How Are Schools And Non-Profit Leaders Speaking To Their Staff About America’s Racism Pandemic?

Courage, commitment, and foresight are consistently needed when you work in schools, districts, and organizations that claim to be doing the work of anti-racism. There are too many organizations and school/district leaders today, who can’t even muster the ounce of courage it takes to speak with their teams about the context in which they do their so-called anti-racism work. Everyone talks about speaking truth to power, but many can’t even speak truth to their direct reports, colleagues, and families.

There are school and district leaders who have been silent despite the murder and mayhem that police officers unleash on our communities across the generations, but quick to condemn the heated responses of the generationally aggrieved. They fail to realize being Black in America has always meant trying to navigate persistent and pervasive racism – the quintessential American pandemic.

Below I have shared three letters written by leaders in schools and adjacent to schools. They wrote these messages to their staff, but they are instructive and insightful.

I hope you share the messages you have given to the teams you lead and serve.


Colleagues,

I watched the same sadistic, horrific murder of George Floyd by former police officer Derek Chauvin that many of you saw.  

Which came just days after bird watcher Christian Cooper videoed Amy Cooper’s shameful, racist, and dangerous 911 call in retaliation for him asking her to put her dog on leash in Central Park, which many of you also watched.

Which happened a few weeks after 26 year-old Louisville EMT Breonna Taylor died from eight gunshots fired by police who stormed the apartment she was in with her boyfriend without knocking in search of a person who was already in custody.

Which happened a few months after 25 year-old Ahmaud Arbery was murdered  on video by racist vigilantes while jogging after he spent three minutes making the fatal mistake of looking inside an empty house under construction (which I’ve done and bet some of you have, too), and it took 74 days for the perpetrators to be arrested and charged.  

Which came less than eighteen months after the night of September 6, 2018, when off-duty Dallas Police Department patrol officer Amber Guyger entered the fourth floor Dallas, Texas, apartment of 26-year-old accountant Botham Jean, thinking somehow that he had broken into her third floor apartment, and killed him.  

Which happened less than a year and a half after Dallas area police Roy Oliver officer shot and killed 15 year-old Jordan Edwards as he was riding in a car that was driving away from a party police had been called to break up and posed no threat whatsoever to him (Oliver initially lied and said the car was approaching him but had to change his story when it was contradicted by bodycam footage).  

Which happened eight months after the dashcam and helicopter cam videoed murder on September 16, 2016 of 40 year-old Terence Crutcher by Tulsa police officer Betty Jo Shelby. Crutcher was standing near his vehicle in the middle of a street, unarmed and apparently disoriented, during the encounter.  Despite the video footage, a jury acquitted Shelby, who is now a Sheriff’s Deputy in a neighboring county.

Which happened two months after the videoed July 6, 2016 murder by St. Anthony Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez during a routine traffic stop of 32 year-old St. Paul school cafeteria supervisor Philando Castile, who was politely complying with Yanez and in the car with his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds and her four year-old daughter in the backseat. Despite the murder being filmed from the police car dashcam and despite a real-time Facebook live video by Castile’s girlfriend Diamond Reynolds, Yanez was acquitted by a jury.  

Which happened the day after 37 year-old father of five Alton Sterling was shot dead at close range, which was recorded on cellphone video by two Baton Rouge police officers who were holding him down after being called to the convenience store where he was selling bootleg CDs as a result of an altercation in which Sterling was not the responsible party. Sterling was armed, apparently because CDs bootleggers had recently been robbed.  The officers were not charged.

The aforementioned tragedies and other murders by police of other African American boys and men you all and I can cite off the top of our heads — Tamir Rice, Laquan McDonald, Walter Scott, and Eric Garner just to name a few — reflect both a wanton disregard for Black lives and a deeply ingrained myth of Black male dangerousness that was propagated along with the pseudo-science backed myth of racial hierarchy to justify economic exploitation, subjugation, and sadistic cruelty towards African Americans during slavery and since.

