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Opinion: How you can help Black Lives Matter at School

It's a Year of Purpose in the fight for equity in education.

“In the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and others named and unnamed, a great Uprising for Black Lives has swept the nation and the world, inciting new urgency and radical possibilities for advancing abolitionist practice and uprooting institutional racism.” These are the opening words of the recently released statement from the Black Lives Matter at School movement’s new call for a Year of Purpose in fighting racism. 

The Black Lives Matter at School movement started with a day of action in Seattle during the 2016-2017 school year, shortly after a bomb threat was made against John Muir Elementary School when the educators, parents, and community had organized a celebration of their Black students that included wearing shirts that said “Black Lives Matter/We Stand Together.” In solidarity with John Muir educators and families, some 3,000 educators around the city came to school on October 16 that year wearing shirts that said “Black Lives Matter,” with many of them teaching lessons about institutional racism and the long Black freedom struggle. 

The movement spread to Philadelphia that same year, where educators there expanded it to a full week of action.  The following year, organizers in cities around the country collaborated to make Black Lives Matter at School a national week of action during the first week of February, and it has been celebrated by thousands of teachers and students around the country for the past three school years. 

This week of action has been important to raising awareness around the 13 principles of the Black Lives Matter Global Network and the four demands of our movement:

1. End “zero tolerance” discipline and implement restorative justice
2.
Hire more Black teachers
3. Mandate Black history and ethnic studies in K-12 curriculum
4. Fund counselors, not cops

These demands couldn’t be more urgent. 

Black students are being suspended at dramatically disproportionate rates and the school-to-prison pipeline is fueling mass incarceration to the point where today there are more Black people behind bars, on probation or on parole than were enslaved on plantations in 1850. Today, 1.7 million children go to a school in the United States where there is a police officer and no counselor — and some 14 million students attend a school where there is a cop but no counselor, nurse, psychologist or social worker. Black teachers are being pushed out of classrooms around the country. As an article in Mother Jones pointed out, since 2002 “26,000 Black teachers have disappeared from the nation’s public schools—even as the overall teaching workforce has increased by 134,000. Countless Black principals, coaches, cafeteria workers, nurses and counselors have also been displaced.” 

Moreover, the need for Black history and ethnic studies in our schools could not be more needed — especially when you consider hate crimes have spiked severely in Seattle and across the United States, including in our nation’s schools. Too often, classroom curriculum is whitewashed to exclude many of the struggles and contributions of Black, Indigenous and people of color. 

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Jesse Hagopian is co-author of the 2018 book “Teaching for Black Lives,” among other books.

Our movement — in collaboration with so many others, including the Advancement Project, Dignity in Schools, Students Deserve, Black Minds Matter, NAACP Youth Council, and more — has scored important wins, such as removing police from schools in many cities around the country, including Seattle. But the BLM at School Week of Action was never meant to contain teaching and organizing for Black lives to a single week. It was always meant as a catalyst for educators, students and families to take the work into their entire year.  Now BLM at School has developed a framework and a plan of action for how to join thousands of others around the country to make Black Lives Matter at school all year long: The BLM at School Year of Purpose.

The Year of Purpose has two major components:

1. Educators — and parents who have been pressed into educating their kids at home due to COVID-19 — are called on to answer a series of reflection questions that help them better analyze their pedagogy with respect to anti-racist practices.

2. Educators, students, parents, and community members are called on to organize for a day of action during every month of the school year that will highlight different aspects of the BLM at School movement. 

Here are some ways that educators, parents, students and anti-racist organizers can support the Year of Purpose:

Sign the petition pledging to support the Year of Purpose.
• For educators, answer the year of purpose reflection questions and use them to guide your practice throughout the year (see questions below).
Participate in the monthly days of action. The next is Oct. 14, George Floyd’s birthday.
Demand that your local school board and city council endorse BLM at School’s Year of Purpose.

Join us on this journey from a day of protest to a week of action, to a year of purpose, to a lifetime of practice, so that we can collectively uproot structural racism and transform the school system to ensure that Black students and educators are truly valued. 

