Last month, students across the country celebrated Black History Month. Many read books by black authors, wrote research papers on civil rights activists, memorized Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, or watched videos about the Underground Railroad. And if they were taught honestly, as they learned about the struggles of the past, they may have begun to recognize it in their own present — when mall security guards take notice of them walking in groups, or when they see people who look like them losing their lives to neighborhood and police violence on the nightly news. These lessons are anything but history.
I myself faced these prejudices. When I was in high school, I was told not to apply to schools like Georgetown University because they were too high of a reach for me and I should aim for schools that would surely accept me. But with the support and encouragement of teachers who believed in me, I applied to and graduated from Georgetown in 2008, the first member of my family to complete college.
The truth is, while the “whites only” signs of the ’60s have come down, the reality of separate and unequal endures. Alongside glaring gaps in educational, employment and economic opportunity, people of color in this nation face a variety of subtler, no less damaging assumptions. A successful black lawyer’s credibility is questioned with suggestions of affirmative action. A young black boy on a corner is seen as “suspicious,” while his white peers “hang out.” A black college student is asked to give “the black perspective” to a seminar full of white students who are never asked to speak on behalf of their entire race.
In the face of these realities, we have no time to waste. This school year marked the first in which the majority of public school students are minorities. Our generation has a responsibility to work to ensure that each and every one of them is moving through a system that affirms their identities, shows them they’re valued, and allows them access to the opportunities they have been denied for far too long.
My former Duval County Public School students were only in kindergarten, but the low expectations for people who looked like them had already started to sink in when they entered my classroom. My kids’ families, who struggled to live financially stable lives, told me that they just wanted their kids to learn enough in school to be able to graduate from middle or high school and get a job to help take care of the family. But over the course of the school year, as their children excelled, so did their parents’ expectations. By June, every student was reading and doing math above grade level. As a result, their parents felt freer to dream and to believe in the potential of their education.
Fueling that belief was the reason I first joined Teach For America. I wanted to inform and empower my kids with the knowledge and skills they needed to become active citizens. I wanted to teach them that they could be anything they wanted, regardless of what society told them was possible for their futures.
We have a long way to go as a country before we truly achieve justice for all. To fix the systemic oppression that has created the gross inequality of the present will take the hard, dedicated work of countless leaders and change-makers. We must work toward these long-term changes as well as the immediate, urgent opportunities to change the way our students view themselves and their futures.
As teachers, we can play a central role in this. Every day, we can remind our kids that their thoughts, ideas, identities and opinions are important. We can share our own stories so that when our kids look to the front of the room, they see a little bit of themselves reflected back. We can remind them that they matter, that they always have and that they always will.
Freelove-Sewell is a 2008 graduate of Georgetown University and Teach for America-Jacksonville. She is currently studying law at Michigan State University.