The Black Lives Matter at Schools movement is a natural outgrowth of Black Lives Matter (BLM), which has provided critical action toward social justice in America. In the schools, its mission is three-fold: end zero tolerance discipline and implement restorative practices, hire more black teachers, and mandate black history/ethnic studies. Last week, the movement held a “week of action,” with schools and individual teachers throughout the country — including in Baltimore, where we work — choosing to participate in an effort to foster an environment for these goals to take root and address long-standing systemic inequities.
Some of the responses to a Baltimore Sun story chronicling this important work were shocking. They challenged the appropriateness of BLM in schools, claiming it promoted segregation, hate speech and victimization. Signaling to our African American students that they are worthy of all of the same opportunities as their white counterparts is empowering, not victimizing. And questioning the value of having students collectively engage in discourse about equity reveals a fundamental — and disturbing — misunderstanding of BLM and how race is perceived in the United States. How will we pass the baton to our kids to effectively change the course of history when their earliest efforts are inappropriately contradicted?
A mindset of inferiority is being taught subliminally to our African American youth as they navigate our educational system; this is why our black students need a reminder that their lives matter. As do our white students. Upon seeing a teacher wearing a “Black Lives Matter in Schools” shirt, a Caucasian student approached and said that message on her shirt made him “feel like my life doesn’t matter.” It was a valuable teachable moment.
The teacher asked the student to think about his textbooks and workbooks and other media like video clips he views in school and at home, and asked the student how often he already sees, reads about and learns about people who look like him or have similar culturally relevant experiences. The student agreed that Caucasian people were represented in the majority of his learning engagements. Through this conversation, this student then became equipped and able to shift his mindset to an understanding of the need for African American voices to be heard.
This is the critical work of this BLM campaign in action through genuine, compassionate staff-to-student interactions. Through the lens of restorative practices, we teach our kids to be critical thinkers about conflict they may see and experience at school. We ask them to think about problems from all sides and all perspectives, to consider how they think and feel about it, how they are affected by problems they face and how others are impacted. Most importantly, we challenge our students: “What can you do to make things better?”
We must disrupt the system that is breeding inequalities and denying access to a rich, diverse cultural experience for a whole group of people. Our students can look back at this time knowing it was the start of something powerfully meaningful toward unifying our collective human experience, and they can be proud of their contribution to social change.
We stand by our partners across Baltimore who have encouraged these conversations among students, staff and families, and who work elbow-to-elbow in solidarity. We applaud and celebrate this work at City Neighbors, Western High School, Southwest Baltimore Charter High School and elsewhere as we, too, work to engage in the same efforts to empower our students. Through this empowerment, students will begin to formulate identities based on facts and walk through previously closed doors. In the words of 11-year-old Brandon quoted in the Sun article, we seek to be the adults our children will see “coming together, working together” for their rights.
We know that having these courageous conversations and teaching these skills prepare them to be leaders in their communities — your communities. All students benefit from robust conversations about equity to unearth, challenge and remediate mindsets and actions that reinforce injustice.
Cindy Thorne (CThorne@bcps.k12.md.us) is a school psychologist at Roland Park Elementary/Middle School, where Brittany Horne is an equity support teacher and 6th grade science teacher.