Black Lives Matter at School Grew from Local Event to National Movement

Week-long event kicks off Feb. 4 to coincide with Black History Month

by Carolyn Bick

Just a few years ago, Black Lives Matter at School was a Seattle-area-only day of action. Now, it has become a national, week-long movement, with almost 30 cities and hundreds of schools participating.

“It’s incredible to see how we are changing the culture, where, before, you had to whisper you supported Black Lives Matter, and be afraid of what the backlash could be, if you publicly said you supported a movement for Black lives,” Garfield High School teacher and education activist Jesse Hagopian said in a phone interview. “Now, you can openly proclaim that and be bold about it.”

Hagopian is on the Black Lives Matter at School organizing committee, and, along with his fellow organizers, held a press conference Jan. 28 to talk about the upcoming week of action in schools across the country. Black Lives Matter at School week is Feb. 4-8, and coincides with the beginning of Black History Month.

Black Lives Matter at School started at John Muir Elementary School in the 2016-17 school year, Hagopian said. Initially, it was supposed to be an official, district-sponsored day of action in school on Oct. 19, but the school had to cancel it, after receiving a bomb threat that followed on the heels of hate mail. Still, some of the school’s teachers decided to wear Black Lives Matter shirts to school anyway and proceed as planned, and the Social Equity Educators caucus, of which Hagopian is a part, passed a resolution to support them. Other Seattle-area teachers also wore Black Lives Matter shirts to school, creating a cohort of almost 3,000 educators across the school district who wore Black Lives Matter shirts that year.

The following year, Seattle educators decided to expand Black Lives Matter at School to a week of action in early February 2018. The media picked up on what was happening, Hagopian said, and the localized Seattle movement quickly became a national one. It was even endorsed by the National Education Association, one of the largest teachers’ unions in the country.

This year, the movement has made four demands: end so-called “zero tolerance” discipline, and implement restorative justice; hire more Black teachers; mandate Black history and ethnic studies in the K-12 curricula; and fund counselors, not cops.

“Our kids need it. You look at the fact the city is building a $200 million jail to lock kids up, but you can’t find the funds to lower class size – you see that it’s imperative our educators stand up and say, ‘Our Black kids’ lives have value,’” Hagopian said.

During the week, educators will teach lessons around the movement’s 13 guiding principles. They will kick off the week with lessons around restorative justice, empathy, and loving engagement. Tuesday and Wednesday will see lessons around diversity and globalism, and trans-affirming, queer-affirming, and collective value, respectively.

On Thursday, educators will base lessons on intergenerational communities, Black families, and Black villages, and on Friday, they will talk about being unapologetically Black and the power and importance of Black women. Friday will also see the final rally at Cleveland High School at 6 p.m. The rally will showcase youth-created media, speeches, and more that further the goal of uprooting institutional racism.

All of these lessons are important, Hagopian said, because they address aspects of history that are otherwise overlooked. For instance, he said, Mahalia Jackson was the only woman allowed on stage at the March on Washington, despite Black women being an integral part of the movement. Not even Rosa Parks was allowed to speak, he said. Similarly, traditional school history books have kept quiet about that fact that Bayard Ruston, one of the March’s key organizers, was a gay man.

“This week of action just really gives us a way to get into a whole lot of different issues, and help our students understand intersecting oppressions and struggles and Black excellence,” Hagopian said.

To RSVP for the final rally on Feb. 8, visit the event Facebook page. The NAACP Youth Caucus will also be holding a mobilization event at the School Board meeting on Feb. 6, in which all are invited to participate. To learn more about Black Lives Matter At School, visit the movement’s website.

Featured Photo: Black Lives Matter at School Week at Garfield High School in 2018. (Photo: Susan Fried)

3 thoughts on “Black Lives Matter at School Grew from Local Event to National Movement”

  1. only bummer about this awesome piece is that, for the second year in a row i am sponsoring a resolution to recognize #blacklivesmatteratschoolsweek on february 6 at our regular board meeting, as well. our seattle school board is in full support of this incredibly meaningful and enriching week of curriculum, history, and community 😉 these students inspire us and we want to be as responsive as we can!

    -zachary dewolf, seattle school board director district 5

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