Author Archive: I AM AN EDUCATOR

Seattle educators demand justice for Charleena Lyles; pledge to rally and wear “Black Lives Matter” shirts to school on Tuesday

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For Immediate Release: Monday, June 19th, 2017
Contact:  Social Equality Educators, or
Jesse Hagopian:

Seattle educators demand justice for Charleena Lyles; pledge to wear “Black Lives Matter” shirts to school on Tuesday, join 5pm rally

  • Charleena, a pregnant mother of four, was shot and killed by Seattle police in front of her kids
  • Educators say a Seattle Public Schools parent was killed & they will stand by her family
  • Some 3,000 teachers wore Black Lives Matter shirts on Oct. 19th—now they will wear them to school for Charleena.

What/Where: Seattle teachers and educators will wear Black Lives Matter shirts to A vigil for Charleena Lyles, who was shot and killed Sunday.school, hold lunchtime speak-outs, and rally at 5pm at Magnuson Park.  Then Educators will march to a 6pm press conference at the Brettler Family Place apartments where Charleena lived: 6850 62nd Ave NE, Seattle, WA 98115.

When: Tuesday June 20th, 5:00pm educator rally, march to 6pm press conference with Charleena’s family.

Who: All Seattle teachers, educators, and families are being encouraged to wear the Black Lives Matter shirts on Tuesday in solidarity with Charleena’s children and family.

RSVP on the Facebook event page now!

Related imageSeattle, WAOn Sunday, June 18th, Charleena Lyles, a pregnant mother of four, was killed by Seattle police after she called them to her home for help.  Police alleged she had a knife.  She was killed in front of her kids, who had to be carried over her body to leave the apartment.  Chrleena had children who attended two different Seattle Public Elementary Schools.  Educators from those schools have been contacted.

“As a Seattle Public Schools parent, Charleena Lyles was part of our education family,” said Garfield High School teacher Jesse Hagopian.  “We are wearing Black Lives Matter shirts to school on Tuesday to show her children and her family that we grieve with them, we support them, and we will stand with them in Solidarity.”

Earlier this school year on October 19th, some 3,000 educators wore shirts to school that said, “Black Lives Matter: We Stand Together.” Hundreds is families and students did too. Many of the shirts also included the message “#SayHerName,” a campaign to raise awareness about the often invisible state violence and assault of  women in our country.

On Tuesday, June 20th we are calling on all educators throughout Seattle to put those Black Lives Matter t-shirts back on, have a lunch time photo and speak out in every school, and then join an after school rally.   Hamilton Middle School teacher Sarah Arvey, one of the organizers of the October Black Lives Matter At School event, said, “Charleena’s death impacts the entire Seattle Public Schools community. We wore the Black Lives Matter shirts in October that read, ‘We Stand together.’ Well, now it’s time to stand to stand together for a Black family that has been torn apart.”

The educator rally for justice for Image result for black lives matter at schoolCharleena Lyles will start at 5pm in Magnuson park and then march to the 6pm press conference being held by Charleena’s family.

Turning Pain Into Power: 2017 Black Education Matters Student Activist Award winners

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Black Education Matters Student Activist Award winners, with Michael and Martellus Bennett, Jesse Hagopian, and NAACP education chair Rita Green. (Photo by Sara Bernard)

It was one of the most triumphant days of my life.

Thursday, June 15th was a day when I took the most painful moment in my life and used it to produce one of the most joyous days of my life. This was the day I had the honor to present the Black Education Matters Student Activist Award to four incredible young changemakers in the Seattle Public Schools. The Student Activist Award fund offers a cash scholarship and community support to deserving Seattle public school students who demonstrate exceptional leadership in struggles for social justice and against institutional racism. Our winners this year were Jelani Howard, Baily Adams, Precious Manning-Isabell, and Mahala Provost—young activists who you will undoubtedly hear much more about in the future as they continue to challenge racism and transform every institution they encounter.

Each student received $1,000 from the fund I started after winning a settlement when I was assaulted by a Seattle police officer. I won this settlement by launching a federal lawsuit against the City and the Seattle Police Department after being pepper sprayed without provocation at the 2015 Martin Luther King Day rally in Seattle. While the officer who doused me with pepper spray, officer Sandra DeLaFuente, didn’t even receive a one-day suspension for assaulting me on the sidewalk, I was at least able to win some compensation that I could put to good use. I then partnered with leaders in the Seattle NAACP–education chair Rita Green and youth outreach coordinator Rachael DeCruz–to form a committee for finding and selecting leading student activists.

bennettBrosJoining us for the award ceremony were the Super Bowl champion Bennett brothers, Michael and Martellus–two of the greatest football players in the NFL and two of the greatest activist athletes in the world. Having these two celebrated athletes and powerful spokesmen for justice made the award ceremony deeply meaningful for all in attendance. Seattle Seahawk defensive end Michael Bennett gave one of the awards in the name of his mother, Pennie Bennett, to Mahala Provost. Bennett said of this newly established award,

The Pennie Bennett Black Education Matters award is given in the name of my mother who, as an administrator and a teacher, has dedicated her life to changing the school system and her community. This award is presented to the most outstanding student changemaker for their work in the community and at school–and for believing that anything is possible and inspiring others to be different.

Provost_BEMawardProvost won this award for her dedication to showing the power of STEM fields (winning seven gold medals statewide in the NAACP’s Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics) and her activism for food justice with the organization FEAST, where she worked to eliminate food deserts and teaches about nutrition in communities of color.

Student award winner Precious Manning-Isabell is the president of the Black Student Union at Chief Sealth International High School and has been a leader on and off the campus. She helped to lead the Black Lives Matter At School day action at her school, as a cheerleader she refused to stand for the national anthem to raise awareness about racism and police violence, and she helped produce an award winning documentary, “Riffing on the Dream,” about race relations at her high school.

Award winner Baily Adams is the president of the Black Student Union at Garfield High School and has helped organize teach-ins, die-ins, know your rights trainings, and was leader in the Black Lives Matter At School event this year. When Donald Trump was elected president, Adams was one of the students who lead a walkout of hundreds of students out of the school, joining thousands of other students from all around the city in one of the biggest walkouts in Seattle’s history.

GarfieldFootBall_kneeJelani Howard is a member of the Garfield High School football team and helped lead the team in discussions about taking a knee during the national anthem, building on the example of Colin Kaepernick, to raise awareness around racism and police violence against people of color. The entire team agreed and their action–all season long–garnered national news headlines and inspired teams all around the city, state, and nation to follow suit.

Seeing the joy in the faces of the student activist award winners and their families that evening made me certain that pain I endured from being assaulted by the police was not in vain.  As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Education without social action is a one-sided value because it has no true power potential.”  These students represent a new generation of young Black rebels who are expanding our understanding of the purpose education, refuse to accept a system that does respect their humanity, and are becoming truly powerful agents of change.

Graduation Not Incarceration: No to exit exams in Washington!

Exit Exam

Professor Wayne Au has the most terrifying Halloween costume of all: The exit exam!

Some 6,000 high school seniors in Washington are at risk of not graduating because they haven’t passed one of the myriad of high-stakes tests, including the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium (SBAC) Common Core aligned language arts and math exams, as well as a biology end-of-course exam. These students could have met all the other requirements, excelled social and academically in school, and yet be denied a diploma from a test-and-punish political system that is completely out of control.

