by Ari Robin McKenna
On Monday, Jan. 24, the NAACP Youth Council (NYC) released their plans for the Fifth Annual Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action, Jan. 31–Feb. 4. The event was attended by community members and local media and featured educators and students speaking about the week’s heightened importance in 2022, the continued relevance of the national movement’s demands, and a day-by-day schedule of the week’s activities.
Moderated by Rita Green, the education chair for the Seattle King County NAACP, the event began with author and ethnic studies educator Jesse Hagopian providing historical context for this year’s week of action. Hagopian said teachers across Seattle next week would be teaching lessons on structural racism, intersectional Black identity, Black joy, and the Black freedom struggle, and he went on to contrast this learning to recent Washington House Bill 1807 (in committee this past Tuesday) that he said is meant to prevent teachers from “teaching the truth.”
HB 1807 was brought to the State Legislature by Rep. Jim Walsh from the 87% white 19th District — which hugs the coast below the Olympic Peninsula to the Oregon state line — and would impact education policy statewide, including districts with diverse student bodies.
Although the bill’s stated purpose is the “protection of quality civic education,” it would make requiring any educator to receive professional development that addresses this country’s structural racism or sexism illegal. Written as though it promotes civic engagement, the bill goes on to outlaw giving academic credit for “a student’s political activism, lobbying, or efforts to persuade” any members of local, state, or federal government “to take specific actions by direct communication.” Joining 36 other states with similar bills —14 of which have been passed — HB 1807 joins Washington State’s HB 1886 in seeking to discourage or ban critical race theory. HB 1807 specifically mentions two sources: The 1619 Project and Ibram X. Kendi’s book How to Be an Antiracist.
Of HB 1807, Hagopian said, flatly, “It’s fitting that the bill is 1807, because that’s about the year they want to bring us back to. When you think about the fact that that year  is when Black people lost the right to vote in New Jersey, these are the kind of empirical facts which scare what I call ‘uncritical race theorists,’ and we need to ensure that students get to learn the truth.”
Hagopian describes the nationwide attempts to shut down “a truthful teaching of American history” as part of a historical default. “Of course, this isn’t the first attack on Black education. That has really been a permanent feature of American society.” Hagopian cites anti-literacy laws meant to outlaw Black people from being able to read in 1740, the more than 600 Black schools that were burnt down by white supremacists during Reconstruction, and the Freedom Schools burned down during the civil rights movement, concluding, “and now they’re trying to reduce anti-racist pedagogy to ashes … any progress in racial justice will be met with a white supremacist backlash. That’s what we’re seeing right now, because last year, the Black Lives Matter at School movement tripled in size across the country.”
Hagopian then reminded listeners that the national movement began here. “[The] Black Lives Matter at School movement started in Seattle in 2016 … at John Muir Elementary School when a white supremacist made a bomb threat against an elementary school,” he said with an edge in his voice, “simply because educators wanted to wear shirts that said ‘Black Lives Matter at School’ and affirm the lives of their Black students.”
The four national demands of the Black Lives Matter at School movement are:
- End “zero tolerance” discipline, and implement restorative justice.
- Hire more Black teachers.
- Mandate Black history and ethnic studies in K–12 curriculum.
- Fund counselors not cops.
Alexis Mburu, a vice president of NYC, a high school junior at Foster High School, and a frequent Emerald contributor, brought home the demand for more Black teachers. “I go to school in Tukwila, which a lot of people know — or have heard it referred to — as one of the most diverse school districts. There’s 80-plus different languages; there’s so many different backgrounds, religions, ethnicities, etc., amongst the school population. However, me, as a Black student, have never been taught by a Black teacher.”
Mburu went on to extrapolate from her personal experience: “When I’m taught by someone who understands just the way that I speak, the way that I think, where I come from … There’s nothing that can replace that feeling, and that effectiveness in teaching … When we have students of color who are only being taught by white teachers, there actually is a lot of harm being done, because not only do teachers of color understand cultural dynamics between students, but when we have white teachers, there’s often a lot of miscommunication, misunderstanding … higher rates of discipline … punitive interactions between the teacher and the student because of that cultural misalignment.”
