Students at City Neighbors Charter School are participating in a "Black Lives Matter Week of Action in Schools." (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun video)
Diamonte Brown stood at the front of Western High School’s auditorium wearing a shirt that read, “Black lives matter at school.”
The English teacher told the few dozen students, teachers and community advocates gathered there that Baltimore students need to learn from a curriculum based on black empowerment — one that expands on narratives of black history before 1600 and also reflects the experiences of a student body that is roughly 80 percent African-American.
“Our liberation depends on all students, not just black students, getting an education that challenges and changes the structures of systemic racism,” Brown said.
Throughout this week, some Baltimore teachers, students and activists participated in a series of events aimed at affirming the value of black lives in Baltimore schools and elevating the education of black children. The “Black Lives Matter Week of Action in Schools” kicked off Monday with a call to include additional black history and ethnic studies in the district’s curriculum.
The message that first gained traction on the streets has now shifted to the schools, with similar conversations taking place in classrooms across the country. The campaign began last year in Seattle and Philadelphia; this year schools in more than 20 cities are participating.
“Racial justice needs to be at the center of all our work as teachers,” said Shira Cohen, a teacher and co-organizer from Philadelphia. “Making this movement national shows that all the issues we have are issues that we share. We are all part of the same fight.”
The initiative in Baltimore is tied to a list of demands that includes prioritizing the recruitment and retention of black teachers and ensuring racial equity in school funding.
The #BlackLivesMatter movement launched in 2013 and grew after each high-profile incident of police brutality against black men and boys. In Baltimore, protesters invoked the phrase in 2015 after the death of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old whose fatal injuries sustained in police custody catalyzed widespread unrest.
Organizers said amplifying the “Black Lives Matter” message doesn’t only make sense during demonstrations. They also believe it’s important to teach it in schools.
“Our students are bombarded with negative images of black people and black life,” said Cristina Duncan Evans, a member of the Baltimore Movement of Rank and File Educators’ steering committee. “We need to create spaces within schools that affirm our students’ identity.”
The Baltimore Movement of Rank and File Educators coordinated the local effort alongside the Baltimore Algebra Project, a student advocacy organization.
The campaign was not sponsored by the district, though Duncan Evans estimated that more than 20 city schools took part in some way. A handful waived uniform requirements, allowing students to wear their “Black lives matter at schools” t-shirts to class.
At City Neighbors Charter School, middle schoolers participated in extended home room periods where they held nearly hour-long discussions about topics such as police brutality and what it means when someone says, “When black people are free, all people are free.”
“Black women are starting to rise up after being put down for so many years,” said the 13-year-old. “It’s not just a dream that women can do anything, women are doing anything.”
In Brittany Brown’s humanities class, students held a “Black Panther Party Mixer” Thursday. Each student was assigned a historical figure from the Black Panther Party, and told to research their lives and ideologies. The students interacted with each other while role-playing in their assumed identity. On the white board behind the students, Brown had written out the guiding principles of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Brown asked her class of eighth graders, “Why is this activity important?” Michael Green, 14, responded: “We’re doing this to learn more about our black history and black culture.”
In Prince George’s County, the school board passed a resolution earlier this month encouraging participation in the Black Lives Matter Week of Action in Schools, though no such official action was taken in the city. The week of action falls during Black History Month when many classes are already studying some of these topics.
Baltimore has made it a priority to include culturally relevant materials across its curricula, said spokeswoman Edie House-Foster. She said the district is also working to increase the number of teachers of color.
In an email to the initiative’s organizers chief academic officer Sean Conley wrote that current events and community issues often translate into “teachable moments.”
“The district has no intention of restricting the use of any appropriate materials made available for use that support teachers and staff in providing context for our students in processing the Black Lives Matter movement or other important issues facing our students, community, and staff,” he wrote.
In Corey Gaber’s sixth grade English class at Southwest Baltimore Charter School, students read poems by Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou and then wrote their own adaptations, each tied to a principle of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Brandon Sye, 11, was crafting a piece in which he gives advice to his younger brother about how to survive in the world, and in Baltimore especially.