However, because of the massive uprising of the opt-out movement in Seattle, Washington State, and around the country, politicians are being forced to reconsider the testing graduation requirements. There are currently two bills in the Washington State legislature that could help alleviate the pain.

House Bill 1046 would complete eliminate the requirement to pass any of the high-stakes exit exams for graduation. Proponents of corporate education reform, such as Stand for Children and the Business Roundtable, opposed the House bill and the Senate then drafted Bill 5891, which would only eliminate the biology end-of-course exam as a requirement for graduation—until the year 2021.

On Thursday, the Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Chris Reykdal, announced he is asking the legislature to reach a compromise that would suspend all of the graduation test requirements until 2019. Then students who don’t pass one of the exams would have six alternative ways to graduate, including reaching a minimum score on college-entrance exams or taking a college-level course.

Let’s be clear: Requiring exit exams to graduate has nothing to with what expert educators know about best practices for assessing students. In fact, Boston University economics professor Kevin Lang’s 2013 study, “The School to Prison Pipeline Exposed,” links increases in the use of high-stakes standardized high school exit exams to increased incarceration rates.

Let’s be clear about another thing: none of these proposals to lessen the cruelty of the testocracy would have been possible without rebellion from parents, students, educators, and community members who have demanded an end to over-testing. From the student walkouts of high-stakes tests, to the teacher boycotts, to the parent opt-outs, it has been the grassroots struggle that has proven most important in changing the narrative about abuses of standardized testing and the authentic assessment alternative.

One of the champions of this movement is Rita Green, the NAACP Education Chair for  Seattle (and a three state region). Below is the testimony she gave before the Washington State Legislature on March 20, 2017 to demand they stop using high-stakes exams as graduation requirements.   Read her story and then contact a Washington State Legislator to let them know our children are more than a score.

Hi my name is Rita Green, I am the Education Chair for the NAACP, representing the State of Washington, Oregon and Alaska.

I am here today to speak in support of removing and delinking the passage of SBAC as a graduation requirement.

First, These exam do not show, prove or measure the entire character or capabilities of students. These exams do not measure discrepancies for the students whose families pay for test prep classes to artificially drive up their test scores. [These tests measure]:

1) Working memory-how well your child can hold information in their mind & execute upon it.

2) Processing speed-how quickly your child can solve problems

3) Nonverbal reasoning- how well your child can solve problems for which they received no previous education all 3 of these are universal skills.

4) What is measured in these exams are verbal comprehension skills. This measures the cultural knowledge – words, Ideas and concepts that white people use.  These are foreign to people of color because they have nothing to do with their experience and thereby makes these exams discriminatory.

Proficiency can be measured through Course Finals, and demonstration.

Second, my daughter Brittany never passed the Math [standardized test] WASL, because she missed a passing score by 6 points. In 2009 she graduated from High School. In 2013, Brittany graduated from Lincoln University with a BS in Criminal Justice and a Law Certificate. She worked one year for City Year at a school in Baton Rouge, LA. In 2014, she went back to school and graduated in 2016 with a Master’s Degree in Justice and Security Administration. Brittany plans to go back to school to get a PHD in 2018. This is a student who would not have graduated under the current WA State Graduation requirements.

How many other Brittany’s could our current law potentially hurt, harm or hinder?

 

We stand in solidarity with Sarah Chambers and the education justice movement

SarahChambers_micCelebrate national teacher appreciation day today by supporting one of the true champions of social justice education in the country! Below is a statement of solidarity by leading educators around the nation in defense of Sarah Chambers from the trumped up charges levied against her. Help Sarah today by sharing the below statement on social media and by signing the online petition.

We stand in solidarity with Sarah Chambers and the education justice movement

Sarah Chambers is an award winning special education teacher in Chicago’s Saucedo Academy. Sarah is a local leader a national figure in the fight to defend and transform public education against the corporate education reform attack. She is a relentless advocate for special education students and LGBTQ students. Sarah is a published author, organizer, and speaker on issues of education reform and social justice.

Now Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has accused her of encouraging students to opt out of the PARCC Test, a wholly unsubstantiated charge.  While Sarah has long been a proponent of promoting critical thinking over drill-and-kill standardized testing, her advocacy has always been directed at consciousness raising among her colleagues to help change policy, not telling kids what to do about the tests. It is clear that CPS has suspended her and is moving to fire her for her courageous advocacy on behalf of her students.

Moreover, this attack on Sarah Chambers is an attack on the entire movement for education justice, the movement for authentic assessment over standardized testing, and an attack on union organizers generally.

We the undersigned demand that the Chicago Public Schools drop their erroneous charges against Sarah Chambers and instead use their resources to better support the social, emotional, and academic development of Chicago students.

Wayne Au
Professor, School of Educational Studies, University of Washington
Editor, Rethinking Schools

Bill Bigelow
Curriculum Editor, Rethinking Schools
Co-Director, Zinn Education Project

Nancy Carlsson-Paige
Professor Emerita Lesley University

Michelle Fine
Distinguished Professor of Critical Psychology, American Studies and Urban Education, The Graduate Center CUNY

Jesse Hagopian
Editor of the book, More Than a Score Editor, Rethinking Schools
Editor, Rethinking Schools

Julian Vasquez Heilig
Professor of Educational Leadership, Director of the Doctorate in Educational Leadership, California State University Sacramento. California NAACP Education Chair.

Brian Jones
Educator and activist, New York City
Doctoral candidate in Urban Education, City University of New York Graduate Center

Journey for Justice (J4J)
An alliance of grassroots community, youth, and parent-led organizations in 24 cities across the country

Kevin Kumashiro
Former Dean, University of San Francisco School of Education

Jia Lee
Elementary School teacher, Earth School, NYC
Organizer, Movement of Rank-and-file Educators

Jose Luis Vilson
Author, This is Not a Test
Executive Director of EduColor

Lois Weiner
Professor, New Jersey City University
Director, Urban Education and Teacher Unionism Police Project

The story behind the meme mocking Pepsi’s attempts to brand rebellion

On April 5, I woke up to find out I was a meme gone viral.

The hilarious meme by @ignant_ was in reference to the shameful ad that Pepsi produced—and quickly took down—depicting model Kendall Jenner diffusing tensions between protestors and cops by handing one officer a refreshing can of Pepsi. When the officer cracks open the can, the protestors are overjoyed and the officer gives an approving grin. Peace on earth prevails because of commercialism and sugar water.pepsi-ad_cop

PepsiAdProtestersHundreds of thousands of people have liked and shared the hilarious meme that mocks the ignorance of the Pepsi ad that was made from an image taken of me at the 2015 Martin Luther King Day rally in Seattle.

But here’s what folks who shared the meme might not know about that photo: The image is a still taken from a video that shows me on the phone, walking on the sidewalk, when Seattle police officer Sandra Delafuente, totally unprovoked, opens up a can of pepper spray in my face. If only Kendall had been there with a cold can of Pepsi!

pepper_spray_HagopianMany people asked if the photo was real or photo shopped. It’s real. Too real. I wasn’t on the phone with Kendall, but I was on the phone with my mom giving her directions to come pick me up because it was my son’s 2-year-old birthday party later that day. That’s when a searing pain shot through my ear, nostrils and eyes, and spread across my face.