This has been going on continuously in one form or another for hundreds of years.  The only difference is now there are cellphones and bodycams (which should be universal for police) and dashcams.

Police killed 1,099 people in the U.S. in 2019.  Black people were 24% of those killed despite being only 13% of the population.  Black people are 3x more likely to be killed by the police than white people despite being less likely to be carrying firearms when arrested.  99% of police killings of Black people between 2013-2019 have not resulted in officers being charged with a crime.  See https://mappingpoliceviolence.org for more info.

The police killings of Black people have major spillover effects.  Research has demonstrated their effect on African Americans’ mental health broadly.  

To be clear, and those of you who know me know this about me, I’m not trying to tell you what to think or feel here.  Have no shoulds for you.  But I think we can all agree that racism remains a widespread, deadly cancer in American society, and that the killings and lack of accountability noted above are just some of its awful consequences.  The disproportionately negative impacts of the Coronavirus on African Americans are obviously another.  As, of course, is the massive inequity of resources invested in the education of African American and Latino and Native American children compared to most white children.

I’ll stop now and leave you with this, because it’s dinner time and I’ve been at my computer for far too long on a Saturday afternoon.  At the end of this day and every day, I’m 100% with Atlanta rapper Killer Mike, whose eloquent remarks yesterday deeply resonated with me.  His eight minute remarks are absolutely positively worth watching and I couldn’t agree more with him that “it is the responsibility of us to make this better right now.”  That now is the time to “plot, plan, strategize, organize, and mobilize.”  

Let me know where you’re at and what you’re feeling and thinking and doing.

Jonah Edelman, CEO Stand for Children


Kelley Family,

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Rioting is the language of the oppressed, the unheard.”

I come to you all with a heavy and saddened heart. I am numb. I cannot sleep. I cannot eat. I am processing. People are hurting. People are dying. I come to you as a human being; as a mother of 3 Black men and a Black woman. Ten years ago, when my daughter was 15, she was racially assaulted by a New Castle County Police Officer. So, I know first-hand, at ANY point and time, any child that we know, love, or raise could be the next Keyona Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Trevon, Tamir, Sandra, on and on and on. 


We are living through life-changing events. We’ve been “shelter in place” for months, removed from simply sitting and eating with family and friends. Removed from what we’ve been accustomed to doing; hugging, handshakes, working, high-fiving, visiting grandparents…living.

Then, we woke up to a video of Ahmaud Arbery being gunned down as he jogged after an assumption was made that he was a thief. He was not. Then, we woke up to videos of Christian Cooper being threatened and fraudulently reported on simply because he made a request of another human being to follow the directions. He was bird-watching. “I’m going to tell them I’m being threatened by an African American male.” Amy Cooper said this because she knew what type of reaction he could receive… death. That video angered me. 


A few days later, I woke up to a video of officers kneeling on the neck of a Black man, George Floyd petitioning for air; which is free. Petitioning for his mother; who is decease. Petitioning; saying please. We watched him die in pain, begging for a little humanity. The officer, Derek Chauvin never looked down at him as he slowly killed him for 9+ minutes.

I watched in anguish. I watched the pain in his eyes and heard the fear in his voice. I knew he was dying. I became paralyzed by a visual of George’s face being that of my sons, my daughter, my husband, my brother, my father, my nephews, my uncles, our students, our teachers, our 19121 families. 

As the proud principal of W. D. Kelley, I know that our students are hurting, our families are hurting, YOU are hurting…. that furthers my hurt! Hundreds of black boys in our Kelley community know their reality. Getting stopped by police that make up a reason to run their license, check VIN numbers while in the process; rarely resulting in a ticket, harassing, embarrassing, belittling. Most times it is the “wrong person.”

