout some of our most segregated communities. I do not promote violence and will not excuse many of the images that I, like you, have observed on television. I also know we, as a Black people, are not the only ones to blame for the damages left behind, but this conversation is for another day. How easy it is to name what you see on television, displayed on the front pages of newspapers, or circulating on social media as thuggish? It is easy to use derogatory names, such as thugs, when blaming one group of people when you cannot relate to the immense pain of a people. Consider the words of the great civil rights’ leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who said, “Riots are the voices of the unheard.” Again, I am not purporting that hurt people should hurt people. Yet, how many sat in silence as the inequities piled high?
So, where did this rage come from? I contend this is not a rage from one incident- in particular the killing of Mr. George Floyd. Rather, this rage is a culmination of injustices in every area of a Black person’s life. Consider food insecurities; consider lack to proper health care; consider health disparities, housing disparities, job disparities, transportation disparities, wealth disparities, and education disparities. Consider all of it. When you consider the enormous amount of disparities playing out in every area of one’s life that prevented the opportunity to build and maintain quality of life, perhaps you begin to realize the unheard refused to be unheard any longer.
Where, in actuality, does equality exist aside from words on a paper? Keep pondering. I have not found it yet. Sure, you might say well look at you, Teresa. And, yes, I may have risen to the ranks of a school superintendent and earned three additional initials behind my name, but I can attest none of this mattered when I was asked, in its most subtle and sometimes not subtle form asked, to turn a blind eye to injustice. I could continue to write on this issue alone, but I will save this for another story.
I am happy, albeit tempered, at the outpouring of statements coming from Superintendents and school boards across the country denouncing racism. Those statements alone, however, do not spark action. I am concerned that normality will set in again. The storm will pass and all will revert to normal.
Nevertheless, I am pleading with each of you who may feel so inclined to act. Fight the urge to crawl back into your safe space. Now is the time to fight like hell knowing you will put everything on the line, including yourself. What does this look like in practice? For starters, let me preface by saying I am not an expert on this work. Therefore, I will speak from my readings, prior and current experiences, and downright common sense.
First, if you have issued a statement on behalf of yourself and/or school district, good! That is a good start. Now, go back and re-read your statement. Is it soft around the edges? If it does not actually embed words such as racism, Black, privilege, next steps, then write another statement. Next, continue these series of non-exhaustive steps:
- Read books by Black authors. I get that White Fragility is the craze right now, so go ahead and read that too. However, I want you to read books that will challenge your thinking and build your capacity to engage in this work at a much deeper level. Here are a just a few authors and recommended texts to consider:
- James Baldwin- The Fire Next Time
- Prudence L. Carter- Stubborn Roots: Race, Culture, and Inequality in U.S. and South African Schools
- Lisa Delpit-Other People’s Children
- John Diamond & Amanda Lewis (White)-Despite the Best Intentions: How Racial Inequality Thrives in Good Schools
- Geneva Gay- Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, & Practice
- Ibram X. Kendi-How to Be an Antiracist
- Gloria Ladson-Billings- The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children
- Audre Lorde-Your Silence Will Not Protect You
- H. Richard Milner IV- Start Where You Are, But Don’t Stay There: Understanding Diversity, Opportunity Gaps, and Teaching in Today’s Classrooms
- Dr. Beverly Tatum-Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?
- Immerse yourself in spaces where you can talk honestly and openly about your learnings with others who are on the journey with you. Include ‘us’ to challenge, affirm, and encourage you on your learning journey.
- Share your learnings, including authors and books, with others in your realm of influence.
- Review every single district policy for areas of weakness that intentionally or unintentionally perpetuate inequities. Then, challenge your Board to revise them all.
- Align fragmented policies and practices that lean adult-centered rather than student-centered.
- Make sure ‘we’ are at the table in your decision making process.
- Review every curriculum document, including texts. Look for when and how people of Color show up in these places. How often? When? For how long?
- Review your hiring practices. If your district is staffed primarily with White folk, regardless of student demographics, ask-how do I actively recruit to diversify staff? Where do I go (ex. HBCUs)? How will I support staff of Color?
- Review disciplinary infraction data. Who is referred to the office? Who is suspended? By who? How often? For what? Put a name, better yet, put your name next to every student suspended. Rings differently.
- Do your disciplinary policies inadvertently target Black students? (ex. durags vs. leggings)
- Examine evaluations and classroom observation data. Is everyone rated proficient yet Black and Brown students are still failing at disproportionate rates?
- Examine student tasks. Are they culturally and cognitively challenging for everyone?
- Examine your guidance department. Do we appear in pictures around the offices? Are HBCU pennants displayed?
Again, the aforementioned list of actionable steps are not intended to be all-inclusive, but I hope they give you some concrete places to start.
Finally, I am a Black woman, mother, wife, daughter, sister, niece, cousin and friend. These tags mean I am someone and someone’s someone. These past two years of sitting in the superintendent seat have awakened a fire in my spirit that lay dormant for far too long; I imagine an inner unrest. This unrest has stirred in me a desire to do more. From the oppressive behaviors of White people, policies, and practices, the lasting consequences are evident. It is time for everyone to heed the call, move to action, and from where you are, recognize as my pastor so eloquently articulated, receive that your calling is birthed out of crisis. Let’s go!