Education Equity

After Ferguson and NY: Holding Space for Sadness, Anger, and Hope

December 17, 2014

This fall, I've been noticing and experiencing my feelings, something I've neglected in the past. I can recognize and name my emotions, but to actually feel them? What would that mean? And why spend time doing that when there's so much to be done? But people I respect and admire have suggested it. And I have a hunch that it might be worthwhile. So I'm trying it, sitting with my feelings, exploring them.

And what I'm finding is that it's hard, really hard. Because what I'm finding is a whole lot of sadness. And what am I supposed to do with that?

Sadness because my husband and I have to have conversations with our son, our sweet, gentle boy, about how others will perceive him as a young black man. And anger, yes, that's what is tightening my stomach, making my shoulders hunch, my jaw tense, my fingers tremble. Anger. Can I let myself feel anger?

Our Education System

It might just be that I keep a tsunami of anger at bay on many days, for many years, as I work through the layers of our education system. What I have seen in the last two decades in schools and classrooms across the country has been a constant reminder of the injustice which permeates our society: Our schools segregated by race and class, curriculum that doesn't match the needs or interest of many children, discipline policies which push kids out of school, corners filled with black boys in "time out."

So many corners and hallways and offices of deans and principals holding black boys until another place can be found to isolate them. And I see mindsets in adults who view first-graders, fifth-graders, middle school children as defiant, violent, disengaged and misbehaving, unmotivated, and destined for prison.

Injustices: A Reality

And, also, I feel anger at the privilege that some have not to take up hard conversations about equity, not to examine their own practices or take leadership around ensuring that the most vulnerable children get what they deserve, that implicit bias is challenged, interrupted, and dislodged. Why do I feel this anger?

Because you don't have to have this conversation with your child! You don't have to fear that others will see him as less than, defined by his gender and skin tone, not a whole and complete human being; you don't have to hear the people you love questioning how consuming is the fire that burns within; you don't have to experience and anticipate the endless stream of micro-aggressions; you don't have to constantly, endlessly prove yourself, prove that I am more than what you thought I would be.

Motivating Colleagues and Friends

How do I get people motivated to look inward, look outward, and do something about injustices -- in our classrooms, schools, justice system, and society? How do I do this? What will motivate another who has no personal stake in this struggle? Whose son doesn't have to construct his own identity taking into account that every 28 hours a black man is killed by police? That it seems there is basically nothing a police officer can't do to a black child? That the only TV shows and movies that depict people who look like him and his father almost exclusively portray those men in roles as criminals, angry black men, servants and slaves -- less than whole human beings?

Do I say: Join the struggle because you're affected by racism and injustice, too. A system of oppression oppresses all, and you can't be fully yourself either. (But is this really true, I wonder? Maybe it isn't. Maybe those who have privilege that comes with their gender, race, class, and sexual orientation are doing just fine. Maybe they are.)

Do I say: It's a moral imperative to do something about the achievement gap, the disproportionate suspension and expulsion of black and brown boys, the school-to-prison pipeline, and our country's justice system. (But what if your morals don't match mine? What if your morals are constructed on something else and all of this is just fine by your moral code?)

Do I say: Join this struggle, examine your own white privilege and implicit biases and do something about the injustice because we must fulfill the promises on which this country was founded because we are a democracy and we say we value freedom here in the US? (But our country was founded on genocide of native people and on the enslavement of Africans? Is our history really a call to action?)

Do I say: Join this struggle because we are all human beings and surely somewhere within your ethical and spiritual code there is something like a, "do unto others as you would have them do to you," or something that evokes compassion?(But our system has worked diligently for 500 years to de-humanize so many others.)

Holding Space for Hope

Notice the feelings, I remind myself: There is a fear that I can't get others to act, to join us in this struggle, to care in this way, about my son, about the sons and daughters of so many other mothers and fathers. That I can't find the right motivating tool, the lever, the thing that will spur action.

I notice the feelings, fear and grief, and hold space for hope.

So, I'm remembering: Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and Trayvon Martin -- and my thoughts are also with those grieving their absence. I'm also remembering Oscar Grant, Fred Hampton, and Emmett Till, and so many more men and women of all shades of skin who have been victims of injustice. Presente! They are not forgotten and are present every day in my mind and heart, in my teaching, my writing, and instructional coaching.

Having Hope, Taking Action

I'd like to end with the recent words said earlier this month in an interview on MSNBC's "All In with Chris Hayes" with brilliant journalist, Ta-Nehisi Coates:

"I'm the descendent of enslaved black people in this country. You could've been born in 1820, if you were black and looked back to your ancestors and saw nothing but slaves all the way back to 1619. Look forward another 50 or 60 years and saw nothing but slaves.

There was no reason at that point in time to believe that emancipation was 40 or 50 years off. And yet folks resisted and folks fought on. So fatalism isn't really an option. Even if you think you're not going to necessarily win the fight today in your lifetime, in your child's lifetime, you still have to fight. It's kind of selfish to say that you're only going to fight for a victory that you will live to see.

As an African American, we stand on the shoulders of people who fought despite not seeing victories in their lifetime or even in their children's lifetime or even in their grandchildren's lifetime. So fatalism isn't really an option."

Onward (or pa'lante), and while holding an awareness of a heavy heart. Onward.

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