To kick off Black History Month, organizers and advocates of the Black Lives Matter At School movement are calling for a “Week of Action” to spur more concrete efforts to ensure racial equity, human rights justice and new opportunities to advance all students in the nation’s schools.
The events will take place Feb. 1-5 in schools across the nation. More than a dozen Seattle-area youth, educators, parents and activists described how they plan to take action during an hour-long virtual news conference last week. Together they urged the public and decision-makers to push policy from paper into practice immediately, and to hold those who fail to do so accountable for their inactions.
This year, the region’s Week of Action focuses on the themes of supporting ethnic and Black studies, hiring more Black teachers, implementing restorative justice practices, fully funding education budgets to support teachers and this work, and ending high-stakes testing to better focus on supporting students.
Asked why schools should teach Black Lives Matter and curriculum recommended by the Week of Action movement, Chiwetalu Ekwueme, a junior at Lynnwood’s Meadowdale High School, said: “School is the first place where students can learn about the Black Lives Matter movement. School is where we grow up. … That’s where you’re supposed to learn about Black lives. It’s important to help students feel safe, especially in a society that constantly pushes them down to the point where they don’t feel safe.”
Ingraham High School student Ida Girmai, 17, described how she was bullied from a young age and was frequently referred to as “a monkey.”
“Not one of the people, not one of the white students that literally harassed me every single day, ever got in trouble. Never,” Girmai said. “But I remember when I did stand up for myself I got pulled to the office and I was told that I’m bullying them. This is how they silence us.”
Over the past few years, more school boards in districts across the country have endorsed the Week of Action, signing resolutions and making proclamations.
This year, Seattle School Board Director Brandon Hersey took part in the news conference, saying, “As a message to other electeds, and other folks in decision-making power: What I would say is, the more you can share that power, and not just share but hand over that power to these youth, the better outcomes we are going to have for our system.”
Alexis Mburu, a sophomore at Foster High School in Tukwila School District, said participating is a way for teachers who say they support Black Lives Matter to prove their commitment to it.
Mburu has worked to improve her school district’s climate and curriculum for Black students and other students of color since the seventh grade. As an eighth-grader, she began working closely with Showalter Middle School ethnic studies teacher Erin Herda to advance equity, inclusion and restorative justice, an approach that brings people together to talk about an offensive act or crime before a disciplinary action is decided.
Students and staff have introduced educational programs like Social Justice Fridays and an antiracist curriculum to Showalter classrooms, and have gotten School Board members to sign resolutions that acknowledge and attempt to reform harsh discipline policies that push Black students out of school at disproportionate rates, eliminate curricula that whitewash Black history, and call for more efforts to recruit and retain Black teachers and teachers of color.
Herda has been in the district for 15 years, and said that working more closely with her colleagues, and especially students in the past few years, has “changed my entire way of teaching” and led to school culture and climate shifts that have expanded from Showalter into the rest of the district.
“I feel like more movement began because students became involved,” said Herda.
Being able to see action happen, she said, “reinvigorated me in education and in knowing that I could pursue social justice issues and be successful with students.” Her lessons changed, she said, when she “just started listening to what students wanted to learn about.”
Mburu said knowing that she has the support from teachers like Herda, and other adults in the school district, and knowing that students before her worked to help write some of the policy changes — like renaming the district’s “diversity” policy to a “race and equity” policy — inspires and empowers her as a student and as a leader.
“When we talk about why it’s called race and equity, it’s because you need to put race first, because otherwise it gets put on the back burner or it’s not focused on, and it needs to be focused on,” Mburu said. “So I always had that context, that knowledge, that history of my school that put me in a position where I could do those same things and other things as well.”
Mburu and Herda continue to work together today, serving as co-facilitators for the Tukwila School District Race and Equity Committee and participating on the Washington State Ethnic Studies Now Youth Advisory Board and Board of Directors, respectively. They’re also working with students and teachers in the district to plan and facilitate this year’s Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action programs.
Other Seattle and Puget Sound-area schools will host events throughout the week, including teach-ins for educators, Black Student Union celebrations, special lesson plans and more. The region’s events will culminate at 5:30 p.m. on Feb. 5, with a virtual “Young, Gifted, and Black: Student Talent Showcase,” which will stream to the public via Zoom and Facebook.
Action is urgent
Mburu and Herda say policy changes and mindset shifts can take years, which is why other students, educators and activists say urgent action is needed.
Several speakers at the Week of Action press conference called attention to pervasive mistreatment of Black and brown children, including a recent KUOW report that described a second-grade Black boy named Jaleel who was locked by himself in an outdoor enclosure dubbed “the cage” at Seattle’s View Ridge Elementary School as a way to address his behavior. (“Justice for Jaleel” has become a local Week of Action theme.) New claims are coming to light about the mistreatment and racial bias experienced at Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic in Seattle’s Central District, and an investigation is underway at Seattle Children’s.
Washington State Ethnic Studies Now Executive Director Tracy Castro-Gill said that since the nonprofit was incorporated last spring, the demand for professional development and consulting services around ethnic studies and antiracist curricula has been overwhelming.
The organization is increasingly hearing reports of teachers being threatened or disciplined for using Black Lives Matter and antiracist curricula and materials in their classrooms, in Washington state and beyond, Castro-Gill said.
“I know there’s a big push to put the students first, but the research all indicate that educators of color — Black educators, Latinx educators especially — have such an important role to play in education and delivering ethnic studies content and Black studies content, and we just don’t have the systems in place to support those educators,” Catro-Gill said.
“We have to approach this at a systems level,” Castro-Gill added. “And it’s shameful that the adults who are making the decisions are forcing our students into this position to fight for their lives.”