My mom soon arrived and took me back to the house. I tried to be calm when I entered so as not to scare my children, but the sight of me with a rag over my swollen eyes upset the party. I spent much of the occasion at the bathtub, with my sister pouring milk on my eyes, ears, nose and face to quell the burning.FacePeperSpray

In the aftermath, I filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Seattle and the Seattle Police Department—which is under a federal consent decree by the Department of Justice because of its demonstrated excessive use of force—and I helped organize rallies and press conferences with other victims of police brutality.   This pressure helped Seattle’s Office of Professional Accountability rule in my favor and recommend a one-day suspension without pay for officer Delafuente. Not much of a reprimand, but at least it was an acknowledgment of wrongdoing. However, Seattle’s chief of police, Kathleen O’Toole, directly intervened to erase that punishment. Maybe I should have tried handing her a can of Pepsi before I asked for justice?

After more than a year of stressful litigation, I reached a $100,000 settlement. This was in no way justice. Justice would have been making the officer who assaulted me account for her crime. But I was determined to make sure some good came out of the pain and I decided to use settlement money to start the Black Education Matters Student Activist Award to honor Seattle youth in who pursue social justice and and organize against institutional racism. Nominations for this year’s award are currently open. I gave the first three awards out last year to some incredible young activists:

  • Ifrah Abshif, whose work founding the Transportation Justice Movement for Orca Cards—secured travel funding for all low-income Seattle Public School students who live more than a mile from their schools.
  • Ahlaam Ibraahim founded the “Global Islamophobia Awareness Day” event at Seattle’s Pike Place Market.
  • Marci Owens has been a healthcare and Black lives matter activist and is transgender student who has become a strong advocate for the LGBTQ community

We need to support young changemakers like these because commercialism won’t save us. Corporations like Pepsi will always be in the business of trying to brand rebellion and profit from protest. But while they shamefully try to get their conglomerates “in the black” off of the image of the Black lives matter movement, we will be building that movement and fighting for a world where the wealth is used for the common good.

But for now I’m just glad that one of the most painful moments of my life has been turned into stinging satire that makes me laugh out loud.


Jesse Hagopian is a teacher in the Seattle Public Schools, editor of the book, More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing, and an editor for Rethinking Schools magazine.  He serves as the Seattle Education Fellow for The Progressive magazine and runs the Black Education Matter’s Student Activist Award. Follow Jesse on twitter or on his blog,  www.IAmAnEducator.com.

Ethnic Studies Now!: Seattle students ask, “Why aren’t we learning this in school?”

By Jesse Hagopian

First published by The Progressive magazine.

From disproportionate discipline rates to its hyper-segregated schools, Seattle is a tough place to be for students of color. The city has an alarming pattern of segregation both between and within schools, and when the district was investigated by the Department of Education, it was found to suspend black students at four times the rate for white students for the same infractions.

In response, the NAACP, in collaboration with numerous education and social justice organizations, has launched a new ethnic studies campaign. “We have to get rid of this white supremacy,” Seattle NAACP Education Chair Rita Green told the Seattle Times in January. “Ethnic studies is learning about the other cultures within your building.”

The benefits of ethnic studies programs are numerous.


A recent study of San Francisco students conducted by researchers in the Stanford Graduate School of Education found that attendance increased by twenty-one percentage points, GPA by 1.4 grade points and credits earned by twenty-three. There were positive effects across male, female, Asian and Hispanic groups of students, and especially for boys and Hispanic students. The study also found significant effects on GPA specific to math and science.

As Jon Greenberg, Seattle social studies teacher, member of Social Equality Educators, and a leading organizer in the ethnic studies campaign recently told NPR, “The level of engagement goes up astronomically when you’re talking about issues that affect a lot of students’ lives.”

And benefits of ethnic studies go far beyond academics. Many of the discipline problems in the classroom stem from students who are disengaged with the curriculum and don’t see a connection to their lives. These students often act out and are quickly labeled disobedient—but maybe that disobedience is better understood as resistance to a whitewashed curriculum that doesn’t speak to the problems and issues those students face. As one student testified at a recent school board meeting, “Europeans did not ‘discover’ the land, they stole it from the indigenous natives that were enslaved and killed by white settlers.” When basic truths like these are disguised in a curriculum, students learn to not trust their education.

Ethnic studies programs, coupled with restorative justice approaches to discipline, can reduce suspension rates and help students realize their potential. By teaching students about the history of systemic oppression and the struggles against it, such programs can empower students to become change agents in their schools and broader society.


The social and academic benefits of ethnic studies were on full display in the acclaimed Mexican American Studies program at Tucson High Magnet School in Arizona, which boasted the highest graduation rates and college acceptance rates for Latino students in the district. It was shut down in 2010 by anti-immigrant Republicans who sought to deny Latino students access to information about their heritage. The educators and students of the MAS program launched an inspiring campaign to defend their community and curriculum—as documented in the excellent film “Precious Knowledge”—resulting, ironically in a blossoming of Mexican American studies programs in high schools across the country.

After a major campaign, a bill was signed into law in California in September 2016 ordering the creation of a model ethnic studies course for state high schools. The Portland school board voted in May 2016 to require high schools in that city to offer ethnic studies classes by 2018. In the 2014-15 school year, a group of teacher librarians in the San Francisco Unified School District created a Black Lives Matter online resource page for teachers to use in the classroom. This collection includes grand jury documents, poetry, videos and graphics, readings, and lesson plans and activities for students of all ages.


The push in Seattle to combat institutional racism in the schools erupted in Seattle with the unprecedented #BlackLivesMatterAtSchool day, organized by the Social Equality Educators and supported by the Seattle Education Association, on October 19th, 2016. Some 3,000 educators wore “Black Lives Matter” shirts to school and many taught lessons about structural racism, the history of struggles against white supremacy, and other ethnic studies curriculum. Since Seattle’s mass action, the Black Lives Matter At School movement has gone national with educators in Philadelphia and Rochester, New York, taking up similar actions to publicly declare the value of their black students.

At a Seattle School board meeting on March 15, dozens of educators, parents, students, and community members rallied to support ethnic studies, with signs reading, “Tell the Youth the Truth,” and “White Privilege is Your History Being Part of the Core Curriculum and Mine Being Taught as an Elective.”

One young Asian American woman recounted a program she participated in called “Seattle to Selma,” designed to augment the standard curriculum to give students a deeper understanding of the black freedom struggle. “One of the critical questions students kept asking,” she told the school board, “is why aren’t we learning this in school?” Raising her voice she continued,

All students—if given the chance—can benefit socially and academically if their scope of racial and civil rights history is expanded. When research has proven ethnic studies increases achievement, attendance, the number of credits students of color take, why wait to close Seattle’s unacceptable racial disparities? With ethnic studies, students at all levels learn not to blame individuals, but understand societal structures. Students learn to effectively navigate difference and understand the diverse cultures of our district. Seattle Schools can fundamentally affirm and empower more students to become agents of change.

May her words signal a new ethnic studies uprising to help combat misunderstanding, fear, and hate in our schools and in our society.

