Educators, Social Justice Is About Consistent Action, Not Simply When It’s Trending On Social Media

Since the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012, activists and stakeholders of the Black community have done the yeoman’s work of highlighting all murders of Black people at the hands of the state (police) and domestic terrorists (vigilante white citizens). 

Sadly, the murders of Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Sandra Bland, Atatiana Jefferson, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice were tragic, however no murder quite caught the attention of America than that of George Floyd. Maybe it was how he was murdered or that much of America was on quarantine when it happened. No matter the reason, Mr. Floyd’s murder captivated an audience of Americans that couldn’t perceive any American being killed like he was, or who simply believed that Black people spent years lying on the police.

I have no doubt that some of my colleagues in my current and former workplaces had their eyes opened. One of those colleagues approached me a few months back when school reopened and asked me a question stemming from, what I believe to be, her opened eyes.

I am a director of an afterschool program. Our program offers students the opportunity to receive tutoring and SAT test preparation courses, as well as the chance to participate in career exploration courses. Students, teachers and even administrators can suggest courses to host after school. If students are interested in a proposed course, we can turn that course into a reality. Like any position, there is paperwork involved, but I really have a cool job; I’m able to make things happen for kids.

Since our school reopened, we’ve had customary fire drills. One day while waiting to return to my office during a drill, I was approached by an administrator at my school who asked about the possibility of our afterschool program hosting a course on social justice. Now mind you, this individual has decision making influence with respect to course recommendations during the school day. Rather, this individual thought that a course on social justice—a worthwhile endeavor—would be ideal for an afterschool program.

I understand why. 

A course like that may be “racially-charged.” A course like that may offend some folks. A course like that shouldn’t be forced on any student or any teacher. Offering a course like that after school won’t incur a backlash from parents or the union. I get it. However, if a course like that would be valuable to the entire school community, as this person said it would be, why limit it to only after school?

Rather than use their ability to leverage such a worthwhile course for students during the school day, where qualified teachers could be hired to teach it and be made mandatory for students to take, this individual suggested the course be relegated to after school. Our programs aren’t mandatory; only a fraction of our students would benefit from what a course like that would have to offer. Also, we unfortunately don’t have the personnel either willing or capable of teaching such a course.

But there’s also this… I am the Black educator in charge of an educational program in the district. This may sound harsh, but I could see the look in this individual’s eyes when they saw me… the eyes said, “Oh, this is right up his alley…”

I looked the part.

The irony is that last school year, Black students at our school gave me a petition with over a hundred signatures requesting a Black Student Union program to be offered after school. When I submitted the program for approval to the necessary arbiters, it was denied. Too bad there wasn’t another publicly murdered Black person at the time… it might have gotten approved.

That maybe a low blow, but it proves the point; if you care about Black lives and social justice, it shouldn’t take the murder of a Black person for you to show it. Then again, it seems like that’s the only thing that prompts action from some amongst whites in positions of authority. The case of Loudoun County Public Schools is an example of how concerns of Black students tend to get ignored by white administrators. So are the words of Black students all over social media.

A class on social justice, done right, is a good thing for all students; they all can benefit. But white educators interested in implementing such a course, or one like it, can’t treat them as the emergency quarterback who enters the game as a last resort or the flavor of the month when injustice is trending on social media. 

Social justice courses/programs must be a part of the mainstream curriculum conversation. It means putting these courses on the agenda at curriculum meetings between department heads, curriculum supervisors and the asst. superintendent and/or superintendent to develop curricula. It means having Black and Brown educators at the table; not just teachers but also administrators and even consultants from out the building. It also means mandating planning time for teachers and supervisors to collaborate on translating plans on paper to classroom implementation; as well as proposing to students and parents to receive their feedback. 

Moreover, service-learning opportunities must be transformed into social justice opportunities. For example, rather than inviting police to explain to students how to behave so that they aren’t subject to state abuse, invite a constitutional lawyer to explain to students their constitutional rights when pulled over by a police officer. 

There will be opposition fueled by ignorance and hate—especially in districts where people of color are in the minority. Nevertheless, stay the course.

My answer to that administrator was that while I supported offering a social justice course to students through our program, making it an afterschool offering didn’t communicate the right message. If the central administration thinks that a social justice course is important, it shouldn’t have to compete with other after school courses taught at the same time, student work schedules, or other extracurricular activities students are involved—whether inside or outside of school. Contrary to what many people may think, competition isn’t always helpful. 

The administrator agreed with me and walked away, but not before she suggested we ought to discuss it further. We have not discussed it further yet.

Black lives mattering cannot be gimmicky. Black lives mattering must be part and parcel of school district culture–everywhere. It’s why when our program hosts college fairs, we included HBCUs as part of our roster of schools. It’s why we have both a Step team as well as a dance team as part of our afterschool program—both performing at pep rallies last year. It’s why we don’t throw any students out of our program just because we’re told they pose teachers “discipline” concerns. 

Honoring Black life as an afterschool program is within the fabric of our culture. While a course on social justice is important, and even necessary, what’s even more necessary is living out social justice and racial equality as individuals and as a school community. This is a message we hope to communicate to our administration by our example. That is the right mindset.

What do you think?

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Rann Miller

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