The new book “Black Lives Matter at School: An Uprising for Educational Justice” was born out of a moment that stained Seattle.
On Sept. 15, 2016, a white supremacist threatened to bomb John Muir Elementary School, where about half of students at the time identified as Black. The caller apparently heard that educators and community volunteers were planning an assembly to celebrate Black students and families by wearing T-shirts that read “Black Lives Matter” and “We Stand Together.” The Rainier Valley school was ultimately cleared for safety.
Dozens of members of the group “Black Men Uniting to Change the Narrative” turned out the next morning with other volunteers, wearing the T-shirts while high-fiving children as they walked through the door. This show of solidarity galvanized thousands of educators into action, including organized lesson plans, educational policies and proclamations for teaching about the history and current events surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement.
Inspired, members of Racial Justice Committee of the Caucus of Working Educators in Philadelphia turned a day of action into a week of engagement and education around this theme. This work continues to be replicated across the nation.
The new book, co-edited by longtime Garfield High School educator, activist and author Jesse Hagopian and Denisha Jones, who holds a J.D. and Ph.D. and is director of the Art of Teaching Program at Sarah Lawrence College, is part documentary, part guide to this movement for racial and educational justice on school campuses. It expands on “Teaching for Black Lives,” a 2018 book Hagopian co-edited with Wayne Au, dean of diversity and equity and an education professor for the University of Washington, Bothell, and education professor Dyan Watson.
The new book contains more than 30 essays, interviews and lesson plans produced by teachers, students and activists. Among the local contributors are Au; poet and Seattle high school student Kalani Rossman; and South Seattle College student Israel Presley, who is a former student of Garfield and Rainier Beach high schools and an NAACP Youth Council member.
Hagopian said there is an urgent need to change school curriculum, school policies and practices that adversely affect students and teachers.
He pointed to a Dec. 6 no confidence vote in Seattle Public Schools passed by the Board of the Seattle Special Education PTSA. The vote comes in the wake of a KUOW report on how a Black second grade boy at View Ridge Elementary School was reportedly put in an outdoor isolation area to manage his behavior.
“We need white teachers to hold each other accountable, but we also clearly need more Black teachers in our schools looking out for Black students and teaching all students about Black contributions to our society,” Hagopian said.
Education Lab talked to Hagopian about handing off history’s lessons and tomorrow’s hopes to a rising generation of activists and education leaders. The content has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Looking back on that incident in Seattle in 2016, what are the lessons we can learn from it?
I’m continuously inspired by the educators and the students at Muir [Elementary] and how they chose not to be intimidated by white supremacy. It’s hard to process that pain still, with white supremacists emboldened in our current times. It still takes my breath away that from that incident, that painful moment, so many people could build something beautiful out of it. It shows that when you take a bold stand for justice and stand up for change, you don’t know what will come out of it.
Both this book and the previous book you worked on come with companion websites, lesson plans and ways for teachers and students to stay involved in the educational justice movements. How would you like to see these initiatives impact schools in Seattle?
There’s some urgent, immediate changes that are needed in the Seattle Public Schools such as fully implementing and supporting restorative justice and ethnic studies. We’re at a moment when things are shifting because of the uprising for Black lives and we can have an impact like never before in my lifetime. It’s clear those who have been running our society, whether it’s school systems or the banking systems, have misused their power. We have the richest country in the world yet we have homelessness all over the country at record rates. Our schools are being underfunded and our prisons have been overfunded. We need to challenge anti-Blackness and take an intersectional approach for the liberation of all people — immigrants, women, LGBTQ people and everyone else facing oppression. We need some fundamental transformation.
Why is the Black Lives Matter at School initiative important?
We need educators to bring both social justice and education to the classroom and collective struggle outside of the classroom. If you’re just teaching about the struggles of the past it rings hollow to your students if they don’t actually see you engaging with the struggles of today.
In a recent book launch event with the publisher, Haymarket Books, you called the student essay chapters “the crown jewel of this book.” What are you learning from young activists?
I think the youth are becoming the great teachers of America. They are teaching the power of collective action. The youth are showing us how to stay motivated.
You’ve previously talked about how your sons have had to learn at a young age “the consequences of their skin color,” from misguided classroom lessons they’ve encountered to watching you have to endure threats and even pepper spray while participating in protests. Your older son, Miles, a sixth grader, is now participating in organizing through events like this summer’s Seattle Children’s March. How does it feel to watch him become active in these causes and what do you hope he learns from these experiences?
It’s really uplifting to see him learning lessons at a much earlier age than I did about the depth of the problems that we face in society. It’s also inspiring to see him learning from other young people. When I was young, I wasn’t seeing the level of activism we’re seeing now and I wasn’t sure how to participate in it.
Seeing him have a more positive identity development at a young age is amazing. That’s something I struggled with for a long time. It’s hard for a young, Black, mixed kid to make sense of his place in a deeply segregated society. I’m really happy for him that he has confidently found peers that he works with on a regular basis to figure out how he can contribute to this movement.
[My wife and I] realized he’s been listening a lot to all our conversations and developing all his own positions and ideas. It’s amazing to see him grow up from listening to leading.
As youth take on this power to lead, what should be the role of parents and educators in supporting them?
Our role as educators and parents is to be ready and willing to provide context and historical lessons about the struggles of the past and what they mean in the present. Some of the strategies for leading change have been used for too long and aren’t working and they need to change. The youth can lead that change.