The United States was shaken to its core a year ago, when police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd in broad daylight on a street in Minnesota. In the wake of his killing, a movement for racial justice—one that had been building for decades—roared to life. Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, and countless other Black men, women and children who were killed while in their homes, walking from a store and merely going about their lives came to represent the tragic—and too often ignored—consequences of deep-seated racism. The country was forced to take a long-overdue look at its systems, institutions and policies and how they have disregarded those who are Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPoC) and, at worst, blatantly harmed them.
The deep inequities in American society are carved into the American public school system as well. Black students areless likely to attend schools with ample resources, to have access to advanced courses that challenge and inspire them, and to be taught by experienced, highly qualified educators, including educators of their own race. These disparities both mirror and mold the inequities found throughout our society.
As America confronted its own racial injustices in the wake of last year’s events, many education organizations, school systems and individual educators took a public stand against racism, pledging to provide all learners, regardless of their race, with an engaging, excellent education. A year later, what has changed?
Many American educators remain concerned about racism and inequity in their schools. A national survey of teachers in December 2020found that, during this school year, 62% of them have been concerned about systemic racism and 55% say it has been a concern for their students and their families. Propelled by this concern, many educators feel a responsibility to address race and equity in their classrooms. As Christina Torres, an eighth grade teacher in Honolulu,put it: “Teachers don’t just teach ‘content.’ We never have. For generations, we have also taught our students to listen, share, and be empathetic. Teachers don’t just help students understand themselves and the world around them, we also model how to have constructive discussions with one another. And because race plays a role in everything from housing issues to the environment to the books we read, we can’t teach students effectively about the world without including race.”
Educators need rich resources that illuminate BIPoC perspectives. Unfortunately, BIPoC stories and perspectives are often relegated to the margins or entirely omitted from textbooks and other learning materials. As of 2017, 37% of the U.S. population was BIPoC, but only 7% of children's books published in 2017 were written by Black, Latinx, and Indigenous authors. Moreover,research conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center concluded that most popular history textbooks fail to comprehensively cover slavery and enslaved people. As Jackie Katz, a U.S. History teacher in Massachusetts,said, “Students who are struggling to understand Black Lives Matter...can’t fully understand it or invest in it without learning about slavery.”
There is an increasing push to move BIPoC perspectives to the forefront of classroom resources—and educators are leading the charge. Kentucky teacher Ashley Lamb-Sinclair developed the2892 Miles to Go Geographic Walk for Justice, a geo-inquiry project that uncovers and amplifies stories of injustice embedded in communities. The project collects the experiences, photos, and conversations of educators, young changemakers, community leaders, and storytellers who have first-hand knowledge of their communities, mapping their stories to real locations around their cities. The first stop on the Walk for Justice isLouisville, Kentucky, where residents guide educators and learners through their city as it continues to reel from the police killing of Breonna Taylor. As they do, they put learners in the shoes of real Louisvillians and reexamine and retell history from their valuable—but too often forgotten—perspectives. We need more efforts like this one to ensure young people learn from voices that have been silenced by racism for too long.
Educators are also committing to learning how they can better model racial justice and have important conversations about it with their students. While the same survey of teachers cited above found that only 30% of teachers had received guidance on racial justice and equity issues from their school or district, some educators are seeking out learning through avenues like EduColor—an educator-led movement that collects resources and offers a platform for discussion focused on racial equity. Educators are also taking the time to reflect on their own biases, how these impact their teaching and how they can reverse these practices. As teachers take these courageous steps to better serve all students, especially students of color, our education system must keep up with them, encourage and enable all educators to do so, and not shy away from these necessary conversations and changes.
The tragic events of last year made it starkly clear that everyone—including young people—must confront and combat racism. As Chicago teacher Dwayne Reedput it, “Misguided kids become misguided adults and those are often the ones who are killing Black people. So to me, not having a conversation about race with young people is literally a matter of life or death.” As educators have these complex, important conversations with young people, let’s give them the resources, time and support to be champions of equity. Let’s follow their lead in reimagining our education system as one that lifts up every student and exposes them to the wonder and diversity of our world.