Opinion: What Black Lives Matter at School Is from the Perspective of a NAACP Youth Council Leader in Seattle

by Erica Ijeoma


In the fall of 2016, back when I was 14 years old, John Muir Elementary staff planned to wear Black Lives Matter shirts, partner with Black Men Uniting to Change the Narrative, and together greet their students, the majority of whom are Black, to school in hopes of uplifting them.

That was the whole event – high fives and a warm welcome.

But soon the press caught wind of this event, then the opposition. Backlash quickly followed, including a bomb threat. Due to the credibility of this threat, the district cancelled the event as they were concerned for the safety of students and bomb-sniffing dogs were sent out through the school that fall morning.

Ultimately, they went on with the event, though it was not as grand as they had planned. However, on October 19th, hundreds and hundreds of Seattle teachers responded to this act of racism by wearing Black Lives Matter at School shirts in solidarity with John Muir Elementary. The Black Lives Matter at School movement was born that day.

In large part due to the efforts of educators in Philadelphia, it has expanded into a national movement, now in its third year. The Philly educators transformed the action from a day of action into a week and broke down the 13 guiding principles of the Black Lives Matter Global Network into teaching points for each day of the week. This is movement fully supported by the NAACP Youth Council, a coalition of anti-racist youth from the greater Seattle area!

That brings us to today.

This year’s Black Lives Matter at School week will take place February 3rd through 7th and includes lessons throughout the week highlighting the 13 guiding principles of Black Lives Matter.

The highlight in Seattle will most certainly be Young, Gifted, and Black, a talent showcase at Rainier Beach High School on Thursday, February 6th, honoring the brilliance of our Black youth, sponsored by the Rainier Beach Student Union, Social Equity Educators, and the NAACP Youth Council.

While districts across the country fill the week with their own events, what binds the national movement together is the four demands: end zero tolerance, mandate Black history and ethnic studies, hire more black teachers, and fund counselors not cops.

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Student leaders at the Black Lives Matter at School Week press conference held at the Rainier Beach Community Center on Jan. 27. (Photo: Antonio Foster)

End zero tolerance. In America, black students are 4x more likely to be suspended than white students for the same behavior. Not only does suspension and expulsion disproportionately impact our students of color but it also fuels the school-to-prison pipeline. Ending zero tolerance allows students a chance to learn from their mistakes, thus growing as an individual. Zero tolerance policies would be replaced with restorative justice practices, which focus on repairing the harm that was done by talking through the issue in a meeting.

Mandate Black history and ethnic studies. As a Nigerian-American, I have never learned about my culture once in a school setting. The closest it has gotten is learning about West Africa’s relationship with the U.S. in the transatlantic slave trade. Students deserve to grow up seeing their culture and history in a positive light rather than from the Eurocentric point of view as the oppressed. Ethnic studies would not only benefit our students of color but also our white students that have grown accustomed to learning about history from one perspective, creating an environment of ignorance. In our incredibly diverse world, our education needs to match that diversity.

Hire more Black teachers. The demographics of our educators must reflect the demographics of the students. Not only does more Black teachers provide good representation to our students of color, but it also allows more of our students’ needs to be met. I never had a teacher that looked like me growing up. All throughout elementary school, I was the only black girl in my class and I didn’t communicate how I was feeling because I didn’t feel anyone would understand where I was coming from. A diverse student body needs a diverse teaching staff.

Fund counselors not cops. Although this is not as big of an issue in Seattle, nationally, over 1.7 million students have cops in their school but no counselor. In these climates, students are treated as a problem to be dealt with rather than simply as children. They’re treated as if they’re criminals before a crime has even been committed. Similarly to the end zero tolerance demand, nobody should be actively waiting to punish students. Students should grow up in a supportive environment where they’re free to learn from their mistakes.

Please go to www. blacklivesmatteratschool.com to find out more about this movement and how you can support it.

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Erica Ijeoma is leader of the NAACP Youth Council, a group of Seattle-area youth dedicated to fighting racism in our schools. Read their full demands here

Featured image by Chloe Collyer