This past February, students across the country celebrated Black History Month. They read books by Black authors, wrote research papers on civil rights activists, memorized Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, or watched videos about the Underground Railroad. And if they are being taught honestly, as they learn about the struggle of the past, they’ll begin to recognize it in their own present – when a cashier squints suspiciously when they walk into a store, when they turn on the news and see another person who looks like them lose his life to senseless violence. These lessons are anything but history but it doesn’t have to be that way.
While teaching, my students experienced the sting of these stereotypes on what should have been a day filled with nothing but excitement. We were out on a field trip, excited to be visiting a nearby college and think about our own academic future. But as we walked around, the excitement quickly turned into something else. While they were like any other tour group that came to visit, they happened to be Black, and were shushed around every corner, warned by the tour guide not to touch or take anything. My kids looked around at each other uncomfortably. They had done absolutely nothing to indicate they were going to be rowdy or obnoxious – except look the way society has taught us disruptive people generally look.
As students of color combat these prejudices, it is more urgent than ever that our generation overcome. This school year marked the first in which the majority of public school students are minorities. As educated young adults, we have a responsibility to work to ensure that each and every one of them is moving through a system that affirms their identities, shows them they’re valued, and allows them access to the opportunities they have been denied for far too long.
I joined Teach For America because I wanted to make an impact and help people – and I have. But my impact can’t compare to the ones my kids have had on me. They’ve taught me so much about tenacity, overcoming odds, and what it really means to be relentless. Our kids are our future, and we should rest assured that our future will be in good hands – but only if we commit to giving each and every one of our students the same opportunities to be the brightest versions of themselves that they can be. We have a long way to go as a country before we truly achieve justice for all. I continue to see this today, working for the District’s Child and Family Services Agency’s Office of Youth Empowerment, providing young adults in foster care with vocational training, internships, employment opportunities, and experiences that will prepare him/her for the workforce. Being a former Teach For America Corps member has forever shaped the lense with which I approach my work. Even if I am not in a classroom, I know it is my job and more importantly, my responsibility to look out for the best interests of the youth I serve.
To fix the systemic oppression that has created the gross inequality of the present will take the hard, dedicated work of countless leaders and change-makers – many who have experienced it first-hand, others who bear witness to it from further away. We must work toward these long-term changes as well as the immediate, urgent opportunities to change the way our students view themselves and their future.
As teachers and leaders, we can play a central role in this. Our history is our future and education is the great equalizer, and teaching the past helps inform our children of the important role they play today. Every day, we can remind our kids that their thoughts, ideas, identities and opinions are important. We can share our own stories so that when our kids look to the front of the room, they see a little bit of themselves reflected back. We can remind them that they matter, that they always have and that they always will.
Sabrina Dawson is a 2006 alum of FSU and Teach For America-Baltimore. She is a Supervisory Career Pathways Specialist in the Office of Youth Empowerment at the Child and Family Services Agency in Washington, DC.