by Mark Epstein and Michael Dixon
Almost 60 years ago, in the middle of two decades of civil rights activism that changed our country, James Baldwin delivered a speech to teachers, in which he declared that the purpose of education is for students to look critically at their society and to have a vision of change they are willing to fight for. Without such a perspective, he says, we will perish, or follow the worst example of a Nazi youth movement.
Last week, Seattle students proudly and sadly expressed this kind of vision in their walkout against gun violence and the killing of a student in the halls of Ingraham High School. “What do we want?” they chanted at one point. “Change.” The threats facing this generation of young people and our society are real. As veterans of the last 40 and 50 years working in our high schools, we believe our country and planet are at a critical crossroads in this time, and our policymakers must listen to the voices and demands of the youth.
The primary existential threats of the pandemic, climate catastrophe, gun violence, war, and inequality seem overwhelming. Overcoming and surviving these will require both historical reference and monumental mobilizations of unified action. The alternative, however, to a unity of vision is di-vision. Kanye West’s recent tweet, to his 30 million-plus followers, “I’m a bit sleepy tonight but when I wake up I’m going death con 3 On JEWISH PEOPLE,” is just one of many examples of people sowing dangerous division.
Issues arise between all marginalized groups today. However, devaluing the lives of any specific group of people makes them expendable; the last century of our nation’s and the world’s history provide ample examples. While Kanye’s implied readiness to attack Jewish people points to historical and current real conflicts between Black and Jewish people, it also feeds into scapegoating, like Trump’s attacks on immigrants and Muslims, anti-Asian violence, and threats to LGBTQ persons.
So, how can we unify?
To achieve unity and move forward in the United States, our people and our leaders must reckon with the horrors of slavery, Indigenous land theft, and the expendability of different groups of people. People need to discuss actual conflicts and move toward the flock which can fly in unity and create the net of safety that the students demanded with one voice at City Hall. We cannot move forward until we adequately address our past.
For every act of injustice, there’ve been countless examples of high school and college students pointing the way forward. The White Rose student movement tried to alert the German people to genocide in their midst in 1943. From Emmett Till’s murder to integrating lunch counters, U.S. students sparked the civil rights movement and then led a vigorous movement to stop the war in Vietnam. Seattle’s students follow national organizing originally led by Parkland students just five years ago. Their movement inspired Greta Thunberg to strike for climate awareness being spread across the world by students today.
Seattle students’ demands deserve a hearing and commitment from City leaders. One demand calls for one mental health counselor per 200 students. (What happened to all our concerns about student mental health through the first years of pandemic loss and isolation?) They also demand de-escalation, tactical, and anti-racist training for security specialists. The students did not ask for Safety Resource Officers (SRO) to be reinstated — more police in schools lead to more students interacting with the criminal justice system, which disproportionately impacts students of color.
In health class, the students are demanding techniques and tools focused on self-regulation and how to integrate the emotional and logical minds. Our students need curiosity, empathy, and skills to enable them to grow safer and to sustain our society. Will we listen? What will we do? Our creative juices need to get flowing. Let us take the lead from the youth; they are the ones who are and will be most affected by our actions today.
The South Seattle Emerald is committed to holding space for a variety of viewpoints within our community, with the understanding that differing perspectives do not negate mutual respect amongst community members.
The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the contributors on this website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the Emerald or official policies of the Emerald.
Mark Epstein taught social studies, ELL, and elementary school for 35 years in the Rainier Valley and is currently a substitute teacher for Rainier Beach High School.
Michael Dixon recently retired from over 25 years as a security specialist for Seattle Public Schools. Dixon is a former Garfield High School student, where he helped found the Black Student Union, and a former member of the Seattle Black Panther Party — which was founded by his two older brothers.
Before you move on to the next story … The South Seattle Emerald is brought to you by Rainmakers. Rainmakers give recurring gifts at any amount. With over 900 Rainmakers, the Emerald is truly community-driven local media. Help us get to 1,100 Rainmakers by the end of the year and keep BIPOC-led media free and accessible. If just half of our readers signed up to give $6 a month, we wouldn't have to fundraise for the rest of the year. Small amounts make a difference. We cannot do this work without you. Become a Rainmaker today!