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The role our public schools play in the fight for equity

I almost never get on social media, but I needed to experience how our children are learning about and experiencing current events. It is difficult to imagine what it must be like for children right now - quarantined in their homes with little social interaction beyond their families, and their phones.

This subject came up earlier today with my 15 year old daughter, who, when asked how she and her friends were doing right now, simply shrugged her shoulders in that way that teenagers do.

“It’s OK,” she said in a reassuring way that was beyond her years. “We’re watching it all on social media, and signing petitions. We know there’s not much we can do yet. We’re always being told that Generation Z is going to change the world, but really, every generation changes the world.” Then she raised her eyebrows as if to question why the generations before her chose to change the world - or not change the world - in quite this way.

As an educator, my deep wish is that school could be in session right now. Not the “school of hard knocks” the year 2020 seems so desperate to enroll us in -- I’m talking about the purity of a classroom filled with young minds representing different backgrounds and unique influences, all present with a common understanding: we are here to learn from one another.

The great gift our schools present is that our youth will have a safe place to share their differing perspectives with the support of caring mentors whose sole purpose is to challenge them with the only question that matters: what kind of person do you want to be?

When I log on to social media, it shouldn’t surprise you to know, that this is not the supportive discourse taking place online right now. And yet, this is the default classroom for our children.

I’m not writing this to decry social media and its evils - I’m sure it has its place. However, as I observe my own children and how all five are responding to current events through the lens of their developmental age ranges (their ages span from 9 to 27), it’s clear that youth and inexperience hinder the ability to process what’s happening across the world.

As an adult, I admit I’m struggling too.

Racism has itself become a virus - we've always known it’s there, but if we haven’t experienced it ourselves it’s hard to comprehend its danger. In this way, racism, like the flu, might not get your attention until it actually makes you sick.

I want to be very clear that I do not want to inadvertently convey the message that I understand what it’s like to experience racism. I do not. I cannot. On the contrary, I am vividly aware that as a white man it is merely chance, quite unearned, that literally protects me and my family with its privilege.

But here’s what I do know:

  • Even during a pandemic, if you’re hungry enough, eventually you have to go out and get food, or else your body will perish.

  • And even during a pandemic, if you are angry enough, you have to eventually demand change, or else your soul will perish.

We’ve heard the stories of racial injustice in Georgia and Minnesota, but we are not so naive to believe the disease of prejudice isn’t present in every community across the world. I picture it like one of those graphics on the evening news, hatred blooming in ugly red circles of contagion that we can track across a map.

Before I sat down to write this, my daughter showed me a video that was being shared on social media among her friends. It was a video of a young person telling her 90-year-old grandfather that a Black man had been held to the ground for nine minutes, a knee pressed to his neck, with two more grown men kneeling upon his back, until he died. As the grandfather in the video began to cry, I told my daughter that although I am neither black nor 90, I wanted to cry too.

My daughter nodded her head, and summed up the last 400 years in this country as only a child can do, with the simple question: “So what are we going to do about it?”

Urban school districts spend a lot of time with our staff in professional learning opportunities that ask that very question.

For instance, we may know intrinsically that change begins by first recognizing racism - but sometimes it's hard to identify when we are influenced by subconscious bias. It's hard to admit our subconscious may be racist. We also know that it is critical that we respond to racism both swift and fierce because until we have abolished racism, our work to sustain equity and equality is not complete.

As a nation, as a community, and as individuals, we need to do and be better. We need to expect more from one another and ourselves, by asking, "So what are we going to do about it?"

Although I don’t know the answer to that question yet, I do know that our public schools will play a critical role in that fight.

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