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Why Black Lives Matter Protestors Are Turning to Teaching

What’s behind the affinity between educators and the movement premised on black liberation? Activists say the classroom offers a space to put the group’s beliefs into action.

By Brittany King


Black Lives Matter supporters at the University of Missouri–Columbia celebrate the resignation of University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe amid allegations of racism in November 2015. (Photo: Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)

On October 10th, 2015, Ayanna Poole stood at the intersection of University Avenue and Ninth Street in Columbia, Missouri, her arms linked with 10 other students. Her voice trembled as her arms broke free and she grabbed a megaphone to begin her presentation at the University of Missouri’s Homecoming parade. “In 1865, Missouri created separate but equal laws under Jim Crow,” she said. “These laws made it impossible for blacks to attend the University of Missouri, so in 1866 Lincoln University was established to create fair education for students of color.”

She didn’t know it then, but herself and other founding members of the black campus activist group Concerned Student 1950 were about to inspire students nationwide. The group’s subsequent list of demands was posted on Twitter and led to a meeting with the University of Missouri system president, ushering the group into the mediaspotlight; the group’s hashtag #blackoncampus began trending, catching the attention of Senator Bernie Sanders. After the group’s debut, Yale University, Ithaca College, Syracuse University, and others turned to their own administrations to demand fair treatment for all students on campus.

Poole graduated in 2015; today, she is a teacher at Boulter Middle School in Tyler, Texas, teaching seventh grade.

The group of Black Lives Matter activists who have become educators counts some high-profile members among its ranks. Deray McKesson, prominent in the Ferguson protests, was appointed the interim head of human capital for Baltimore schools in June (before the Mike Brown protests in Ferguson, he was the senior director of human capital in the Minneapolis Public School system). Brittany Packnett, also a prominent Ferguson protestor, is the current vice president of Teach for America’s National Community Alliances; she got her start as an educator for Teach for America, where she created the organization’s first equity agenda.

But the group is larger than its most well-known educators, and there are many whose individual stories haven’t been told. Last month, over 2,000 Seattle-area educators showed their support by wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts and holding rallies for the movement during Seattle Public Schools’ “day of unity.” (The event was not sponsored by the school district.) In March of last year, 115 researchers and academics signed a letter in support of protestors being charged after a peaceful demonstration at the Mall of America.

So what makes a Black Lives Matter protestor become a teacher — and vice versa? In conversation, three protestors say they decided to enter the education system to directly tackle systemic inequalities like the school-to-prison pipeline and a lack of diverse subjects in coursework. But they also see the classroom as a space for realizing the movement’s emphasis on black liberation —acting on the notion that seeing teachers that look like you, and learning critical thinking skills, motivates leaders and activists.

Dr. Andre E. Johnson is an assistant professor of communications at the University of Memphis, a predominantly white school, and has participated in Black Lives Matter protests.His courses address the high racial tensions felt broadly on campuses nationwide: Johnson teaches African-American public address, media studies, interracial communication, hip hop studies, and courses that examine the rhetoric of race in religion and popular culture.

Johnson says he teaches because he believes awareness of systemic inequalities starts at school. “A good quality education is important because it helps students develop critical thinking skills in order to understand the issues and concerns plaguing their communities,” he says.

The group is larger than its most well-known educators, and there are many whose individual stories haven’t been told.

Reverend Earle J. Fisher, a religious studies professor at Rhodes College who is also a protestor, believes teaching about race and Black Lives Matter is itself a form of activism. He’s at a school that has had its share of racial tensions recently: In April, a series of racist messages took place on the predominantly white campus. First, a sock monkey was hung by a noose out of a dorm window; then, the words “Trump 2016” and “build a wall” were written in chalk on campus. Both incidents occurred during Rhodes’ annual Multicultural Visit Program, when minority high school seniors get the opportunity to experience the college over a weekend.

To Fisher, visible acts like these demonstrate why students should talk about race and class. “Activism is a public commitment to raising consciousness through various means in an effort to achieve social justice,” he says. “It is not limited to public protests.” (Case in point, Fisher is also a spokesperson for Memphis Grassroots Organizations Coalition, a coalition that aims to “bring truth, love, social justice, peace, and liberation to the city of Memphis” and serves as the senior pastor at Abyssinian Baptist Church.)

At its core, the Black Lives Matter movement was created to rebuild the black liberation movement and challenge not only the negative image of blacks, but the mistreatment of the black community: It began in 2012, after a Florida jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. The classroom allows students and educators to challenge stereotypes and discuss the movement in a constructive way, educators say.