Self-Reflection Questions from BLM at School

1. 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?

2. 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?

3. 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?

4. In what ways do our practices erase the histories of our students and prevent them from bringing their whole selves into the learning environment?

5. How do I understand the role that local and 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 harm Black students and families?

​Actions and Activities from BLM at School

In addition to the self-reflection, we will encourage educators to participate in the following days of action throughout the year. Each action is grounded in the Movement for Black Lives Principles that we adopted as well:

1. FIRST DAY: Black to School (Whatever date that is for you)

• Wear the shirt
• Review the BLM at School reflection questions and write up your anti-racist action plan for the year
Make a graffiti wall (either on a piece of paper or an electronic document): “What are we going to do differently this year to further the movement for Black lives in our school?”
Post a video to social media
Twitter chat

2. Oct. 14: Justice for George Day
Principle: Restorative Justice
Oct. 14 is George Floyd’s birthday. Justice for George Day is a day to remember him and call for the defunding of the police and the redirecting of those funds towards social programs and education.

3. November 20: Transgender Day of Remembrance
Principle: Trans Affirming
Friday, November 20, Transgender Day of Remembrance, 2020, in memory of William Dorsey Swann and many others.

4. Dec. 3: International Day of Persons with Disabilities
Principle: Globalism and Collective Value
December 3 is International Day of Persons with Disabilities. Harriet Tubman and Fannie Lou Hamer are two disabled freedom fighters we revere, even as the disabilities they carried with them into struggle aren’t consistently lifted up as assets in their fight. To fight against societal ableism, we must celebrate our differences and understand how the lessons from Black disabled organizers teach us how to build inclusive, accessible movements.

5. Queer Organizing Behind the Scenes
Principle: Queer Affirming
January: During January, we find it critical to lift up Bayard Rustin, one of the principal organizers behind the March on Washington, which is crowned as one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s lasting achievements. To be queer-affirming means lifting up our queer ancestors who were at the foundation of our movements throughout time. This deepens the purpose of MLK Day to understand that no one person makes a movement, highlighting how MLK’s legacy encompasses the contributions of many.

6. Unapologetically Black Day
Principle: Unapologetically Black
Feb. 18: The birthday of writers Audre Lorde and Toni Morrison.

7. Student Activist Day
Principles: Loving Engagement and Empathy
March 6: Honoring Barbara Johns, it’s Black student activist day: a day to celebrate Black student activists.

8. Revolutionary Black Arts
Principle: Intergenerational
April: During National Library Week, we seek to center the classic contributions of Black writers and artists across the generations, including Zora Neale Huston, Faith Ringgold, Alma Thomas, Augusta Savage and Jasmine Mans. How are the themes and radical vision that they brought to their art reflected in your classrooms and communities? How can young people extend these legacies?

9. Black Radical Educator Day
Principle: Black Villages
May 3: On Septima Clark’s birthday, we celebrate Black Radical Educator Day.

10. #SayHerName Day
Principle: Black Women
June 5, Breonna Taylor’s Birthday: A day to call for justice for Breonna and uplift the #SayHerName movement

11. Education for Liberation Day
Principles: Black Families and Diversity
Juneteenth: Education for Liberation Day: A day to celebrate the struggle that brought down slavery, and a day that reflects on what must be done to win Black liberation.

12. A Day for Self-Reflection
Review all 13 Principles
Last day of School, Reflection Day: Reflect on your year of anti-racist teaching, possibly in groups.

About the Author

Jesse Hagopian

Jesse Hagopian teaches ethnic studies and English language arts at Seattle’s Garfield High School. He is a member of the Seattle Education Association and of the social justice caucus Social Equity Educators (SEE). Jesse is an editor for Rethinking Schools magazine, a writer for the Zinn Education Project and the director of the Black Education Matters Student Activist Award. Jesse is the co-editor of the books “Black Lives Matter At School: An Uprising for Educational Justice” and “Teaching for Black Lives” and editor of the book “More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High Stakes Testing.” You can follow Jesse on Twitter, @jessedhagopian, or his blog, www.IAmAnEducator.com.