Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom.
—George Washington Carver
On February 17, 2017, history unfolded in schools throughout the Rochester City School District when students were introduced to Black Lives Matter at School, an educational initiative dedicated to generating discussions about Black lives.
BLM at School was the social justice brainchild of parent/activist Mahreen Mustafa George, local organizer Afro-Latinx Queen, Rochester city activists, and teachers. “I got involved after our varsity boys’ soccer team took a knee during the playing of the national anthem during one of their games,” explained George, whose children are RCSD students. “A few weeks later, schools and educators in Seattle Public schools took steps to affirm and understand that Black Lives Matter and they garnered national news coverage. Myself and the other founding members talked about this action and it led to us saying that we needed to sit down together and see if we could do something similar here in the RCSD, given that our community was already taking part in actions supporting racial justice.”
“BLM at School,” stated Afro Latinx Queen, “is about having the opportunity to have difficult conversations in the classroom and guiding the dialogue for it to be more productive and not traumatizing for either party and learning about restorative practice.”
The organizers reached out to schools such as World of Inquiry School to introduce BLM at School into the classrooms. Teachers, parents, community members, and even former students participated in this initiative, using peace circles to connect with pupils about a wide range of topics pertaining to Black empowerment. Those involved also had the opportunity to discuss oppression, how it affects people of color, and solutions to eradicate it. In the Black Lives Matter at School Facebook group, participants proudly uploaded footage of students actively listening, engaging with one another and the volunteers while discussing the politics affecting Black people regularly.
The BLM at School committee studied various resources and curriculums, including the BLM at School Week in Philadelphia. In early 2017, many teachers in the city’s schools incorporated activities into their lessons throughout the week, introducing everything from “science lessons about the biology of skin color for high schoolers” to “The Revolution Is Always Now” coloring pages for very young students.” Unlike the initiative here in Rochester, the one in Philly was neither sponsored by the school district. However, it opened the door for a much-needed discussion about the importance of Black liberation.
As groundbreaking (and well meaning) as BLM at School is, it was also considered controversial. Like any incentive focused on social justice, BLM at School experienced some resistance from some educators, administrators, and even the members of the Rochester community. Many White parents expressed their concerns or overall distain about BLM at School, arguing that 1) it was associated with the national movement and 2) that the event itself would promote violence—particularly against law enforcement. It was furthermore considered divisive by alienating White people, who proposed an “All Lives Matter at School” Day.
And while a cluster of city schools openly embraced BLM at School, there were some who did not. In fact, one school was so resistant to the activity that threatened the educational future of its students. Brenda Pacheco, principal of Rochester’s School of the Arts, issued a statement threatening to suspend students who participated in a planned walk-out. When the notification reached social media, members of the community inundated the school’s administration with emails, phone calls, and resistance. Meanwhile, SOTA students exercised their right to peacefully protest by walking out minutes before dismissal, chanting alongside supportive community organizers.
As I watch the protest live on social media, I realized that the crux of the Black Lives Matter at School was to emphasize the importance of education. The majority of schools in the United States do not properly teach the history of Black people or non-Black people of color. In fact, students will more likely read some skewed version of how Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation. Black students are rarely exposed to their own history, identity, and culture in the classroom, this exclusion of information deliberate on the part of the administration.
And the authority figures in urban school further play a significant role in how Black children view themselves. It is no coincidence that most of the educators in city schools are White and uneducated about the systematic oppression inflicted upon the Black students they teach. Many of these students reside in impoverished neighborhoods and live in unhealthy environments, not learning the coping skills necessary to overcome adversity—let alone their own history. While struggling with adversity in their immediate environment, these students enter the classroom to consume information about people dissimilar to them.
Contributing to the disconnect is that these White educators often dismiss the intellect of their Black students. White educators who do so compare these children to that of their White counterparts—possibly due to scientific racism. Conversely, studies have shown that Black students benefit from engaging with Black teachers because the latter understands them and will more likely recognize their potential.
“A lot of our children of color are misunderstood,” explained Afro Latinx Queen, “mostly due to staff not knowing how to deal with our kids because they are uneducated about trauma within our communities. Instead they turn to feelings such as intimidation or fear.”
This is why I firmly believe that personal/political and even spiritual empowerment is the crux of systematic change. When members of a disenfranchised group acknowledge their worth, they will employ every source within themselves to resist anyone, anything that states otherwise. The SOTA students were educated enough to acknowledge the bullshit Pacheco tried to pull on them. By studying on their own, researching Black Lives Matter and the incident that spearheaded the movement to begin with—on top of internalizing their own significance, they practiced their right to state that they mattered by engaging in civil disobedience. But most importantly, these students also need supporters in the community to validate their efforts in regards to achieving empowerment. It is paramount for educators, community members, parents, and even former students to collaborate with one another to ensure that BLM at School continues to thrive in the RCSD.
Black Lives Matter at School, to me, is an initiative that was a long time coming. Black children need to know the accomplishments of their elders and contemporaries. Because if our children knew their history, they will then become educated. They would then inquire about the structure of their surroundings and who truly benefits. And, once realizing the truth, the pupils become empowered to the point of wanting to challenge the various industrial complexes that oppress them.