The Luxury of Disengagement: Fighting for Educational Justice in a Trump Presidency

“Our people have made the mistake of confusing the methods with the objectives. As long as we agree on objectives, we should never fall out with each other just because we believe in different methods, or tactics, or strategy.” -Malcolm X

Should social justice activists and educators engage policymakers in the Trump administration?

As educators hellbent on educational justice for our children and communities, the question is real. Even the remote idea of engaging with people who use the divisiveness of bigotry, misogyny, and racism is revolting. However, engaging doesn’t have to mean selling out, cowering, or bootlicking-it also means fighting, advocating, and agitating.

For us, it certainly does not mean divorcing ourselves from our core beliefs, priorities, or not serving as the staunch advocates on behalf of, and, in partnership with, the best interests of our communities. We have been raised to speak truth to power, regardless of covert or overt bigotry, misogyny, and racism. We remain standard bearers for our communities.

While fraught with challenges, we cannot afford to avoid speaking the necessary unapologetic truth to power and trying everything we can to ensure our communities’ most precious investments—our students—are helped, and, at least, not harmed further. That can’t always be done from afar. Often, politics is hand-to-hand combat—up close, strategic, and with the endgame in mind. Educators, like other activists, fight the power and bring the noise to elevate our communities’ voices to anyone who has the power to enforce their will-and injustice- on America’s most vulnerable students.

What Federal Failure Can Mean for the Most Vulnerable Communities

Ultimately, federal failure affects marginalized communities the most. And despite the new level of angst around the president elect’s horrific words and actions, our teachers had similar anger, anxiety, and frustration in 1980 when another TV star rose to The White House determined to do irreparable damage to our communities. Our communities have been on similar terrain before.

With the selection of Betsy DeVos as the US Secretary of Education, an advocate of Wild West style charter authorization, who appears silent in regard to school accountability, we know which communities are poised to suffer the most. And, this is not an anti-Republican stance. The recent unholy and conniving bi-partisan support of portability of Title I dollars shows that we cannot assume any “party” is naturally pro-children. It behooves us to remain vigilant and engaged in the conversation as vouchers and other initiatives, possibly funded by Title I dollars, come to the federal forefront again.

Policies will continue to be crafted. With Congress’s decision to use ESSA to punt accountability to states, states’  historic neglect of Black and Brown schools, and the dearth of accountability to support our communities’ schools, most of our work would be likely best served at the local levels. Ensuring that our students are safe, fighting against “savage inequalities” and holding paid adults accountable for students, are all issues that can and must be addressed at state and district levels.

Soft bigotry (and hard bigotry for that matter) isn’t just couched in the rhetoric of staunch bigots—it’s also baked into the policies of so-called allies. Holding the new administration accountable can’t just be from afar. Sometimes the spooks must be on the inside, at the table-not just by the door. The voice of dissent is heard best up close.

What Needs to Happen

Recently, Solomon Jones remarked on his radio show that history doesn’t only show what happened, it shows what will happen. Our forefathers engaged with the fiercest racists to get policies changed. Marcus Garvey, Martin, Frederick all needed to engage folks they vehemently disagreed with.

We should also keep in mind that there are some Republicans aghast about the rhetoric and divisiveness of the president elect’s campaign as well. I must believe that some of them would be open to dialogue and action toward equity even if we don’t agree on the specific paths. At the very least, perhaps they don’t want to roll back progress that has been made—and at the very best, they’d champion more accountability for all schools, ensure better charter laws within states, secure universal enrollment or Pre-K funding, and ensure that portability of Title I funds isn’t instituted or revisited.

There are also career educators in many sectors of the general government who are committed to our youth. Is it wise to disengage from them as well under the new administration? Ultimately, what is imperative is that we do not lose sight of our ideals and commitment to justice. Even as we fiercely and professionally let them know what we believe in as conscious Black and Brown leaders and activists.

By disengaging, a dangerous vacuum can be created and vacuums are always filled. The Black and Brown folks who may fill the void left by the four to eight year hibernation of the conscious and committed practitioners, may not be committed to kids, may not be practitioners, and may be ideologically aligned to the administration soon to be in power. Ultimately, are we going to use a telescope or a magnifying glass to protect our children?

However, total disengagement, which means totally removing our kids from public schools, an unlikely path for most Black and Brown families, may mean leaving communities in substantial harm’s way. That’s not something we are willing to do. We’ve never been comfortable abdicating responsibility to teach people—even those who come from the exact opposite positions.

What We Are Committed to Doing

There is an emerging crop of Black and Brown leaders that have risen from the underbelly of America and sat in classrooms that did not move them forward on the educational spectrum yet they have clawed and built their own seat at a table where they were not wanted or welcomed. As part of this group, we cannot fully disengage, to do so would be a slap in the face of those that were murdered for learning how to read, voting, raising their voice in the face of bigots. It would not carry on the other part of the tradition of the resistance, demanding a seat at the table whenever it impacted our communities—and, the new administration will most certainly impact our communities.

Fully disengaging would be resting in our newfound warmth of privilege and leaving children out in the cold without as much of an attempt to bring them out of the blizzard that is the pervasive educational outcomes we continue to see for Black and Brown children. Making noise and raising hell from afar, out organizing, and holistically educating our people are all a part of resistance movements, and these need to be coupled with direct elevation of our voices; with allies within the administration (think career policymakers, closer-to-the middle Republicans, and others).

As Black men, what does it mean for us to do meaningful work when the backdrop is a publicly xenophobic leader that openly discusses building a wall to keep Mexicans out of a country that they once owned? What is our path when we have a pending leader who believes Muslims should be persecuted for their beliefs and that America’s greatness is mothballed in internment camps, Jim Crow laws and mindsets, and other human rights assaults?

Well, we think think there are many answers, but what we are committed to doing is stepping up to the table and with every breath and opportunity, working with every bit of power at our disposal to do what we know is best for our babies. This requires us to bring compatriots along so when our voices have dried up and our will depleted, they can step into that space while we recover. It means telling the truth in the face of power while building out space for more Black and Brown people hardwired to see our children succeed. We must be there at every turn, every discussion, and every convening being the booming voice of reason and clarity during this entire presidency. We must be so present, so loud and resolute that we cannot be ignored.

Our coalitions have to be on point and ready to move, the dissidence amongst ourselves will be much more dangerous in the coming years. Although we are not a monolith as school reform advocates and social justice warriors, we need our demands to be ever ready and our principles to be in sync. Unity doesn’t mean disagreement is non existing. Unity means that we are pursuing the same goals: Black and Brown liberation and the dismantling of white supremacy in all its nefarious forms. And, as Fred Hampton reminded us, “You fight racism with unity.

At the end of the day, we need to put on our shields and voice our demands at the table in the same way representatives from warring nations would do and at the same time, organize the resistance at home. Our objective remains Black and Brown liberation. Pamoja Tutashinda. Onwards.

This was co-written with Charles Cole, III and originally appeared on Huffington Post.

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.


  1. […] I once met Secretary DeVos. I was invited to speak to her as a part of a small group of educators, mostly principals, who were there to provide feedback and advice. Although, I was initially reluctant to participate, I thought it prudent to share my experiences and insight and those of my community. I walked away knowing with a high level of certainty that the current U.S. Secretary of Education was deeply uninterested in learning about schools, teaching, and learning. […]


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