Something amazing happened on Friday at my school... my students exercised their right to conduct a peaceful protest. They organized their strategy within a week; attributing leadership credit to one they called "Ms. Kelly." They organized using word of mouth and social media. My young people carried signs, started chants and even had the audacity to seek media coverage.
They made their list of grievances and demands, which included the non-renewal of teachers, the lack of school sponsored activities and overall lack of student morale. The students would not be denied. The principal and district administrators attempted to corral them inside the building, but the students would not be moved until they spoke with the school's board of trustees' chair. An hour after school started, the board chair arrived and the students followed her in the building; not to go to classes but rather to have a meeting with the board chair which lasted two hours. The events of Friday morning compelled the board chair to call an emergency meeting with the school administration following her meeting with protesters and following that, a meeting with key student activist. My students felt a sense of accomplishment by the end of the day. While I told them how proud I was of them, I also told them that the activism means continuous engagement with community and leadership; this day was only a beginning.
For me, teaching civic engagement is an important component of teaching social studies. The purpose and the art of the peaceful protest are examined in my Urban Studies course. This year we've explored the political and economic conditions that impact urban areas; the causation for specific events and the reactions thereafter. We've wrestled with how towns like Ferguson, Missouri still exist, we've reflected on the history of events surrounding the march from Selma to Montgomery and we've confronted the harsh truths of why riots take place using Baltimore, Maryland as well as Ferguson, Missouri as our case studies. My students started to understand that the people have the power to challenge institutions. They started to understand there is a power within the people that when focused can lead to some substantive change. I challenged them; I told them that unlike other groups, they have not shown the capacity to organize because they unfortunately allow minor differences to keep them divided and off task. Friday's events proved that I was wrong; they have the capacity to organize and they did so. They implemented the lesson of protest. How it all plays out is another discussion completely. However, they took a huge leap forward.
I was approached by school administration to assist them with encouraging students to enter the building. Whether or not folks care to admit it, there is a mythical belief that all students listen to me more than they do any other adult. The belief is built on the unfortunate reality that I am the only African American male teacher in my high school; a high school where close to half of the student population is African American, located in a city where about half of the population is African American, but I digress. The pressure to assist them was real; however I and a fellow teacher did not cave into the pressure, specifically when approached by the school's chief operating officer. Any protest has a genesis. The seeds for Friday's events were sown by decisions made by the decision makers of our school. It was not for me or any other teacher to restore calm. That is an administrative priority. My job, and the job of every other teacher, is to teach. It is to teach students how to think critically and use their knowledge to make their world and the world around them a better place. Sometimes, adults lose sight of that. Some never had sight of that to begin with. Friday, the board chair was compelled to recognize the legitimate grievances of the students and she heard them. It was all because the students chose to organize peacefully and be steadfast in the face of authority.
My message to my students is simple; while I am proud of you, your activism cannot end with Friday's events. It must continue after Friday. It must be ongoing and rooted in your desire to make your school a better place for the students who will occupy your desks long after you graduate. Causing a civil disturbance is an effective strategy; so is meeting at the table with school leadership and establishing a partnership with school administration and school governance. These groups are your partners, not your adversaries. I emphasize that point to the school administration and governance as well. Our students are your partners in the mission to educate them. While they must be respectful, they too must be respect. At times, they have misplaced aggression. However, there are decisions that can be made to make your job and their experiences more fruitful. They cannot be silenced, nor should anyone attempt to silence or redirect them. Take this moment to provide them with the greatest lesson you ever could; that they can make a difference in their own reality. We educate in a space where students are not expected to graduate from high school and if so, they are expected to get low wage jobs and perpetuate the cycle of poverty in their community. Students like ours are used to hearing society tell them "no" or "you can't." Friday, our students said yes we can. How they are approached hereafter will determine whether or not they believe that they can. There future interactions with you will shape how they view their ability to influence and change institutions as adults. You may not renew teacher contracts, or guarantee field trips and dances or address their concerns about the cook, but you will certainly send students a message no matter your course of action. Friday, the students sent their message. I am glad they've found their voice.
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