——-

Jesse Hagopian is a teacher in the Seattle Public Schools, editor of the book, More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing, and an editor for Rethinking Schools magazine.  He serves as the Seattle Education Fellow for The Progressive magazine and runs the Black Education Matter’s Student Activist Award. Follow Jesse on twitter or on his blog,  www.IAmAnEducator.com.

“Turning the Streets Into Our Classroom”: Vote for May Day Strike!

dearbornPublished by The South Seattle Emerald

by Jesse Hagopian 

By Wednesday this week every school in Seattle will have held a union vote to decided if our Seattle Education Association (SEA) should go out on strike on May Day—International Worker’s Day—to demand full funding for education, to support our immigrant students, and to defend union rights.

I am voting yes!—and I hope that the rest of the educators join me in authorizing this walkout for the schools our students deserve.

Here in Washington State, our state Supreme Court ruled in the McCleary decision that our state legislature was in violation of the state Constitution’s “Paramount Duty” to amply provide for education.  The court has fined the legislature and found them in contempt of court for failing to support public education.  And yet we have seen our legislature continue to funnel money to the wealthiest corporations in our state, giving away billions in tax breaks to Boeing and maintaining tax loopholes for the rich.  Washington State is one of only a few states without an income tax and ranks dead last with most regressive tax structure in the nation.  The year 2017 was the final year that the state Supreme Court gave the legislature to fix the funding problem and it is clear that the legislature has no plans to start following the law anytime soon. ft-teachers-washington

We have tried emailing, calling and asking nicely for the legislature to follow the law and fund education. That hasn’t worked.

Now it’s time to show the collective power of labor.  We held a one-day walkout two years ago as part of a rolling strike wave across the state to pressure the state legislature. That was an important action that raised awareness, brought families into the streets with teachers in a common struggle, and gave teachers a glimpse of their power.  But this one-day strike has the potential to have a much bigger impact than the last because the Martin Luther King County Labor Council passed a resolution calling on all the locally affiliated unions to go out on May Day. As the Seattle Weekly reported,

SEA isn’t the only union flirting with a May Day strike. UAW Local 4121 is also voting on strike action, according to the op-ed. (We’ve got a line out to the union.) And the Martin Luther King County Labor Council voted last week in favor of a resolution supporting strikes and other direct actions (for instance, teach-ins) on May Day in cooperation with organizers of the labor and immigrant marches.

Many unions are looking to the SEA to see if we strike. If we do, others could follow and it could become a mass outpouring of labor solidarity that truly has the power to shake up the one percent and their political representatives in the legislature and make them heed our demands for education and union rights.

In addition to the urgency around education funding in our state, the May 1st Coalition in Seattle has called on workers to strike for immigrant rights on May Day, and there will be a massive outpouring of humanity at a rally that day to stand against Trump’s anti-immigrant policies. All the anti-immigrant rhetoric and deportations are demoralizing our students, splitting them apart from their families, and leading to hate crimes. Moreover, there is a push by the Trump administration and within the federal government to ratify anti-union, so-called “right to work” legislation, that would gut union protections.

I am voting to strike because I believe we as educators should join the struggle for immigrant rights and I see that as a vital component to a better education system.

I’m not content to teach students about the mass strikes and boycotts of the past that won social programs and the right to unionize–I know we actually need to bring back that history and make it real for our students by demonstrating what it looks like in practice. I’m ready to make the streets my classroom on the first of May and teach a lesson about union power and collective struggle that the rich and powerful won’t soon forget.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos Has Been Confirmed; And the Resistance Has Too

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Students in Seattle take part in a walkout on November 14th, 2016, following the election of Donald Trump. (Photo: mitchell_haindfield_/_Flickr)

Betsy DeVos–platinum card member of the 1% and leading corporate education reformer–was voted in today by the Senate as the next U.S. Secretary of Education.  With the vote deadlocked at 50-50, Vice President Mike Pence, cast his vote for Ms. DeVos and announced that President Trump’s nominee for education secretary had been confirmed.  As I explain in this interview with journalist Sarah Jaffe, Secretary  DeVos has no experience with public schools besides trying to get rid of them with privatization schemes.

But while DeVos has been confirmed, so too has the resistance. Parents, students, educators, and their unions are organizing grassroots movements that have the potential to defend and transform public education.


Posted as part of Interviews for Resistance at http://www.sarahljaffe.com on January 31, 2017

Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. In this series, we’ll be talking with organizers, troublemakers, and thinkers who are working both to challenge the Trump administration and the circumstances that created it. It can be easy to despair, to feel like trends toward inequality are impossible to stop, to give in to fear over increased racist, sexist and xenophobic violence. But around the country, people are doing the hard work of fighting back and coming together to plan for what comes next. This series will introduce you to some of them.

Public schools have been a bipartisan battleground for years now, with teachers unions taking attacks from elected officials at all levels as part of a broader movement to “improve” education by handing control over to private companies. Donald Trump’s nominee to run the education department, Betsy DeVos, is a stalwart of this privatization drive, never having met a public school she liked (and barely, as many have pointed out, having met a public school at all, since she neither taught in any nor attended them nor sent her own children to them). But teachers around the country are organizing against privatization, and gaining support from parents and students. We talk to one of those teachers, Jesse Hagopian.

Hagopian teaches high school in Seattle and is an editor for Rethinking Schools magazine. He is also active in his union with the Social Equality Educators.

Sarah Jaffe: The school where you teach in Seattle, Garfield High School, has had a lot of activism from students, as well as teachers, in the past, hasn’t it?

Jesse Hagopian: It has a legacy of activism. It was the school where Martin Luther King spoke when he made his only visit to Seattle. Graduates of our school founded the first chapter of the Black Panther Party outside of California, here in Seattle. It is a legacy we are proud of and that we are seeing revived.

Earlier this year, our football team (the entire team) took a knee during the national anthem in protest of police abuse. Then, it spread to the girls’ volleyball team and the girls’ soccer team and the cheerleaders, even the marching band. Everyone was taking a knee to raise awareness. Then, after Trump’s election, there were some five thousand students across the district, or more, that walked out, including large numbers at the school. It is exciting to see a new rebellion amongst young people today.

I have been hearing from teachers who are having a hard time figuring out how to talk to their students about Trump’s election. Can you talk a little bit about what it is like being a teacher in this moment, talking to your students about what is going on?

The first example I want to use is from my son’s school. The day after the election a young Muslim girl came in and she hadn’t yet heard that Trump won the election, so she found out there at school. When she found out, she fell to the ground and was pounding her fists into the ground and crying. She was just terrified about what could happen to her and her family — whether they would be split apart — [and] fears of violence. I am so proud of what my son’s teacher did. She decided right then and there to gather all of the classes at the grade level and bring them together, and all the families who were there for drop-off, and hold a discussion, allow kids to discuss their fears and their thoughts and let them know that this is going to be a safe place for them.

That is an example that I try to use, to have my classroom be a place that facilitates dialogue, that allows the kids to discuss the fears and anxieties that they have when they hear Trump’s plans for banning Muslims, for deporting immigrants, all of his atrocious sexual assault exploits, his fear-mongering and hatred and bigotry of all kinds. The students need a place to talk about it. I try to facilitate that, as well as letting them know my classroom is a safe place. On the door, all the teachers on my hallway have put up signs that say, “This is a safe place for our students and a place where we will oppose homophobia and sexism and racism and xenophobia and Islamophobia.” We want to communicate that message clearly with our students.

