Teachers at Seattle’s John Muir Elementary have been criticized and celebrated for wearing T-shirts that say “Black Lives Matter” - “We Stand Together.” But they just hope their original intent of supporting their students doesn’t get lost.

Share story

The goal of the Friday morning event at Seattle’s John Muir Elementary last month was supposed to be simple: Show black men in a positive light.

That’s all teacher DeShawn Jackson wanted to do for his school’s students — let them see black men in a way counter to the negative images they see on television or the internet. It was supposed to be similar to an event last year at South Shore K-8, where 200 men participated, including Seattle Fire Chief Harold Scoggins and City Councilmember Bruce Harrell.

Jackson invited hundreds of black men to visit the Mount Baker school that day last month to greet students as they walked in, visit classrooms and play with the kids during recess — and he hoped the men would commit to future visits.

What happened since has been anything but simple.

First, after news of the event was publicized in local media, some national conservative outlets picked it up, which led to an outcry over teachers’ plans to wear shirts that said “Black Lives Matter.” People from across the nation sent emails and made phone calls to the school and district staff — including one threat that led the district to cancel the event.

Then, in response, thousands of teachers across Seattle, and some in the Highline district, purchased similar shirts, and plan to wear them Wednesday in a show of solidarity with Muir.

Jackson and other Muir teachers were saddened and disappointed by the first action, and while they appreciate the support of the second, they want to make sure their original intent isn’t lost.

Jackson, who attended Muir as a student and has worked there for six years, isn’t sure he’ll wear his shirt. Even this supportive effort, he worries, makes what Muir was doing seem more political than the staff intended. And he wants to make sure community members know the effort is about more than wearing a shirt for a day.

“I’m black, and it’s always been ‘Black Lives Matter’ for me, but this was really for our kids,” Jackson said. “And then the message just kind of strayed away from the message I had envisioned.”

The purpose of Wednesday’s event, in addition to showing support for Muir, is to affirm that “black lives matter in the public schools,” according to organizers, who are members of Social Equality Educators (SEE), a group of educators within the Seattle teachers union.

Educators can pick from several different shirt designs. One, for example, shows a fist and the phrase “#sayhername,” a reference to Sandra Bland, a black woman who died in police custody in Texas in 2015. The most popular shirt is similar to John Muir’s, with “Black Lives Matter” and a drawing of a tree.

SEE is calling the day “Black Lives Matter At School,” and the effort has been endorsed by the teachers union, the Seattle Council PTSA and the Seattle King County NAACP. More than 200 university professors and scholars, as well as activists and authors such as Noam Chomsky and Jose Antonio Vargas, have signed letters supporting the educators.

Along with Seattle teachers, dozens of staff at Highline’s White Center Heights Elementary also plan to participate.

The idea for the districtwide event started with a teacher at Hamilton International School in North Seattle, whose students asked if she and her fellow teachers would ever wear Black Lives Matter shirts. That inspired Sarah Arvey to see if she could inspire many teachers to do so — and she presented the idea to the teachers union’s representative assembly, which voted to endorse the districtwide demonstration.

Jesse Hagopian, a teacher at Seattle’s Garfield High and a SEE member, said the event also grew out of discussions that teachers are having with students. He agrees with the Muir teachers that the day should be student-focused.

“It’s not the teachers who are raising this issue of black lives matter, it’s actually students at every grade level,” Hagopian said.

In addition to the shirts, PTAs at several schools have made buttons and stickers for teachers and students to wear.

“It’s really a grass-roots effort, coming from educators and families who know there are dramatically different outcomes for black students in SPS (Seattle Public Schools),” Hagopian said.

“Black Lives Matter At School” also coincides — but is not connected — with the school district’s “day of unity,” aimed at bringing more attention to racial equity in education.

As a public institution, Seattle Public Schools doesn’t take official positions on social or political movements, district spokesman Luke Duecy said in a statement.

“Teachers have a First Amendment right to wear their speech,” Duecy said. “We respect our teachers’ rights and desire to express themselves.

“We hope the message inspires people to do the work to eliminate opportunity gaps,” he added. “We are united in our commitment to eliminate opportunity gaps.”

Muir’s original shirts, which say “Black Lives Matter — We Stand Together,” appear to be the reason why news of the Muir event led to its cancellation.

A year ago, the event at South Shore K-8 drew little, if any, criticism. Neither did one this year at Leschi Elementary, where staff and some of the greeters wore shirts that said “Leschi (heart) Black Lives.”

After the stories about John Muir ran, a deluge of messages sent to district leaders, school-board members and teachers called for the event to be canceled. Criticism — much from outside Washington state — focused on the words “Black Lives Matter” and whether that referred directly to the national Black Lives Matter movement. Online comments on sites like Fox and Breitbart characterized the shirts as “brainwashing.”

Muir teachers don’t see it that way. Art teacher Julie Trout, who designed the shirt, said they wanted those words to show that teachers hope “our kids will be able to live in a world where the three words ‘black lives matter’ don’t need justification.”

Trout and Jackson said they didn’t anticipate the criticism that followed.

“It was for our students, to show them that they matter,” said Jackson.

The shirt includes an image of a tree, which represents the school’s connection to environmental studies and its namesake, who was an author and conservationist. The image also represents the school “coming together in solidarity to eliminate structural oppression,” Trout said.

Even though Jackson had to let the 200 men know the Muir event wouldn’t go forward, he didn’t want to disappoint the kids. So he decided to greet students anyway. About 50 others joined him.

“I didn’t want to send the kids the message to give up,” said Jackson, a special-education teacher. “Even through adversity, you have to keep moving.”

For the teachers, the whole episode drove home that racism still exists and that their work addressing racial equity matters.

The teachers, SEE and the district all agree that Wednesday’s event shouldn’t just be about shirts.

The district, for example, has renewed its efforts to end racial disparities in school discipline, in part by eliminating most out-of-school suspensions for elementary students. And union members have led conversations about racial equity in their schools.

At John Muir, teachers and parents have worked to involve more black men with the PTA and as classroom volunteers.

Jackson did wear his “Black Lives Matter — We Stand Together” shirt on Monday, as he has every week on teacher uniform day. But he hopes efforts at Muir and elsewhere will continue throughout the school year — and beyond.

“You’re wearing these shirts, but if you’re not really doing the work, the shirts mean nothing,” Jackson said.

“When the shirts come off,” he added, “that’s when the real work begins.”