Making Black Lives Matter at School
Three community activists offer questions for reflection on how to make Black lives matter in the classroom, at school, and in the community.
In a country that has always defined norms and rules through a White, cis-hetero, Judeo-Christian, ableist lens, we have no option but to imagine and then build a radically different world in which Black lives matter. As educators, much of what is involved in how we create and design learning environments for our students must be situated in understanding the experiences of Black children, Black families, and Black communities. By creating more humanizing learning environments — by leveling up our expectations for how we treat Black students in school — we inevitably and consequently create a foundation for the treatment and support for all students.
We could not possibly set out an easy list of edicts that determine an isolated safe-zone for Black students within what we know to be a world still deeply invested in furthering Black suffering. Instead, we ask that educators meditate and reflect on some critical questions about how to make Black lives matter in the classroom, at school, and in the community. We also offer some fundamental guiding principles that drive any effort to center the mattering of Black lives.
Please use these questions as a starting point for conversations with your colleagues about how to transform pedagogy, practice, and organizing (within and outside the school environment). Like all transformative inquiry, this incomplete set of questions should lead to further questions and inquiry.
1. How are the voices, accomplishments, and successes of Black folx uplifted in my lessons, units, and curriculum? Rather than focus on singular events or individuals, does my approach highlight the everyday actions and community organizing that will lead to change?
2. Do my Black students feel that they can be their full, whole selves without fear of punishment? Does my classroom celebrate Black forms of creative expression in language, style, imagery, fashion, etc.?
3. How might my classroom practices, philosophies, and principles, and the design of my learning environment overall be limiting to Black students? What practices do I engage in that fail to affirm the humanity of Black people?
4. Am I listening to my Black students when they communicate through their words, work, actions, and behaviors? Or am I silencing these expressions?
5. How are schoolwide policies and practices — especially disciplinary practices — applied across categories of race? Do problematic patterns emerge when we look at how policies are applied to Black students and when we also consider the intersections of gender, sexual orientation, and (dis)ability with Blackness?
6. How do we communicate the promise of education to our Black students? Do we reproduce the “myth of meritocracy” and individualism, or do we value collective uplift for Black families and communities? How do we disrupt notions of individual exceptionalism that further notions of disposability for the overwhelming majority of Black students?
7. What opportunities are being created for educators to engage in dialogue and unlearn biases and deficit ideologies about Black students, Black parents, and Black communities?
8. What are some of our school practices and policies that shrink the humanity of or dehumanize Black students? How can we counter those policies and practices?
9. How can we build restorative and transformative principles and practices at every level of daily operations in the school day and beyond?
10. What is our school’s relationship to Black community organizing? Do we have relationships with local movement organizers? Do they see our school as a place that believes in their mission? Do they see our school as a place to connect with local families?
11. How do we see our mission of providing a quality education in connection with movements for accessible healthcare? Housing rights? Fair wages? The environment? The “criminal punishment system” (Kaba, 2017)?
12. What is my role in understanding the impact of gentrification on the lives of Black students and their community?
13. How do we uplift the everyday Black folx in our community and include them in co-creating the learning environments for students, parents, and community members?
14. How do I understand the role that local/state laws and policies have on the educational experiences of my students? What is my role in working to change policies, regulations, and practices that target and harm Black students and families?
About the Authors
Awo Okaikor Aryee-Price
Awo Okaikor Melvinia Aryee-Price is the second daughter of the late Melvinia Rose Holland (1999) and Nii Ayikuma Aryee. She is mom to Saige Ayikailey (12) and Kaeden Nii-Ayikundzra (8), and partner to Keith. As a former classroom teacher of 14+ years, she can be found organizing within national and state educational justice organizing spaces and communities. Okaikor is currently a doctoral candidate at Rutgers University Graduate School of Education, co-founder of MapSO Freedom School, and a steering committee member for EduColor and the National Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action.
Maria C. Fernandez
Maria C. Fernandez is the Senior Campaign Strategist at the Advancement Project National Office. With more than 15 years of youth organizing and education justice experience, Maria’s work focuses on supporting Black youth and students of Color across the country to develop local and national campaigns to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline and demand #PoliceFreeSchools. Maria believes that the fight for education justice for Black children in this country is a fight for self-determination and a practice in community control. A Bronx-raised New Yorker, she now lives in Washington, DC with her partner Jonathan Stith.
Christopher Rogers was born and raised in Chester, PA, and is a core member of Teacher Action Group – Philadelphia, whose work consists of organizing teachers and other community educators to work toward education justice in the city of Philadelphia and beyond. He also maintains a special relationship with the West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance where he serves as Public Programs Director for the Paul Robeson House Museum. Christopher has also chaired the Curriculum Committee of the National Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action.