Let the Anti-Racism Movement Change School in the Fall Too
Just over a month ago, in early-mid May, we released a webinar for our school partners called “What Might School Look Like in the Fall?” We explored several possible models for school re-entry to help principals understand the implications of each and the commonalities between them that could drive their immediate decision-making and planning. The information in the webinar is all still incredibly relevant, especially now as states and districts are beginning to issue some guidance (for example) on how to safely reopen schools but leave much decision-making to occur at the local school level.
However, we missed an incredibly important lens on school re-entry that must be considered with as much rigor and intentionality as preventing the spread of COVID-19 in our schools: anti-racism.
The tragic events that led to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks and far too many other Black lives have set forth a long overdue movement across our entire society rightfully demanding change. These are not singular acts of racism by “bad apples,” but events emblematic of the racist policies and practices that are inherent in our systems.
Unequivocally, Black Lives Matter.
We cannot just look to police reform to deliver on the promise of this moment. Our schools are a part of a racist system too. Much has been written about the school-to-prison pipeline, the harms of exclusionary discipline practices, the whiteness and maleness of the literary canon, the glossing over or outright elimination of teaching racist historical events, and police presence in our schools to enforce discipline among many other well-documented and researched issues. The problems inherent in our society are replicated within the microcosms of our schools.
Whether consciously or not, schools play a role in perpetuating systemic racism and upholding existing power structures. I know that I, far too often, have just taken as a given that educators who care about children’s success and well-being are implicitly anti-racist. We’re all here for the right reasons, right? We can just focus on teaching our students well and ensuring their academic achievement, right? We care about our Black students as individuals so we all must be implicitly anti-racist, right?
But only considering the personal motivations of educators and not the systems and structures in which we all operate is akin to looking for “bad apples” in the police departments rather than scrutinizing the racist policies that maintain the existing white-dominated social structures. We must explicitly commit to anti-racism in our schools if we want to have any hope that our society will change.
Now is the time to do just that.
With us questioning each and every aspect of our schools in relation to their public health considerations, we must also scrutinize each and every aspect of our schools in relation to their role in serving as the anti-racist institutions we may have implicitly believed them to be. We have an obligation and an opportunity right now to remake our schools as they ought to be. We must employ explicit anti-racist efforts to do so though.
Implicit commitment hasn’t been, isn’t, and will never be enough.
I say this as a white man who has largely ignored explicit anti-racist actions in building Fulcrum. I’ve always favored an implicit approach. As a teacher, I relied on giving students the most demanding classroom learning experiences I could and supporting them to rise to meet them as my way of showing my commitment to equity in education. Leaving race out of some conversations and my approach to teaching was a privilege and I was wrong to do so.
This same orientation has shaped Fulcrum’s implicit commitment to equity by supporting schools and teachers to provide students with rigorous classroom instruction. This is incomplete and insufficient, right down to me ignoring equity and anti-racism as a key consideration in the webinar.
If widespread protests hadn’t erupted, would I have had this realization? I don’t think I would have. It was just as urgent when Trayvon Martin was killed or Tamir Rice or Michael Brown or Philando Castile or Sandra Bland or Eric Garner or Freddie Gray, but I held on to my approach of implicit actions instead of explicit commitment.
George Floyd’s murder has changed a lot of people’s perceptions of racial justice around the country. I know that it has shaken me loose of merely implicit commitment to anti-racism in schools. I don’t know precisely where this journey towards explicit action will take me or Fulcrum or education writ large just yet, but I do know that it’s high time we commit to finding out.
Let me correct one of my implicit-commitment-is-enough missteps: as you watch the webinar and/or continue planning for re-entry to school in the fall, add in Anti-Racism to each and every consideration at each of the three tiers. Throughout, ask yourself:
“How are our actions, policies, and decisions explicitly committing to anti-racism through [this component]?”
“Will this perpetuate racism or dismantle it?”
As you do this in your schools, we’re doing the same at Fulcrum. We are scrutinizing ourselves, our company, and our schools’ practices in relation to racism, privilege, inclusivity, and equity in order to educate and act in ways that eliminate racial disparities and explicitly put anti-racist ideals into action within Fulcrum and our schools.
We do not expect this to be easy work; we are working to make authentic, lasting changes and not just play on the surface or pay lip service to the current movement. We’re challenging our guiding frameworks and resources that we use to support schools and shape instructional leadership. We’re challenging our organizational structures and hiring practices. We’re challenging the explicitness (or implicitness, as the case has been) with which we operate as an anti-racist organization that partners so deeply and closely with our school partners. We’re challenging our own personal beliefs and actions in order to deepen our understanding of ourselves and our personal roles as anti-racists in schools and society. This has already been hard and we expect it to get even harder, but we are in it for the long haul and true systemic change.
It shouldn’t have taken a global pandemic or more murders of Black people at the hands of police to do so, but that is the moment we are in and we can seize the opportunity now that it is the situation in which we find ourselves.
It’s not just an opportunity; it’s an obligation.