Then, we also have to do it in the curriculum. It is so critical that our curriculum is talking back to the textbooks, which too often just glorify American history without engaging kids in critical thinking about the real challenges and forms of structural oppression that have been perpetuated throughout US history. We have to allow them to dig into the curriculum and into the history to figure out how we arrived at a moment like this. It’s really crucial to helping support them right now.

The Seattle Education Association had a strike fairly recently and I believe one of the issues at stake there was racial justice, in particular, in the schools.

Absolutely. Last year we went on strike for five days. One of the main demands was about having racial equity teams in every school. The district opposed us and didn’t want to add any racial equity teams. We wanted them in every school building. By the end of the strike, we had negotiated 30 racial equity teams across the district, which was really critical to advancing social justice education in Seattle for a number of reasons.

One, it brought us together with the community. Some of the key leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement signed onto a letter supporting our strike because of our desire to fight for racial justice in our schools. Then, this past fall, this October, we were able to build on that victory. We actually built a monumental action. It was called Black Lives Matter at School Day. It started with a few teachers, but it mushroomed into an action [where] some two thousand out of five thousand teachers in Seattle wore Black Lives Matter shirts to school. Many hundreds of teachers taught lessons about structural racism and the Black Lives Matter movement that day.

It really helped to expose the fact that there are a majority of us in the school district that see a much bigger purpose for education than just preparing our students for a low-wage job or shipping them through the school-to-prison pipeline, that we want education to be about empowering our students to create a better future.

The Seattle strike was one of several teachers’ strikes in recent years. Can you talk about what has been going on among teachers’ unions nationally and the challenge to the attacks that public schools have been facing?

The assault has been brutal on teachers’ unions across the country. It has been bipartisan. It happened with an increased strength against our unions under George W. Bush with the No Child Left Behind act. It only accelerated under Obama and his Race to the Top scheme that would further link teacher evaluations and pay to test scores, destabilizing the work force.

Now, we just see the attack unabated with Donald Trump’s new proposed Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, and we know that everything she has in store for our schools is absolutely wrong and we have to build a vigorous opposition to her.

I think that this attack is so strong because the richest 1 percent in this country know that teachers unions are the biggest unions left in America. They are one of the most concentrated sources of organized labor. They have the ability to really transform the labor movement and our communities, to make ties with parents, students and teachers, and because of that source of strength they have also become a target.

When Betsy DeVos was nominated I was struck by the fact that she is a figure that is very closely associated with school vouchers, which in recent years had kind of fallen by the wayside in favor of this really big bipartisan push for charter schools. Can you talk a little bit about those two things and these waves of privatization?

I think privatization is the central aim of the corporate education reformers. The Democrats, over the last eight years under Obama, had worked very hard to give charter schools a liberal gloss and make them seem as if they were part of a civil rights movement to rescue inner city kids, Black and Brown children, from a failing school system, when in reality these charter schools often underperformed the public schools. They function to siphon off money from the public school system to privately-run schools.

They often have some of the most draconian discipline policies. We have seen that Black and Brown students are suspended at much higher rates in charter schools, from recent studies. These schools were just the opposite of what the Democrats had promised, but they were able to cobble together a coalition for a while of people across the political spectrum who were advocating for these schools as an alternative to what they called “failing public schools.” I think that action really laid the groundwork for what we are seeing now, with the revivals of vouchers, which are just another strategy for privatizing public education, giving kids a limited amount of funds to use to go to any school they want rather than actually investing in the public schools and making every public school a quality one with the resources it needs to succeed.

We live in a country that can find trillions of dollars to bomb people all across the world and can find trillions of dollars to bail out the banks that sabotaged the global economy, but when it comes to our kids’ education, they want to try to do it on the cheap. They want to actually try to make money off of it rather than fully invest in the schools that we would need to help our kids succeed.

When Trump announced Betsy DeVos, I said, “She has no idea what is coming her way,” because the movement around public education has gotten so big and so strong in the last couple of years. I wonder if you can talk about the way that students and parents and teachers are really coming together to fight for community public schools.

Absolutely. That is really what we need. The advantage that people like Trump and the rest of the 1 percent have is their immense wealth. The advantage we have is our numbers. Those numbers are really visible around education, because it draws in so many diverse groups together in one place. It brings together labor with parents from all different backgrounds, and students. It has been a source of power for community organizing and social justice initiatives around the country.

In Chicago, I think they have brilliantly organized social movement unionism strategies. They have organized the power of labor to get behind community issues. Then, community groups have come and supported them when they are on strike. And with our recent action here in Seattle with the Black Lives Matter at School Day, it just took us all by surprise. When we passed the resolution in our union to wear these shirts to school we thought maybe a few dozen social justice teachers would wear these shirts and teach lessons. Then, the orders went through the roof and families began setting up tables at schools with materials out front to pass out to other parents about how to talk to your kid about race. We had a wonderful evening forum that was packed out and displayed the talents of our youth. I think that action is one that can be replicated around the country and already has been.

Last week, the teachers in Philadelphia launched Black Lives Matter at School Week. The whole week, they had a different theme every day, within the Black Lives Matter movement, to highlight the different intersectional identities within the Black community and teach lessons and hold dialogues around those actions. That has already been a powerful example of bringing together families and labor in a common struggle.

I could see this type of movement flowering across the country, especially as police brutality continues unabated. The next time we see a horrific murder of a Black or Brown body, I think it will further convince educators in other cities that we need to transform our schools into sites of resistance to everything that Trump stands for. I really hope that is where our movement can go, because Trump emblazons his name on everything he owns. He has the Trump Towers, the Trump golf courses, the Trump Hotels. I would like to see our schools become public sites of resistance to all the bigotry that he stands for. The school reader boards here in Seattle said “Black Lives Matter” at many of the schools on our day. I think if we keep at it, we can help to transform our schools to become these sites of resistance.

Do you have specific tips from the work you have been doing in Seattle for educators in other places who want to start talking to people in their community, their students and their students’ parents, particularly around issues of racism, but in general around the issues that their communities are facing?

One is, for fellow educators, it is really critical to form a caucus inside the union to gather together like-minded social justice advocates and begin to present your ideas to the broader union, to help make your union strong enough to fight back against the privatization attacks and to help raise social issues like the Black Lives Matter movement. Oftentimes, beginning with a study group is a good way to go, getting a book to read. In Chicago, the social justice caucus that won the election and took over the union began by reading Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine. It was just a small study group and now they have quite a bit of influence in that city.

Right here, we recently held a study group on Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s book From #Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation. Finding a book that can bring people together to discuss their ideas and then talk about how we want to implement them in the union is critical.

Then, I think picking a couple of key issues that you can organize around that will bring in parents, students and teachers. Here in Seattle, one of the main issues that we are rallying around right now is the fight for Ethnic Studies. I would add Gender Studies, as well. I think in this time where our president disparages Black Lives Matter, where our president is an open sexist and a proud sexual assaulter, I think we need to teach our kids the truth about the contributions to this country of people of color, and of women, and the struggles that they have been through. We are launching an initiative with the NAACP here in Seattle to demand that every school include Ethnic Studies. A recent study out of Stanford showed huge benefits academically, for Ethnic Studies programs, in raising graduation rates. I really think that is something that needs to take off across the country.

