Black Student Union: “This is our time to speak”–Are the education reformers listening?

Seattle Times runs front page profile of Garfield High School Black Student Union’s leadershipIMG_2093 in the Black Lives Matter movement: “We are fighting for our lives.”

Two weeks ago Dan Beekman of the Seattle Times, a Garfield High School graduate himself, returned to the Bulldog house in search of a story about the Black Lives Matter movement that went beyond forecasting traffic delays that could result from protests or tallying the numbers arrested at demonstrations.

Some ten members of the Black Student Union at Garfield, which I co-advise with Kristina Clark, gave an over 1 hour interview that left me emotionally drained but more determined than ever to act against police brutality. Mr. Beekman and I admitted to each other afterword that we had trouble fighting back tears as the students explained the fear they experience everyday caused by those tasked with “public safety.”

As Garfield BSU Vice President Issa George said during the interview, “We are still fighting oppression and we are still fighting for our lives.”  And the students went on to recount the many actions they have taken to build this new movement.

These youth are determined to be part of a force that transforms our country into place that wouldn’t causally dispose of the lives of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and so many other young African Americans. Their vision of remaking the nations’ institutions extends from the schoolhouse to the courthouse to the jailhouse and beyond. On December 10, The City of Seattle’s Human Rights Commission recognized the Garfield BSU’s powerful voice for justice, awarding them the “Rising Human Rights Leadership” prize at a gala event at Seattle’s Town Hall.

This new civil rights movement that has erupted across the country has shined a light on the horrors of police violence in Black communities. But it has done something else. It has also exposed the corporate education reformers–who often frame their policies of increasing the use of high-stakes tests and privatizing education as vital to closing the “achievement gap”—as being irrelevant to the issues that Black people care the most about. Did anyone see Bill Gates, Eli Broad, or the Walton Family at the last Black Lives Matter protest? The fact is, the richest one percent in this nation, who are using their wealth to make education about rote memorization in preparation for the next high-stakes exam, rather than critical thinking or problem solving, have been silent about the issues that are most important to Black youth.

I don’t want to hear another billionaire say one more word about policies aimed at Black youth or the “achievement gap,” until they have met with the Black Student Union and asked them what they believe is most important.

As Garfield High School Black Student Union Treasurer Elijah Haynes said during the interview, “I have power in my voice and I’m using it.” Are the education reformers listening?


Jesse Hagopian teaches history and co-advises the Black Student Union at Garfield High School. He edited the book, “More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing,” which includes a foreword by Diane Ravitch, an introduction by Alfie Kohn, and an afterward by Wayne Au (Haymarket, December).

One thought on “Black Student Union: “This is our time to speak”–Are the education reformers listening?

  1. I lived right behind Garfield High in the late 70’s. My brother went there for 2 years. I recall sitting in on math classes at Garfield in 1979 with a friend of mine, as concerned community members. What we saw was alarming!

    For those unfamiliar with Seattle. At that time there were only 2 predominantly Black high schools in the city. One of them was Garfield High. Located in the heart of the Central District, Garfield was an educational cornerstone in the Black community.

    Knowing that mathematics is the key to all technical fields and that it is an area we typically have a hard time with, we visited as many math classes as we could on that day. Surprisingly, there were NO Black students taking the highest level math classes. In fact, it was an all White male affair. On the opposite end of the spectrum the remedial math classes were typically all Black affairs, with a few exceptions to that rule.

    What was even more striking was that some of the highest level math classes, i.e. calculus and the lowest level math classes were taught by the same person, who also happened to be a Black male. What struck me was how segregated these classes were at a school that was nearly all Black. Not to have 1 Black person of either gender in that calculus class spoke volumes in terms of the lack of progress we had made since “integration.”

    To hear what the students of today have to say is just as revealing, in a whole different way, because the Central District, which used to be the heart of the Black community, is now too expensive for Black people to reside in. One of the few predominantly Black high schools in the city is now predominantly attended by White, upper class students, whose parents are connected with the booming tech economy of Seattle.

    What a difference a couple of decades make.


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