Today and moving forward, I ask that you begin to reflect on who you are and how you are contributing to ending racism. I challenge everyone to educate yourself on the systemic racism that has plagued America since its existence. Silence KILLS. This is also why I asked that before you ask how do we fail our students; you ask how do we help them to be successful.  This is why I ask before you ask for a suspension, you ask them are you okay? Do you need to talk to someone? How can I help you, etc.? It’s a heavy burden for a child to carry to be made to feel less. In an America where the odds are greater of them becoming the next George Floyd than Barack Obama.

To that end, I am requiring that students are allowed to share their feelings, knowing there are no wrong feelings.  Create a safe space for our students.  If you don’t know what to say, just listen!  You can provide a prompt or simply ask them to post a word of how they are feeling on ClassDojo. This can springboard into a conversation about current events. They need us! We need them to survive! We need one another.

Eternally grateful for your service,

Principal Edwards
William D. Kelley School 


Greetings Warrior Nation,

I wanted to take a moment to lift up the circumstances that are occurring in our nation right now and offer a few words to express where I am on the issues and why I have not provided a verbal message or plan of action in response to what has occurred.

Early this week I woke up to the video posted of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, in cuffs, face down, with the knee of a White police officer on his neck as other officers held him down. I watched for 7 minutes as this man was murdered with witnesses helplessly and hopelessly pleading for his life. I watched his lifeless body be rolled onto a stretcher still cuffed. The crime; suspicion of forgery.

The officer despite pleas from the crowd, requests from white emergency personnel to let him breath, and cameras recording everything, was unbothered and undeterred. George Floyd lay on the ground and screamed out I can’t breathe. These ironically enough were the same words spoken by Eric Garner another victim killed by police in 2014 and would eventually became a rallying cry of the Black Lives Matter movement.

And despite the marches, protests, and campaigns here we are again. We are still coping with the murder of Breonna Taylor shot 8 times in March by police issuing a search warrant. We are still coping with the murder of Ahmaud Arbery who was chased, cornered, and murdered by former police officers while jogging back in February.

As I lay there and watched the video I didn’t watch as a principal of a school. I watched as a Black man living in America. Unfortunately this wasn’t my first time watching a person of color die at the hands of police but something about THIS video hit different. I wasn’t shocked. I wasn’t even sad. I was angry and in a pit of rage.

For three days I could only share posts or like comments. No words were uttered about my feelings because I could not process anything beyond anger. I was not in a position to lead, facilitate, or offer any guidance toward a solution because in those moments no reasonable solutions in a professional context made sense.

This is bigger than a professional development or 10 minute open discussion.

This is life and death.

I am still angry and still processing as are many of you and particularly the people of color who work within our community. I’m sure many students and families are experiencing the same range of emotions. I received a text from a student the day the video hit the news telling me of his reflections on the incident and he closed it by telling me to be safe. We live in a world where our students are not only worried about themselves but the life of their principal because they know that he too is a Black man. 

I am sure that in this time individuals are wondering how to approach the discussion or what to say and what to do. I am sure that our staff members of color are processing in their own ways and wondering about the world in which they are raising their own children of color and the world they too are navigating.

I am sure that White staff members within our school are asking what the appropriate response is and what they should do to encourage and support people of color in this moment.

As the principal of this school my only ask is that as a white person who considers yourself to be an ally this is the time to speak up and out. Silence in these times is unsafe. Our communities need time to heal in the best ways they know how. There will be no right answer as to how you can support people of color as they process their own emotions but you can be the source of solutions to combat the racism and violence against people of color at the hands of white individuals.

Your voice matters and so too does your ability to exercise your own privilege in these times. I am grateful for the team that we have been able to build at MHSC and truly believe that all of us are in this work for our kids. It is also important that we be in this work for each other.

As I write this email I am still angry but can finally muster up the strength to be hopeful. If anyone has ideas, thoughts, or steps you believe we can and should collectively take moving forward I welcome you to email me directly. 

Sincerely,

Dr. William Hayes, Founding Principal

Mastery High School of Camden

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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