12/04/2014 01:35 pm ET Updated Feb 03, 2015

Can Schools Foster the Conversations Necessary to Create Justice?

In 2000, Pat McGuigan, the conservative editor of the Daily Oklahoman, visited our high school government class. This was an exciting time when a bipartisan school improvement coalition, MAPS for KIDS, was sponsoring an ongoing conversation between the full range of community stakeholders and our diverse student bodies.

The class challenged McGuigan regarding that day's editorial in the newspaper on community policing and crime sweeps in their neighborhood, the North Highlands. Pat described crime sweeps as irregular patrols of high-crime neighborhoods. From all over the room, the students retorted, "Yeah, every Tuesday and Thursday in the Highlands."

Pat then explained that sweeps had to be unpredictable or they would not be effective.

"Yeah, every Tuesday and Thursday!"

Pat added, "sweeps could not stop drivers just because of their race because that would be racial profiling..."

"Yeah, they also stop us for just walking!"

Pat shifted gears and listened to the true experts on community policing, crime sweeps, and racial profiling.

In the wake of the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, that class discussion speaks to many aspects our society's racial polarization. Pat had always been open to interactions with all types of people, but the cross-generational, cross-cultural conversations of MAPS contributed to the journalist's decision to become a teacher at an alternative school for at-risk students.

Of course, my current students and I have been discussing the Brown and Garner cases in class. By the way, we have done so within the context of mastering our Social Studies Standards of Instruction.

If more adults could confront the anguish of poor children of color who are often seen as alien threats when just living in their home neighborhoods, we might overcome our reluctance to touch the issues of race, class, and segregation. If more adults could experience the joy of sharing a classroom with students who are empowered to question authority, study their history, contribute their insights, and debate the best ways to create equity and justice, I doubt we would have a teacher shortage in the inner city.

As usual, the poet/teacher Jose Luis Vilson, is more eloquent than I in expressing a similar insight. Vilson writes:

If you ever get the opportunity to talk to students who are most disenfranchised by the judicial, the executive, and the legislative branches of their country, don't choke. ... It's not about telling them not to riot. It's about listening to their feelings and hoping they can create a better tomorrow than the crapshow adults have laid for them.

Don't choke. Don't choke our kids. Don't cut their breath before they've even drawn it. ... It's our job to arm them with truths and a set of tools to empower them, even if the world we left for them is still too dangerous for their existence.

Nowadays, our class discussions are informed by social networking; our students are very comfortable with digital interchanges where geographical boundaries can be made irrelevant. I would like to contribute more to the blogosphere's response to the Brown and Garner tragedies, as well as our society's tragic sorting of itself into enclaves that struggle to understand each other. But, I don't know what I could say that my students could not express far more powerfully. So, I will continue to play my position in the team effort that public education should be.

This I know, however. My school system is kicking off another series of community discussions, "The Great Conversation: Moving Ahead as One," in order to revise our district's long range plan. High school students are included, and they have been eloquent in expressing their ideals, concerns, and opinions on policy. We will all be uplifted by the process.

As was explained in the first session of "The Great Conversation," the essential step for school improvement is the building of trusting relationships. Isn't the same thing true about the creation of the constitutional democracy that all of our children deserve?

My hope is that Oklahoma City will create a system of community schools where social services and education institutions are brought into our buildings and students venture off campus into the full range of the community's cultural, political, economic, and artistic institutions. Perhaps our schools can originate the conversations that our society needs, and perhaps those discussions will spread. If we all reach our hands out to each other and build learning communities, perhaps we can move beyond the need for "Hands Up" protests. Schools, alone, can't create a just society but, we can still do our part in building a democracy with justice for all.