A Student’s Perspective on Teaching Social Justice in Schools

Schools have a responsibility to support students in their overall growth and development. You often hear that schools aren’t just expected to teach the traditional Rs (reading, ‘riting,’rithmatic), but they must demonstrate strength in establishing other Rs (rigor, relevance, and relationships) in communities as well.

I recently asked Maye-gan, a 2016 Shoemaker graduate, about the responsibility of schools supporting students becoming and/or remaining conscious and active in a society too often short on justice. At the end of the day, my vision is that our students graduate from our school, proud about their accomplishments and optimistic about their future paths, yet pissed off about injustice.

But, they can’t just be angry; our students need to be conscious, creative, intelligent, demanding, organized, sophisticated, and artistic enough to do something about it. So, I reached out to a student who represents so many of our graduates to get her feedback. Below was her response.

In America today, as an African-American, it is a goal just to make it past the age of twenty-five-unlike the “normal American” goals of going to college, getting married, having children and living in a house with a white picket fence. Simply put, this is because we have never been a part of the so called “American Dream”.

Whether it be law enforcement gunning us down like we are disposable or white supremacy trying to write Blacks out of American history, we must resist. We must continue to do so, despite our many contributions to the now-relaxed American way of life.

Many African-Americans grew up in inner cities, some to single mothers, others to both parents who daily work multiple jobs trying to make ends meet and to keep a roof over their heads. These same parents are not able to teach their children what it means to be Black in America as they are trying, each day, just to keep them off the streets and food in their mouths.

However, this is not the narrative for all African-American children. Others are born in well-off middle class families who try their best to sometimes disassociate themselves with the Black community. The more successful you are at distancing yourself, the easier it becomes to not have to be grouped in with the stereotypes of Blacks that we (awkward) uneducated, loud, and ill mannered.

This is why, in both situations, it is necessary to have educational institutions that encourage and emphasize the need to be “woke” in such a dormant society. According to Webster, woke means “the past of wake”, however, according to the Urban Dictionary, it means “knowing what is going on in our community (relating to racism and social injustice).” Our society is able to trick and oppress us when we are not knowledgeable on the devices used to cripple our people.

Educational institutions teaching their Black students about the system and how it was never meant to work for us is necessary because, for far too long, many of our youth have gone about in the world blindly not realizing how much power they hold that can make a significant difference in this world.

It is time that schools start to teach students about the power of things, such as the Black Dollar. African-Americans alone have the spending power of over a trillion dollars in America which allows for the function of our economy.  Each day we feed billions and billions of dollars into an economy that we never benefit from.

It is time schools start to teach students about the power of ownership so the generational poverty that plagues our society can finally come to an end and social mobility becomes the norm for our communities.

Parents today are not always able to have conversations with their children on matters such as these, as well as things like police brutality, because they have enough hardship of their own to deal with.  This is why it is necessary for our schools to educate Black students, outside of Black History Month, so they can be empowered to face a society that is still segregated and oppressive.

I am confident that students, like Maye-gan, will continue to make a mark on the world. She, and others, push us to think about how to continue to ensure that the 6 Rs are being well-taught and developed for all of our students.

We know the liberators of the next generation are sitting in front of us now. How well they are equipped to address society’s injustices will continue to be influenced by how “woke” their educators are.


Sharif El-Mekki
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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