by Sarah Corn
Seattle based activists, teachers, and volunteers announced Monday afternoon a new five-day, nationally coordinated action to teach K-12 grade students about institutional racism, black history, and black identity.
This new coalition for racial equity in education, Black Lives Matter at Schools, traces its creation back to a one-day 2016 teaching event at South Seattle’s John Muir Elementary.
The 2016 event, “Black Men Uniting to Change the Narrative,” was canceled by the district after plans to invite black men from the community to share positive support drew threats against the school.
“I wanted to show our students that our black men weren’t what they see and hear and read on TV and in the news,” said event organizer, Muir family and student advocate DeShawn Jackson, at a press conference Monday evening.
Jackson joined fellow Seattle Public Schools educators and community leaders to announce the first “Black Lives Matter at School” Week, a nationally coordinated week of action in education.
From February 5-9, Black Lives Matter shirts will fill classrooms from Seattle to LA, Chicago, Detroit, New York City, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Boston, and more, along with history lessons on institutional racism.
“This is a growing movement to sever the school-to-prison pipeline,” said organization spokesperson and Garfield High School ethnic studies teacher Jesse Hagopian, “and to make sure the curriculum that we have in our classrooms uplift our black students and give them lessons they need to help be part of the struggle to undo institutional racism.”
The news prompted Philadelphia schools to invite black men from their community to engage and share. A few months later, the Rochester, N.Y., schools expanded the program to include an entire week of lesson plans. As more city schools started expressing interest, the national Black Lives Matter in School coalition formed to coordinate planning.
The coalition divided the 13 principles outlined by the Black Lives Matter organization into daily lesson plan themes that teachers can build from, said Hagopian.
Despite Seattle’s district-wide participation in the program, education chair for the Seattle King County NAACP Rita Green said there are still institutionalized barriers at the administrative level.
“Down at [Seattle Public School] headquarters, there’s too much institutional racism,” said Green. “It’s structural, it’s embedded, and it’s hard to break that through.”
Exactly how to incorporate the lessons into the classroom is up to the discretion of individual teachers, schools, and districts, said Marquita Prinzing, coordinator for the Seattle Education Association’s Center for Race and Equity.
“It is expected that each school uses the context of their school to figure out what would best support their students,” Prinzing said.
The week starts off with restorative justice, empathy, and loving engagement on Monday, then moves on to diversity and globalism on Tuesday. Wednesday will focus on trans-affirming, queer-affirming, and collective value, followed by a focus on intergenerational black families and black villages on Thursday. On Friday, lessons will cover black women and unapologetically black.
Hagopian, himself an alumnus of Seattle Public Schools, is particularly looking forward to his lesson plan for Tuesday, which focuses on Haiti’s unique democratic history.
“When President Trump called Haiti an s-hole country, it was deeply hurtful and offensive,” he said. “The true history of Haiti is that it’s one of the most inspiring examples of human liberation the world has ever known.”
These types of discussions are exactly why Muir Elementary parent Wayne Au believes so strongly in the public school system. He wants to make sure his son understands the full range of human perspectives, he said.
“I think it’s really important that my son get these experiences,” Au said, “so that, you know, he can be a whole, engaged human being who’s in the world and ready to change it for the better.”
In addition to the classroom themes, Black Lives Matter at School is raising national awareness around a list of three policy demands put forth by the coalition: end Zero Tolerance policies and institute restorative justice; hire more black teachers; and mandate black and ethnic studies for K-12 schools.
Seattle educators added two more regionally-specific demands. First, they want the state to fully fund schools.
Seattle Peoples Party spokesperson Nikkita Oliver and Rainier Beach High School teacher Mark Epstein outlined concerns over funding decisions they say prioritize new youth detention centers and charter schools over promised repairs to existing facilities.
Second, Seattle educators are also demanding that schools de-track classrooms to combat racial segregation.
The issue of de-tracking, where institutionalized racism directs students of color, specifically black and brown students, away from more challenging coursework, is a personal one for Rita Green.
Green said her journey began when she discovered her 6th-grade son was being kept in a special education class even after the teacher realized he was outpacing his peers.
“So then why would you put him in a class if it’s not challenging enough for him?” Green said she wanted to know. “It’s okay because he’s a black student, right?”
The community is invited to join the schools in a closing rally on February 9 from 6-8 p.m. at Cleveland High School, in celebration of the week’s black youth organizers.
Hear how University of Washington Bothell Professor of Education Studies and John Muir Elementary parent Wayne Au explores topics of race with his 8-year-old son:
Hear Seattle Peoples Party spokesperson and former Seattle mayoral candidate Nikkita Oliver break down the problems with choosing to fund new jails instead of school repairs:
Sarah Corn is a South Seattle resident, and a journalism student at the University of Washington.
Featured image by Chloe Collyer