It is a miracle that any of us have remained together during the last few weeks. I write this blog as we are all experiencing in our own ways the impact of the deaths of more unarmed black people: Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, and the following unrest across the nation on the heels of a pandemic that seems to have no visible end.
Despite the events of the last few weeks, I continue to work, although focusing on “work” has been extremely difficult at times, but even more necessary. Necessary because I am an activist and someone who has fought for change, specifically in education, for my entire 25-plus-year career. Now, working at Tri-County Cradle to Career Collaborative, I am working differently. I am working on a system’s level, focused on mobilizing a community to disrupt a system that is doing exactly what it was meant to do. The education system and all the other systems in our country were never intended to serve people of color equitably. I am happy to see so many people waking up to this fact.
Through TCCC’s membership with STRIVE Together, a national network of collective impact organizations with similar missions, I have the amazing opportunity to be part of a group of remarkable individuals who make up a Racial Equity Action Team. I recently participated in a virtual affinity group, a subgroup of this team, that is focused on re-imagining education for our nation’s children. This work began prior to the unrest and seems even more timely now. As I listened to one of my colleagues who lives in Minneapolis describe how she was processing the most recent set of events with her two children, I thought about my own children.
My girls, ages 14 and 11, who despite their ages, have wisdom beyond their years. Two girls who have the CNN app on their electronic devices, and despite my intent to limit my own media intake for my own health and well-being, have kept me up to speed on many of the events happening across the country. My desires for my children are what I use to guide my desires for all children. If I would not want it for my children, I would never recommend it for other people’s children.
So, when asked to write a blog about what an equitable return to education should look like for our region’s children, my first response was, “I’ll just write about what I would recommend for my own children.” However, after further consideration, I recognized that it is not that simple. It is not that simple because although I am an African-American woman, my children have been afforded many privileges that others of my race do not have. Although my children have a form of privilege and are still seen as black, they have someone who knows how to navigate a system that was not built for their success, to get them what they need.
According to David Williams, Harvard professor of public health, “‘ones’ zip code is a better predictor of health outcomes than a person’s genetic code.’” This same principle also applies to education, wealth, food, and criminal justice outcomes. Before COVID-19, we knew systemic racism existed and we knew that the current policies and practices did not work for more than half of our regions’ children. This is evidenced by the years of regional data, compiled in Tri-County Cradle to Career’s Regional Educational Report, that highlights disparities in achievement between black, brown, and white children. We also have reports like The State of Racial Disparities in Charleston County, SC 2000-2015, produced by the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, that highlights other community disparities like health, housing, and criminal justice in the Black community.
So why would we want to return to these systems? Returning to normal is not acceptable.
Returning to education, the way our system operated pre-COVID, is not the goal. Returning to school equitably does not mean returning to the way we were, it means returning better. Questions that we as a community should consider important when thinking about returning better include:
- How can we ensure all children, especially those most impacted by systemic racism, have access to the resources and support they need to thrive?
- How do we ensure that the adults teaching our children are equipped to effectively teach and have courageous conversations with our students about myriad societal issues that people are currently protesting?
- How are we meeting the social/emotional needs of families who are unsure about the safety of their children returning to school? What types of behavioral supports will be provided for children and families?
- How are we ensuring all children and families have access to healthy food options?
- Are we working with the health care community to ensure our families and children have access to quality health care?
- What types of targeted academic support are we ready to provide children who were behind before COVID, may have fallen behind due to COVID, and are now experiencing summer learning loss on top of lost instructional time this year?
- How are we continuing to partner with families and community-based organizations that have been teaching children in the gap?
These and other questions are ones that we should be posing, as a community, as we consider our return to education. We, meaning everyone in the community, not just those impacted the most, and not just minority communities. Benjamin Franklin said, “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.” Or in my own words – what we do for other people’s children will never be enough unless it is good enough for our own children.
So, what does “better” look like? To me, it is not a one-size-fits-all solution. The varied needs of our children and families means we must imagine innovative solutions that fit the needs of our different communities. We should never be ok with going back to the way things were. However, “better” for me does look like one thing – it looks like one’s zip code NOT being a predictor of one’s life outcomes. It is just that simple. Until then, we still have work to do.