Betsy DeVos has not been confirmed yet. Even some of the Democrats within Congress who have rubber-stamped most of Trump’s other nominees are saying that they are going to fight on hers. People who are following that, what can they do?

We need to fight as vigorously as possible against her confirmation because she has absolutely no idea what she is doing with public education. She never went to public schools, her kids didn’t go to public schools, her only association with the schools is her attempt to privatize them with her foundation. During her confirmation hearing they asked her questions about her family foundation because her family foundation has given millions to the Republican Party, but even more despicably, has funded things like gay conversion therapy, which is a pseudo-science that is an absolute atrocity in the way it psychologically abuses LGBTQ youth. She has no business being anywhere near a public institution that is meant to nurture all of the kids in the United States.

I think that we have to raise public protests. We have to agitate in our unions to make sure our unions are vocally opposing this and letting the politicians know there will be consequences if they vote to confirm her. Joining local rallies and demonstrations against her confirmation is really important.

Lastly, how can people keep up with you?

My website is IAmAnEducator.com. They can follow the work I do there or on social media. Most importantly, I think getting a subscription to Rethinking Schools and bringing social justice lessons into your classroom is the best way to stay connected to the movement.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast.

Philly Educators Launch Black Lives Matter At School Week

Philly Educators Launch Black Lives Matter At School Week

phillyblmatschool

Today, educators in Philadelphia are launching the Black Lives Matter week of action, continuing to build the Black Lives Matter At School movement that has now reached school districts across the country. During this week-long campaign, teachers will dedicate more instructional time to issues of racial and social justice, diversity, and community building.

The #BlackLivesMatterAtSchool movement erupted in Seattle on October 19th of this school year when thousands of educators wore Black Lives Matter Shirts and many held discussions and taught lessons about institutional racism.   Now the Philly Caucus of Working Educators Racial Justice Committee has organized a powerful week of action to address the many intersectional identities within the Black community.

Here’s a list of the week’s activities and themes:

Jan. 23: Restorative Justice, Empathy, and Loving Engagement
A city-wide event starting in the classrooms, where all schools and educators are encouraged to allocate at least an hour of their school day/lesson plan for educating and empowering students on the Black Lives Matter movement.

Jan. 24: Diversity and Globalism (#EthnicStudiesPHL)
This first official meeting will create a work plan for educators and encourage the exploration and expansion of ethnic studies in the Philadelphia area. It will be held at 5 p.m. at St. Stephen’s Green, 1701 Green St.

Jan. 25: Transgender-Affirming, Queer-Affirming, and Collective Value
This event – titled “How to Bridge the Gap Between Parents/Families and Schools” – will be held as a town meeting at City Hall. Organizers say it will be a community conversation about the present disconnect and growing gap between parents and school staff.

Jan. 26: Intergenerational, Black Families, and Black Villages – screening of the movie 13th
The movie focuses on how the U.S. criminal justice system has unjustifiably and unequally imprisoned African Americans through the 13th Amendment, which made slavery and involuntary servitude illegal “except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” After the movie screening, there will be a talkback discussion regarding intergenerational communities and the disruption of the Western nuclear family.  This event will be held from 5 to 8 p.m. at Edward T. Steel Elementary, 4301 Wayne Ave.

Jan. 27: Black Women and Unapologetically Black
A panel will discuss “Beauty, Society, & More” and the effects on Black girls and women. This event will start at 5 p.m. at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, 3700 Walnut St., Room 203.

Jan. 28: Conversation & Closing Panel Discussion
After screening clips from the movies Pariah and Moonlight, there will be a conversation about LGBTQ people’s lives as they relate to the film and the Black Lives Matter movement. This event will be held from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m. in the Ritter Annex at Temple University

The closing panel will discuss “Next Steps: How Does the Work Continue Beyond Black Lives Matter Week?” from 4 to 5:30 p.m. at Temple, Tuttleman Learning Center, 1809 North 13th St. 

Black Lives Matter Week is co-sponsored by the Teacher Action Group Philadelphia and is also endorsed by many education organizations, including Parents United for Public Education, Neighborhood Networks, Philadelphia Children’s March, Philly Socialists, Teachers Lead Philly, Youth United for Change, and United Caucuses of Rank and File Educators (UCORE). Organizations that support these invaluable school and community dialogues can sign up to endorse here.

In addition, dozes of scholars and professors have signed on to a statement of support for the Philly Black Lives Matter At School action. You can read the statement below and if you are a professor you can add your name by visiting their website.

Academics Sign Statement of Support for Black Lives Matter Week

We, the undersigned professors and scholars, publicly express our support for and solidarity with teachers and community members and their January 23-28 action in recognition of making Black Student Lives Matter in our schools.

We believe that these goals are vital for educators, parents, students, and all communities in order to…

  • create a space for introspection and dialogue around the 13 guiding principles;
  • build deeper connections between educators, parents, students, and community organizations;
  • stand in support of national organizing supporting Black Lives Matter;
  • empower students and student groups to play a leading role in this week and moving forward.

As this work continues beyond January 28, we support the Racial Justice Statement written by the Caucus of Working Educators, which asserts that “purposeful action needs to be taken in order to eliminate the adverse outcomes derived from perpetual structural racism evident in public education.”

This ongoing work will promote equality; the value of human life; and educational, political, and social justice.  It requires us to develop the knowledge and actions necessary to eliminate the barriers that structural prejudice, stereotyping, discrimination, and bias create in Philadelphia and beyond.  We are committed to teaching, learning, and culture in our classrooms that reflect these missions and goals, and to our role in building the leadership of our students to live by them.  The survival and empowerment of all communities demands this.

Signed,

Rhiannon Maton, Ph.D., Critical Writing Program, University of Pennsylvania

Mark Stern, Ph.D., Department of Educational Studies, Colgate University

Amy Brown, Ph.D., Critical Writing Program, University of Pennsylvania

Sonia M. Rosen, Ph.D., Arcadia University School of Education

Camika Royal, Ph.D., Loyola University Maryland School of Education

Imani Perry, Ph.D., J.D. Princeton University Department of African American Studies

Kathleen Riley, Ph.D., Department of Literacy, West Chester University

Casey Bohrman, PhD, MSW Undergraduate Social Work, West Chester University

Seth Kahn, PhD, Department of English, West Chester University

Katie Solic, Ph.D., Department of Literacy, West Chester University

Kristen B.Crossney, PhD, Department of Public Policy and Administration, West Chester University

Gabriel A. Piser, PhD, Ohio State University

Tabitha Dell’Angelo, PhD, The College of New Jersey

Jill Hermann-Wilmarth, PhD, Western Michigan University

David I. Backer, PhD, West Chester University

Laura A. Roy, Ph.D., Penn State Harrisburg

Erin Hurt, PhD, Department of English, West Chester University

Craig Stutman, PhD., Department of Liberal Arts,

Delaware Valley University

Timothy R. Dougherty, Ph.D., Department of English, West Chester University

Edwin Mayorga, Ph.D. Dept. of Educational Studies and Program in Latin American & Latinx Studies, Swarthmore College

Miriam Fife, Ed.D.

