by Alexis Mburu
Three years ago, if you were to ask me what the Black Lives Matter movement meant to me, I’d have given what I would now consider a lackluster answer. This is because three years ago, I was a seventh grader with a limited grasp on my identity and the world around me. Now, Black Lives Matter is a movement that holds so much weight it’s hard to imagine a time when I was so inattentive.
The 2017/2018 school year was the first year I participated in a Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action at my school in Tukwila, Washington, and it felt like a whisper. There was no energy or enthusiasm by the teachers I had because they were just doing what they were told, going through the motions with slides that were provided by anti-racist teachers with real passion, ones who educated and liberated their students all year round — teachers who saw the necessity in decolonizing the education system one step at a time, and, for the most part, knew how to. I was lucky enough to know such a teacher: Erin Herda, who has been teaching ethnic studies for years, despite endless push-back.
Unfortunately, the experience of only getting to have the necessary conversations, read the important books, and be taught true history if you have the right teachers is all too common.
The next year in Tukwila, we had Black Lives Matter shirts, and that BLM at School week, and I was privileged enough to have loud teachers. There was so much more school-wide preparation and build up to the Week of Action. I was experiencing community like never before. I wore my shirt loud and proud because I was surrounded by people who shared that pride! They also shared something that was even more powerful in understanding what Black Lives Matter meant to me: Passion. They had passion for justice. They had drive to make change. I knew I wanted to follow that path and Black Lives Matter at School Week was a starting point for me.
If you don’t know the story of how Black Lives Matter at School was a day that turned into a week, into a whole Year of Purpose, it is truly one of drive and resilience, told in this first-person account by Jesse Hagopian. In the fall of 2016, John Muir Elementary School planned a Black Lives Matter at School day to further their commitment to racial justice after the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Their staff planned to wear BLM shirts and celebrate Black students; however, when word got out about the plans, hate spread like wildfire. There was a bomb threat that attempted to halt the plans. Nevertheless, in the face of brazen forms of intimidation, the teachers of John Muir prevailed and wore their shirts anyway.
When Social Equity Educators, an activist group of educators, learned of these events, they pushed for a union resolution, that passed unanimously, that stood in support with John Muir and called for October 19, 2016 to be the day that all Seattle educators wore Black Lives Matter shirts. More than 3,000 Seattle educators participated in this Black Lives Matter at School day and, soon after, national coverage showed districts all over the country holding their own Black Lives Matter at School days.
Which brings us to Philadelphia. There, educators led by the Caucus of Working Educators later that year expanded Seattle’s day of action to a week of action, which included lessons and events dedicated to the 13 guiding principles of Black Lives Matter: restorative justice, empathy, loving engagement, diversity, globalism, queer affirming, trans affirming, collective value, intergenerational, Black families, Black villages, unapologetically Black, and Black women.
Building off this work in Philadelphia, educators from across the country organized a national Black Lives Matter at School platform built on these 13 principles and their four demands: end “zero tolerance” discipline and implement restorative justice, hire more black teachers, mandate Black history and ethnic studies in K–12 curriculum, and fund counselors not cops.
These four demands hit home for me, as a Black student, because they represent so much in so few words.
School is supposed to be a place where young people find themselves and grow into their identity. But how do we expect Black, Indigenous, and students of Color to find themselves when they are rarely represented in curriculum and leadership, and even less so represented accurately? Students of marginalized communities being taught by teachers that look like them is imperative to their development in school and outside of it. Being taught a true curriculum that represents the lives we live is what will equip us to be successful in many facets of life.
I don’t want to find out the real story of Lewis and Clark when it’s too late to call my fourth-grade teacher out for upholding harmful, Eurocentric content. It also can’t be said enough: stop criminalizing kids! I am tired of hearing my younger brothers tell me how they got sent to the office because they laughed at a joke the teacher didn’t think was funny. We are done with the empty promises, the whispers of minimal support, and the caveated press statements.
I, for example, am a Black student in one of the most diverse school districts in the nation, yet I have never been taught by a Black teacher. Districts don’t get to benefit from the population of their schools, yet do nothing to actually serve them. Can you say tokenism?
While we are currently gearing up for this year’s week of action, February 1–5, BLM at School transcends beyond just classrooms; there are so many ways for anyone to get involved. Led by the NAACP Youth Council, organizers are hosting a talent showcase called Young, Gifted, and Black on February 5, 2021, 5:30–7:30 p.m. PST.
This year also marks the beginning of the Black Lives Matter at School Year of Purpose, so that education does a better job at including Black excellence and the virtues of the 13 guiding principles every month. As part of this Year of Purpose, on January 29, organizers hosted a BLM at School Trans and Queer Affirming Town Hall.
To support these actions, you can also always pressure your local school board to implement the Black Lives Matter at School demands, not to mention the NAACP Youth Council’s demands.
Seattle Public Schools was one of the first to pass a resolution of support for Black Lives Matter at School Week, so push your districts to do the same — and then some! Most districts, like my own Tukwila School District, have never even passed a resolution, making them far behind. But it’s never too late to do the right thing. There is always power in numbers, which means we need more teachers to be not only teaching this content, but living it and truly embodying that Black Lives Matter. BLM at School has resources for lessons for their Year of Purpose that can be used in classrooms of all grade levels.
No matter what you choose to partake in, the two things to remember are — everyone has a role in change making and there is always something you can do to better our society. There is always something to learn; growing is what makes us great and it is what will put the next generations in positions of excellence.
It shouldn’t have to take a profound journey into activism for any student, but especially Black students, to be taught that Black Lives Matter. We are past the days of accepting only one group of dedicated people in a space or one school in a district fighting for what’s right.
We need all classrooms and teachers to be loud and proud. No more whispering. We need whole districts, multiple districts, and people in important positions to be proving that Black Lives Matter, all the time, everywhere!
Alexis Mburu is a high schooler in Tukwila, Washington. She is a member of the NAACP Youth Council and on the Advisory Board for Washington Ethnic Studies Now. She is a part of the Tukwila Children’s Foundation as well as a co-facilitator for her district’s Race and Equity Committee.
Featured Image: Alexis Mburu at the 2021 MLK Day March. (Photo: Susan Fried)
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