More than 50 years after the Civil Rights Movement, when public officials, business leaders, and community institutions fail to acknowledge the basic differences in access to opportunity that make our union imperfect, it is tragic how much discrimination and inequality continue to flourish. Our communities are crying out for justice and a better approach to finding remedies to pervasive inequality—especially given how the media serve as a constant reminder. Our communities are channeling the dissatisfaction of millions of people across this country. Everyday discrimination can feel more characteristic of today’s society than our common aspiration for more equitable access to the American dream and justice for all.
We live in a country where systemic discrimination, implicit bias, and overt racism dictate the futures of too many young people of color and from low-income backgrounds. As educators, we have an obligation to our students to model leadership and teach them the skills they need to build agency to challenge injustice in their lives and to change the odds for themselves and others. This issue is much broader than a simple division between law enforcement and the communities we serve. We must pursue a vision for the future that includes and respects all voices.
Leadership means speaking truth to power, as Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did to help end Jim Crow laws throughout the country. It means standing up for one’s beliefs and speaking out against injustice, without violence or aggression, but peacefully, respectfully, and critically—values we underscore in our lessons about movements for justice and equality around the world. We must teach students to advocate for the vulnerable and the disenfranchised, as well as guide them to grow into good citizens. Public education becomes the most powerful tool to help rewrite the script that too many black and brown children are expected to hew.
It is too often in school where students first encounter systems that track and profile them, serving as the entry point for the infamous school-to-prison pipeline. However, we have the power to disrupt this pipeline. Changing the status quo in favor of more equity is what public education has the power to do. But, if schools’ high suspension rates of black children drive students to drop out, or people give up on our children, they will find themselves on the very streets that enforce inequity, as Ta Nehisi Coates eloquently explains in Between the World and Me. If public education can do anything in a thriving democracy founded on the principles of liberty, equality, opportunity, and justice, it can help ensure and protect the rights of all.
The promise of what America can be inspires us every day, and young people in the communities we serve are changing the odds to achieve their hopes and dreams. Our students cannot wait any longer. This is not just about the virtuous work of the principal, teacher, counselor, office assistant or campus security officer. Patriotism is invoking the democratic freedoms that make it a duty to speak up for those without access to the American dream and to the ideals for which our nation stands.
Our duty is no less sacred than these ideals. When our students ask us about the injustices they face in their lives and those they see play out on their screens, and when they ask how they should respond, we must join them in solidarity inside the classrooms and on the streets of our communities. We must all act to combat injustice wherever it is found in working to bend the arc of history toward justice, as Dr. King called us to do. As an organization that serves many African American students from low-income communities, we feel it is necessary to stand united with the community voices decrying injustice. Black lives matter. It is our collective responsibility and obligation to ensure we live in a country that values, preserves, and exalts the lives of black youth and adults, and that we have a true belief in the potential of all, not just a few.
Cristina de Jesus
President and CEO, Green Dot Public Schools CA
President, Asociación de Maestros Unidos
President, Ánimo Classified Employees Association