Kira J. Baker-Doyle, Ph.D. Arcadia University School of Education

Jessica A. Solyom, Ph.D., Center for Indian Education, Arizona State University

Benjamin J. Muller, Ph.D., King’s University College at Western University (Canada)

Chonika Coleman-King, Ph.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Bruce Campbell Jr., Ph.D. Arcadia University School of Education

Erin Whitney, Ed.D., School of Education, California State University, Chico

Susan Bickerstaff, Ph.D., Teachers College, Columbia University

Katie Clonan-Roy, Ph.D., Colby College

Jerusha Conner, Ph.D., Villanova University

Jill E. Schwarz, Ph.D., The College of New Jersey (TCNJ)

Anita Chikkatur, Ph.D., Carleton College, Minnesota

Kim Dean, Ph.D., Arcadia University

Rick Eckstein, Ph.D., Villanova University

Ali MIchael, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania

Kelly Welch, Ph.D., Villanova University

Shivaani Selvaraj, D.Ed., Penn State Center for Engaged Scholarship, Philadelphia

Amy Stornaiuolo, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania

Sukey Blanc, Ph.D., Creative Research & Evaluation LCC

Vicki McGinley, PhD, Department of Special Education, West Chester University

Rob Connor, PhD, CSA

Graciela Slesaransky-Poe, Ph.D., Professor and Former Founding Dean, School of Education, Arcadia University

Brian Lozenski, Ph.D., Educational Studies Department, Macalester College

Kathy Schultz, Ph.D. Dean and Professor, School of Education, University of Colorado Boulder

Jonathan Shandell, Arcadia University

Dean J. Johnson, Ph.D., Peace and Conflict Studies Program, West Chester University
Dean Rachael Murphey-Brown, PhD, Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, Duke University

Lan Ngo, PhD, Critical Writing Program and Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania

Jessica Whitelaw, PhD, University of Pennsylvania

Ashon Crawley, PhD, University of California, Riverside

Shaleigh Kwok, PhD, Critical Writing Program, University of Pennsylvania

Rochelle Peterson, School of Education, Arcadia University

Keely McCarthy Ph.D.,  Chestnut Hill College

Kathy Hall, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania

Marc Meola, MA, MLS, Community College of Philadelphia

Jamie A. Thomas, PhD, Dept. of Linguistics, Program in Black Studies, Swarthmore College

Steven Davis, PhD, Dept. of English, Community College of Philadelphia

Anna (Anne) Ríos-Rojas, Ph.D., Department of Educational Studies, Colgate University

Encarna Rodríguez, Ph.D., Saint Joseph’s University

Monica L. Mercado, Ph.D., Department of History, Colgate University

Debora Broderick, EdD., Chester County Intermediate Unit

Chandra Russo, PhD, Department of Sociology & Anthropology, Colgate University

Ali Stefanik, SERVE 101 Coordinator, Office of Student Engagement, Philadelphia University

Sally Wesley Bonet, Ph.D., Department of Educational Studies, Colgate University

Emily A. Greytak, PhD.

Danny M. Barreto, Ph.D., Colgate University

Rosemary A. Barbera, Ph.D., MSS, Lasalle University

Rachel Throop, Ph.D., Education Studies, Barnard College

Caitlin J. Taylor, Ph.D., La Salle University

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Ph.D., African American studies department, Princeton University

Cheryl A. Hyde, PhD, MSW, School of Social Work, Temple University

Jessie M. Timmons, LCSW, School of Social Work, Temple University

Mansura Karim, LSW, School of Social Work, Temple University

Emeka  Nwadiora, LLM., MED[c]., MSW., PhD., JD., PhD/DSW, College of Public Health, Temple University

Adam Miyashiro, Ph.D., Stockton University

Susan Thomas, PhD, International Studies, American University

Miguel Muñoz-Laboy, DrPH, MPH, School of Social Work and College of Public Health, Temple University

Debora Kodish, Ph.D., Philadelphia Folklore Project, retired

Dana Morrison Simone, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Delaware and West Chester University

Lauren Ware Stark, MA, PhD Candidate, University of Virginia

Richard Liuzzi, Ed.D. student, Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania

Martha Carey, PhD, Urban Education, Temple University

Jen Bradley, Ph.D., Educational Studies, Swarthmore College

Susan L. DeJarnatt, Professor of Law, Temple University Beasley School of Law

Ryan Villagran, MSW, School of Social Work, Temple University

Katie Pak, Ed.D student, Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania

Jody Cohen, Bryn Mawr College

Anne Pomerantz, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania

Len Rieser, Temple University Beasley School of Law

Sherisse L. Laud-Hammond, MSW, School of Social Work, Temple University

Ryan M. Good, Ph.D., Adjunct Assistant Professor, Temple University

Monica L. Clark, M.S., Ph.D. Student & Undergrad Gen Ed Instructor, College of Ed, Temple University

Maia Cucchiara, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Urban Education, Temple University

Stephen Danley, DPhil, Assistant Professor of Public Policy, Rutgers-Camden University

Juliet Curci, PhD, Temple University College of Education

Elaine Leigh, Ph.D. Student, Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania

Lynnette Mawhinney, Ph.D., Associate Professor, The College of New Jersey

 

The Power of declaring #BlackLivesMatterAtSchool

ghs_blmThe hallways of Seattle schools were packed as always on Wednesday, October 19, but the difference was that thousands of teachers, students and staff were wearing similar t-shirts affirming Black lives. The Black Lives Matter at School day originated among teachers committed to social justice and was ultimately endorsed by the teachers’ union, the NAACP, the Seattle Council PTSA, and event supported by school district.

Jesse Hagopian, a teacher at Garfield High School in Seattle and editor of the book More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing, answered questions from Brian Jones about how the day came about and what can come of it in the future.  This interview was first published at Socialistworker.org.

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Brian Jones: THE WEDNESDAY of Black Lives Matter at School was pretty special. How did your day start?

Jesse Hagopian: IT WAS an incredible day–like none I’ve ever experienced before. It started with getting dressed and putting on my own Black Lives Matter shirt, and my older son’s shirt, and then my 3-year-old’s shirt.

I began by taking my second grader to school. We get to school, and on the front door is a letter from the school’s PTA stating why it fully supports teachers wearing BLM shirts to school.

That put a smile on my face that only got bigger when I opened the door and saw all the faculty in the building wearing BLM shirts. And then the principal wearing a BLM shirt. And then the school counselor wearing the shirt.

I talked to my son’s teacher about the plans for the day, including showing the students a picture of Colin Kaepernick and asking them what they thought his “taking a knee” protest was about. So I knew right away that this was going to be much bigger than just wearing a T-shirt–that the lessons were going to be deeply meaningful to challenging injustice. It was really breathtaking from the beginning.

Then I went to drop off my younger son at pre-school, and all of his pre-school teachers were wearing the BLM shirts. It was just a celebration. We were all so thrilled that we could come out and say what we all believe, and not be afraid.

Brian Jones: YOU WROTE on your blog that this has never happened in an entire school district. How did the Black Lives Matters At School day spread to more than 2,000 teachers?

