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Are Educators Liberators or Overseers?

More Black and Brown men have been lynched by the state. It is the American way. And, too many educators look away from and are silent about the carnage.

Whether lynchings occur on the trees that led to “Strange Fruit” (sung by Billie Holiday), by the Tallahatchie River, on railroad tracks, in a gated community, in a bedroom, or in front of stores, it is one and the same. It is terrorism, sponsored, condoned, and defended by the state and, far too often, ignored or explained away by too many educators.

There is an intersectionality between Police Violence and Educators’ Silence

There is an intersectionality between the police violence on the Black community and the silence of too many “educators.”

Imagine a road called Police Violence and another road called Educator Silence.  What do we imagine happens at the intersection of these two streets?”

When our educators are silent about institutionalized racism and state-sponsored violence, they are complicit members of the system. When educators are muted about what students and their families encounter, they are partners in the oppression.  Teachers and principals are leaders. The positions inherently demand leadership. Leaders must speak up about injustice-especially the type that is being waged against the very students and communities we serve.

Jawanza Kunjufu remarked that he was amazed that we live in a capitalistic society, yet schools weren’t teaching Black children about capitalism. It sets them up for failure and a trap. How can schools, that purport to educate students for the future, ignore something as huge as the financial system they are a willing (or unwilling) part of?

Our students and communities interact with a system that was established to prey on them. Some educators have decided it is not within their locus of control to address it.

Even “half woke” educators know the racist system and police brutality that Black youth will encounter. How often are these issues addressed in our schools? Yes, communities should educate their youth about this form of oppression, but it does not absolve schools and districts, education non-profits, and educators to be involved and vocal allies.

Are educators aligned with police unions or communities?

Too often, not only are district administrators mum about police brutality and institutional racism, our school-based educators are also passive and silent about this form of violence.

Some organizations like New Leaders New Schools, Teach for America, and union leaders have recently taken a more vocal stance against systemic and enduring racism and oppression. And while some teacher unions and principal associations take very public stances about police brutality, others ignore it and believe their solidarity must be with the police unions instead of the communities they serve.

Just as police unions are structured to defend the murderers of black youth, teacher and principal unions are keenly positioned to defend the liberation of their Black youth. But, unfortunately, the blue code of silence is often erected within schools by educators. And, far too often, after all the talk, not much is done.

Liberators or Overseers?

As educators, we must take stock on our worth to communities daily. Start with the question that William Hayes, founding member of The Fellowship asked at our inaugural Black Male Educators Convening, Are we liberators or overseers?” Students must be taught to have their eyes wide open. Anything short of that is not setting them up for success in that “real world” that educators love to talk about.

I feel like an elder. I won’t see widespread and systemic justice during my time, but the folks who will need to continue the fight are being educated right now. How they are prepared to resist and dismantle, the current systems of police brutality and create new systems of community, policing and accountability will largely depend on educators.

If one views education as a means of pursuing life, liberty, and happiness, it must also help students identify and abolish the very systems created to deny them the same. In a future post, I will share some ideas of what educators can do to support students and remain vocal and active allies-liberators– in this aspect of the struggle.

In the meantime, if you are an educator, ask yourself, “Am I a liberator or an overseer?” You’ll know the truth. If you are prone to lie to yourself, ask your students.

They already know the answer.

What do you think?

About the author

Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.

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