We Don’t Need Any More Allies. We Need Accomplices in the Fight for Justice.

Last week, I had the absolute pleasure to spend time with reformers and resisters at the Amplify conference and the SFER Summit. I returned to Philly with new energy and new strategies to fight on behalf of and in partnership with our communities.

I was particularly struck by the idea that while our allies will write, they’ll tweet, they’ll wear safety pins—it’s our accomplices who bring the noise.

This is nothing new to the struggle for equality. As Haki R. Madhubuti wrote, “All that is good and accomplished in the world takes work. Everything else is Jive.”

What’s Old Is New

I remember an iteration of this. This same angst. This same galvanization and resistance forming like clouds. When I was 9 years old, Ronald Reagan won the presidency on a platform similar to that of the current president. One that stoked racism, fear and hate.

I remember many people crying and hand-wringing when Reagan was elected. But not my parents, not their friends, and not my teachers. They resolved to redouble their efforts to ensure that our elementary school produced people who would resist.

You see, my parents were activists—some would say radicals. As members of the Black Panther Party, they surrounded us with like-minded people, including teachers. Especially our teachers. Together, all of them were focused on righting the wrongs that White supremacy erected and protected.

Education Was the Fight Then, It’s the Fight Now

People like to say that education is the civil rights issue of our time, but I can’t think of a time when educational justice wasn’t at the core of the struggle for human rights.

My grandparents, both maternal and paternal, had eight children between them. They swore they would never put their kids in the neighborhood public school because of how poorly these schools were in educating Black children. This was back in the 1950s.

Later, what attracted my parents to the Black Panther Party was not the guns, or the leather, or the berets. It was the educational justice the Party was seeking to provide, the schools they were opening, and the holistic and effective approach to education they saw in Philly, Oakland and elsewhere.

They sent me to a Freedom School, a school created so that Black kids were not oppressed through lack of rigor and low literacy (note that this was “school choice” long before the first charter school). I did not attend my neighborhood school until 10th grade, and then only because my family thought they were out of choices for a high school. Had a quality charter school existed, my mother would have no doubt enrolled me there instead.

The activism of my parents and their friends was undergirded with their contributions to education reform from the 1960s onwards. Dismantling White supremacy and all the intersecting -isms has always been a multi-layered effort. But, if you look closely, all of these efforts have been undergirded with the demand for a better educational system and educational justice.

We’ve Been Here Before

So, we are not in new times. We are in new iterations of the same times.

To say these are new times, means to tell the 57 percent of Black boys in Philly who finish high school in four years that the empty seats they saw on the graduation stage were an illusion. It would ignore that in 2011, 3,200 Black boys entered Philly’s high schools as freshmen, and in June 2015, only 1,800 of them received a high-school diploma.

Just as the freedom fighters before us stood against police brutality, racism, housing discrimination, and all other forms of injustice they saw, so should we. However, core to this resistance is the belief that educational justice must anchor our work as we address the myriad issues that plague our country.

To do this, we need more than allies. We need John Browns.


When Frederick Douglass was asked what should be done about injustice, he responded, “Agitate. Agitate. Agitate.” He advised, “Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

Allies, move over. Make room for our accomplices.

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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