Rena Mateja Walker Burr, a vice president of NYC and a senior at Cleveland STEM High School in the Beacon Hill neighborhood, addressed the need to mandate Black studies and ethnic studies. Burr described how a lack of representation in school curriculum, combined with negative media representation of Black people, impacts many Black students. She also described how implementing Black and ethnic studies curriculum would be a meaningful action. “It’s so important that these are implemented because not only do students need to see themselves represented, but students also need to learn their history. Currently, all the curriculums that we’re learning are very whitewashed and come from a very Eurocentric base … we’re not being taught our real history … My peers still sometimes have a mindset that they think they have to stick to stereotypes and they have to act a certain way, because of what’s constantly being perpetuated in the media, what’s constantly being told when we constantly have white teachers that have a lot of implicit biases and don’t know how to deal with students of color. It’s a problem, and it constantly harms us being in an environment that’s not even meant for us … Actions speak louder than words, so actually implementing these things [Black studies and ethnic studies] rather than just putting up a sign saying Black Lives Matter or just saying, ‘We’re here for your mental health,’ but actually taking the steps to implement this in our curriculum, and making sure that we feel safe in school is actually the action that we want to see as youth.”
Martha Gyau, a NYC member and a student at Meadowdale High School in the Edmonds School District, spoke to the demand for funding counselors over cops. Gyau said that like many other students of color, she doesn’t feel safer when cops are around but quite the opposite. “I’m fearing for my life every time I see a cop.” Gyau doesn’t think it makes any sense to assume students of color are “comfortable in a learning community with cops.” “You don’t put a kid who’s afraid of clowns in the same room as clowns … School is supposed to be a safe place,” says Gyau.
Meanwhile counselors, Gyau continues, “just do a lot more … I feel like kids will definitely be more secure and safe if they knew they had a person who they can come to and speak comfortably.” Gyau specified that BIPOC counselors, especially, are needed for BIPOC students to feel fully understood.
Lastly, Bruce Jackson, educator at Aki Kurose Middle School, member of the Washington Ethnic Studies Now (WAESN) executive team, and an active Seattle Education Association (SEA) member, spoke about the intersection of COVID-19 and school safety. “A third of the families at Aki Kurose are multigenerational,” Jackson said. “A student at my school thinks he killed his grandfather because he brought the COVID home with him. I want to teach, but I don’t want to be the teacher who comes in and infects his students and has their students go home and infect their parents. How do I earn the trust of my students when I don’t trust the safeguards I need to know are in place? … It’s important that we start listening and restoring trust to our schools.”
The Fifth Annual Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action starts Monday, Jan. 31. Many teachers will be wearing Black Lives Matter shirts, teaching Black Lives Matter at School-related content, and there are events that have been organized for each day next week. Interested readers can click the following links to sign up for these events:
- Monday, Jan. 31, 6–8 p.m.: Youth Leadership Forum and Week of Action Kickoff
- Tuesday, Feb. 1, 6–8 p.m.: The Root of Our Youth Teach In
- Wednesday, Feb. 2, 6–8 p.m.: The State of Ethnic Studies in Washington State with WAESN
- Thursday, Feb. 3, 6–8 p.m.: Young, Gifted, & Black Student Talent Showcase Facebook event. This Youth Sign-Up form can be used by any youth interested in showcasing their talent.
- Friday, Feb. 4, 6–8 p.m.: Statewide Youth Walkout — At the Intersection of Race and COVID
For more detailed descriptions of each event, check the WAESN Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action page and the Puget Sound Black Lives Matter at School Facebook page. You can also find info about local BLM at School events here.
Additional Educational Resources:
- For the 13 guiding principles of the Black Lives Matter Movement, a starter kit, and curriculum check out the Black Lives Matter at School website.
- National Education Association’s (NEA) Resources for Black Lives Matter at School.
- Zinn Education Project’s Lessons on the Black Freedom Struggle.
- The 1619 Project Curriculum at the Pullitzer Center website.
- For an in-depth look at the history and context of this movement, check out the book Black Lives Matter at School: An Uprising for Educational Justice, edited by Denisha Jones and Jesse Hagopian.
For Emerald coverage of past Seattle Black Lives Matter at School Weeks of Action, visit the following collection of articles.
Editors’ Note: A previous version of this article referred to Martha Gyau as “Martha Gyay.” This article was updated on 02/01/2022 to correct the error.
Ari Robin McKenna worked as an educator and curriculum developer in Brooklyn, New York; Douala, Cameroon; Busan, South Korea; Quito, Ecuador; and Seattle, Washington, before settling in South Seattle. He writes about education for the Emerald. Contact him here.
📸 Featured image courtesy of Black Lives Matter at School.
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