But the extent to which the classroom can combat bias may depend on its curricula.In a 1999 article in the Journal of Social Issues, University of Texas psychology professor Rebecca Bigler argues that, in the past, educators have tried to increase the acceptance of multicultural individuals by introducing one or two books with a black character into a classroom, which has no lasting effect on students. Instead, Bigler suggests introducing people with diverse backgrounds on a consistent and meaningful basis — having students in a science class study the work of doctors of color, for instance, or studying works from the Harlem Renaissance in an art class.

Maria McSweeny, a fourth grade teacher in New Jersey, suggested tackling inequality in a different way. In her article “No Easy Road to Freedom” she wrote about a study she performed with her class that was intended to make learning about racism and social justice more interactive. She tasked her students with making posters that condemned racism, sexism, and ageism, played videos about apartheid in South Africa, and asked students to create anti-racist rap songs for a play they wrote and starred in for their parents. McSweeny said that she found that making these subjects interactive through art, song, and dance not only engaged students more, but also left them empowered as social activists, even leading them to call out racial injustices in their own community.

Elementary school, though, is one thing; college is another. In 1992, clinical psychologist and educator Beverly Daniel Tatum argued in the Harvard Educational Review that the college classroom in particular allows students who never sought different points of view on race, and haven’t been able to talk through their feelings, to encounter those who think differently from them. She writes that setting clear rules in her class — including attacking the idea and not the person expressing it, doing the reading, and being open to change — and allowing for ample discussion of texts do the most to push the needle on reducing racial bias in the classroom.

“It is likely that white students who have had the opportunity to learn about racism in a supportive atmosphere will be better able to be allies to students of color in extracurricular settings,” she says of her approach. Meanwhile, “students of color are able to give voice to their own experience, and to validate it rather than be demoralized by it.”

At the University of Missouri, Poole believed that Concerned Student 1950’s intended liberation of black students would not happen unless her organization forced it. She brings that same pragmatism to her classroom, which is predominately black, and located at a school where 71 percent of the student body is economically disadvantaged. Poole doesn’t shy away from conversations about freedom and perseverance with her seventh graders.

“We began the school year discussing my three P’s: power, purpose, and positive attitude,” she says. “Though some of the students still struggle with knowing how powerful they are and some are still unsure of their purpose, we begin each class with ‘Asé’ and fight through each day so those struggles no longer exist in their minds when they leave my classroom.”

Plastered on her classroom wall, she says, is a huge photograph of Concerned Student 1950, around which her students are allowed to place poetry, sticky notes, and emotions — “anything that will free their spirit.” She calls it the Wall of Resilience. “Our main purpose of liberating ourselves within my classroom is through liberating our minds,” Poole says.

Since both Fisher and Johnson teach within higher education, they are able to be significantly more straightforward in their discussions about the Black Lives Matter movement — both consider incorporating the movement essential to teaching college courses in contemporary America. “I attempt to center the experience of black and brown people who live on the margins when I engage the various subject matters that I teach,” Fisher says. “I try to be intentional about looking at current issues and how the overlap with the themes and principles of the Black Lives Matter and black freedom movements.”

Since Johnson teaches using historical texts, he says including Black Lives Matter within his curriculum comes easy. Assigned readings from Frances Ellen Watkins Harper — a writer and activist who worked to free slaves via The Underground Railroad — show that many of the problems she spoke about, including equal access to education, safe neighborhoods for blacks, and women’s suffrage, are problems that still plague the black community today. Black Lives Matter’s focus on intersectionality also fuels classroom discussions, opening them up to topics like police brutality, economic injustice, and the prison industrial complex.

Including these issues in curriculum is, of course, a necessity as America grows more diverse: By around 2020, more than half of all American children will belong to a minority ethnic group, according to the Census Bureau. But these educators’ lesson plans also respond to systemic issues that have plagued the United States school systems for decades. The school-to-prison-pipeline, which started in the ’90s as schools began to adopt zero-tolerance policies for certain infractions committed by students, has funneled a large number of students into the criminal justice system, especially students of color. In 2007, the Advancement Project conducted a study that found that, for every 100 students who are suspended, approximately 29 of them are a person of color, while only about five are white.

These tough sentences often cause a cycle that continues into adulthood. Currently in the U.S. 40.2 percent of prison populations are made up of black men, though they only make up 13.6 percent of our country’s population according to census data.

With criminal justice inequities beginning at school, and the country’s body of teachers and administrators remaining largely white, Black Lives Matter-involved educators say they understand that they bear a responsibility to make the classroom a place for improving their students’ futures — one they don’t take lightly.

“I believe that education creates a steady foundation for our children to grow upon,” Poole says. “This is where I believe I belong, working from the ground up, and planting the seeds that will grow and move on to higher education and continue the fight that me, and other founding members of Concerned Student 1950, so desperately believed in.”