Jesse Hagopian: IT STARTED with a couple of brave elementary schools, Leschi and John Muir, which at the very beginning of the school year wanted to have a celebration of Black lives by having African American community members come to the schools and celebrate the students on their way in by giving them high-fives, and then holding dialogues during school.

At John Muir Elementary, a group called Black Men United to Change the Narrative helped organize the action, and teachers designed a Black Lives Matter shirt. The media got a hold of the design, and they freaked out, attacking these teachers for having the audacity to declare that their Black students’ lives are important.

Then some hateful individual made a violent threat against the school, and the school district announced it was going to cancel this celebration of Black lives at John Muir.

But to the teachers’ and the community’s great credit, they carried on–many of the teachers wore their shirts and many of the community members showed up anyway. It wasn’t as large as it would have been without the threat, but these teachers showed real bravery.

Those of us in the Social Equality Educators (SEE), a rank-and-file organization inside the Seattle Education Association, reached out right away to those teachers and invited them to our meeting to share their story.

People were so moved by their work that we decided we needed to show solidarity, and that the best way to do that wouldn’t be to just pass a resolution saying we support them, but to take it a step further and spread this action to every school.

When we brought it to the meeting of the union’s Representative Assembly, we weren’t sure what to expect. But we’ve been building SEE for a long time, and we’ve built up a lot of respect and credibility. So when my colleague Sarah Arvey, one of the leaders in SEE, put the resolution forward to spread the action to every school, a couple of us spoke to it, and it passed unanimously.

That was the first thing that caught me off guard. It was a sign that this was going to be a significant event.

blmshirt_2-jpgWe went to work on a couple designs for shirts teachers could order. The first was a version of the shirt that John Muir wore–it was designed by their art teacher, Julie Trout, and featured a tree and the words “Black Lives Matter. We Stand Together.” The second design also said “Black Lives Matter,” but featured the solidarity fist and added “#SayHerName,” the hashtag created in the wake of Sandra Bland’s death to highlight police violence against women.

After that, we moved on to figuring out how to organize a t-shirt distribution operation for an entire city–thousands of shirts of various sizes had to be ordered and distributed.

But over the course of the next few weeks, we ran out of our orders for more than 2,000 t-shirts. Plus many schools made their own t-shirts. So when you factor in the number of parents and students wearing their own shirts, many thousands of educators and public school families made this declaration to affirm Black lives.

Brian Jones: SEATTLE TEACHERS have been through a few struggles in the past few years, whether it’s the MAP test boycott or the strike at the start of school last year. I’ve heard you talk before about how these mass collective struggles are really the best teacher of all–about how people change in moments like this. Does that apply here?

Jesse Hagopian: IT REALLY does. It’s incredible to see the transformation that people go through when they take these bold steps and struggle collectively.

At Garfield High School, the faculty voted unanimously several years ago to refuse to administer the MAP test, and then we were threatened with suspension without pay, but the school district ultimately got rid of the test altogether. The lessons of that emboldened the staff over the course of the past two years in ways that I’ve only read about class struggle teaching people their own power.

When they threatened to get rid of a teacher at Garfield a couple years ago, the entire building emptied out to rally and say we need more teachers in the building to lower class size, we refuse to allow the district to remove a teacher. And we won that battle.

But you saw these lessons spill out across the whole Seattle School District in the strike last fall, when the union stood up to fight for an end to standardized testing in our evaluations, largely inspired by the actions of the MAP test boycott–but also more recess time for kids, and race and equity teams in every building.

lowellreaderboardI think it was social justice teachers in the union demanding that race and equity teams be part of the contract fight–introducing a discussion about the necessity of educators to confront institutional racism–that laid the groundwork for this incredible day we had of Black Lives Matter at School Day.

Brian Jones: I KNOW the SEE caucus has been putting out some specific ideas about further demands to make about changes in the schools. What were some of these?

Jesse Hagopian: WE’VE BEEN working for some time on issues of undoing institutional racism in our schools.

One issue where we would like to go further in this new moment is trying to end disproportionate discipline in Seattle public schools. The Department of Education came in and did a study that shows Black students are suspended at four times the rate of white students for the very same infractions in Seattle schools.

So we would like to fight for an end to zero-tolerance discipline and move toward restorative justice practices, which instead of pushing kids out of school actually try to solve the problems that they face.

We want an end to the rigid tracking system that has so deeply segregated our schools and classrooms, largely excluding Black students and other students of color from advanced classes.

We also think it’s vital that Black students be able to learn about their own history–their struggles and their successes. And we want to have a new fight for ethnic studies programs in our schools.

Those things were really validated when we had an evening rally as the culmination of Black Lives Matter at School Day. It was standing room only and packed to the rafters with families who came in their BLM shirts to hear from a wonderful lineup of performers and activists and organizers–and, most importantly, students.

We held a roundtable discussion with students from several high schools and middle schools, and they really laid out what the problems are–the way racism manifests in our schools, the steps they’ve taken to challenge this, and what they would like to see different in the schools. A lot of what they expressed were problems that SEE has been working on.

So I imagine we’re entering a new era in Seattle around education. Our city will never be the same, because we have an emboldened core of teachers and students and parents who I think will be more readily mobilized around these kinds of issues.

Brian Jones: I SAW that the Garfield High School football team was making headlines for kneeling during the national anthem, following the example of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and you mentioned that students spoke out at the forum at the end of Black Lives Matter at School Day. So there’s already a pattern of students in Seattle, and at Garfield in particular, taking a lead on these issues. What do you think comes next?

Jesse Hagopian: THE FIRST thing to say is that critics of our movement say “don’t politicize the school”–but the students are already talking about the BLM movement every day, in all of our school buildings. And they’re taking action, whether it’s on the football field or the volleyball court or at rallies.

They’re having deep discussions about the systemic inequalities, the realities of racism that they face every day–and then they get to school, and they’re supposed to stop talking about the issues that matter most to them.

That’s a bizarre disconnect. School is supposed to be a place to talk about the things that matter most, and now they’re being allowed to do that. So I think that a lot of what the teachers did in wearing that shirt was inspired by the actions of students who are protesting all around the city.

The most powerful experience of the day for me was the rally we had at Garfield. On the steps of our school at lunchtime, we had a speakout, with the coaches and the counselors and the teachers and many students on the steps. People were sharing why they wore the shirt, and I saw one of my colleagues, Janet DuBois, with tears streaming down her face.

She beckoned me over, and she asked me, “Should I tell everybody?” I knew exactly what she was referring to because she had revealed this secret to me a year ago, but hadn’t told anybody else.

So right there, in front of all the media assembled to document our rally, and in front of all the students and staff, she let everyone know about the pain she’d been carrying for years because the police had murdered her son in a city in the south of Washington state. She had to leave the teaching profession for many years until she could bring herself to come back. When she did, she got a job at Garfield, but nobody knew about that trauma she was dealing with.

If nothing else comes out of the Black Lives Matter at School Day, at least this wonderful educator won’t have to suffer with that pain by herself–now, she has the support and solidarity of her community.

I think it was one of the most incredible moments of my life to see somebody look around and have an entire faculty wearing BLM shirts–and feel like in that moment she could finally tell her truth.

I hope this action spreads across the country so other communities can experience the power of collectively declaring, “Black Lives Matter!”

Transcription by Sarah Levy

 

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