The question some educators always seem to ask when confronted with a Black Lives Matter week in schools is why? Why should we only focus on one race of people? Why should we only focus on Black Lives?
My response to that question is always the following: focusing on Black Lives automatically highlights the struggles of other cultures and races of people. Discussing Black Lives and why they should matter in school and in society touches on the history of every other immigrant student within the class. Discussing Black Lives also helps to educate non-children of color on their history, how it connects to modern systems of oppression created by White Supremacy and Colonialism, and provides avenues on how to move forward collectively.
I teach at one of the most diverse high schools in Philadelphia. In my African American History classes, I easily have over 7 - 8 languages represented out of the 28 to 32 students within the classroom. Discussing issues pertinent to Black people may not easily be received well unless you see the value and interconnectedness of the struggles for equality that all People of Color and some European peoples have had to endure. For this reason, I make sure to become as knowledgeable as possible about the backgrounds of my students so that I can not only bring them into my World History lessons, but also to show how their story is connected to the current state of their peoples in 2018.
To begin Black Lives Matter at School Week, I played the video "Letters for Black Lives" read by Asian Americans (which included people of Arab, Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Pakistani backgrounds) in class and asked my students to write what the video was about. I also asked them to write whether they agreed or disagreed with it and to explain their reasoning. The next day, we watched an interview of Maya Lin where she explains her process behind creating the Civil Rights Memorial and why she didn't know as much about the movement before creating the memorial. After studying the materials, she realized that her design would need to make people want to leave the exhibit and learn more through their own research.
Furthermore, Maya explains that she chose Dr. King's famous paraphrased quote from the Bible, "We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream" as inspiration and why his quote made her choose water as a unifying theme. Perhaps the most poignant words Maya said is, "this was a people's movement...the past is not done...it's not a closed timeline...it's ongoing...so I needed something to connect the past...with something to talk about the future...".
When the video was done, you could hear a pin drop. My Asian American students were watching intently, partly because they saw themselves in the speaker, partly because the subject matter was put in a way for them to connect to and understand. I also began to mention Ellis Island and how it had a counterpart on the West Coast off of California, Angel Island. My usually quiet Chinese American Mandarin speaking student, finished my sentence for me and smiled and nodded as I continued on to explain the oppression of Chinese migrants being held on the island indefinitely due to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. That reaction and their subsequent written responses is the reason Black Lives Matter in Schools should be the rule, not the exception.
Perhaps the most important realization is that all people benefitted from and continue to reap the rewards of movements spearheaded by Black Americans for equality and rights without realizing it. From modern labor movements in this country, to students being able to sit in the same classrooms, to students receiving free breakfast and lunch in schools. Black people fought, died, bled, and cried so that all of us can reap the benefits of our evolving system of rights.
Special thank you to the Racial Justice Committee from the Caucus of Working Educators of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers for organizing the week after teachers in Seattle experienced "violent racism" in 2016. Thanks to the hard work of WE, BLM in Schools week has now gone national and is prevalent in several cities across America including New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Seattle and beyond.