School Climate & Safety Opinion

Does ‘Black Lives Matter’ Matter?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — October 02, 2016 5 min read
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Do black lives matter? Absolutely. Why doesn’t the conversation begin there? The questions of ‘more than’ or ‘less than’ can be replaced by ‘as much as’, can’t they? Maybe, if we consider them out of a historical and social context. But, we are struggling to overcome a racially divided past where slavery tore at our souls as persons and as a nation. Our story is that we are a nation where ‘anyone’ can succeed. We now confront ourselves with the question of whether or not we really mean ‘anyone’.

Why should a summer and fall of “Black Lives Matter” matter to educators? If you think it doesn’t, your answers might be, “I work in a predominantly white school district” or “Race relations in my district is an non-issue” or “I don’t want to open this can of worms”. We remember that living in many suburban communities are the police officers and their families who feel the unfolding of retaliation and anger. The impact of “Black Lives Matter” is not just urban anymore.

Our students, no matter the district, will in some way or another grow up and live in a more permeable world, one where they surely will meet up with those who are different from the community in which they were raised. If they choose to remain in their homogeneous communities because of their love for “home” or discomfort and lack of familiarity with differences, they are limiting their professional opportunities.

A Difference In Outcomes
It is clear that jobs today and in the future require collaboration and communication, both of which require the capacity to be able to work with anyone who is placed on the team. So whether the community is homogeneous or integrated, whether there are obvious race relations issues or not, all school districts will find themselves dealing with racial issues directly or indirectly. Additionally, data continues to reveal in those districts where there is racial diversity, there are notable achievement disparities between the black and white students. How have we developed an acceptance of this? How has it become a way of life in public schools? In our good consciences, we know we are doing the best we can but do we struggle to sleep at night wondering about those we can’t reach? Yes, some of us do. And others explain the data away and still others close their eyes and ears because the issue isn’t in their district. Opening up inclusive conversations is essential for narrowing achievement gaps, eliminating bias within the system, and preparing all students for college and career and life readiness.

A Majority of White Educators
Although there is an assumed trend of increasing diversity in the field of education, a July 2016 report from the US Department of Education reveals that educators remain primarily white. As of 2011-2012, 82 percent of public school teachers were white and 80 percent of public school principals were white. In his research, Singleton found "...when race surfaces as a topic for conversation, educators quickly become silent, defiant, angry, or judgmental..."(p.27). The student population is changing more rapidly. This is not to suggest that a white educator is unable to open and hold difficult conversations about race, but it does suggest that a white perspective into these racial issues may prevail.

The conversations about achievement disparities and the conversations about race require courage. Glenn E. Singleton, in his book Courageous Conversations About Race, says,

To exercise the passion, practice, and persistence necessary to address racial achievement disparities, all members of the school community need to be able to talk about race in a safer and honest way...According to Margaret Wheatley (2002), “Human conversation is the most ancient and easiest way to cultivate the conditions for change--personal change, community, and organizational change (p.3).

There is damage done by refusing to raise the questions and open the conversations about race. Although that damage may reside beneath the surface, it exists. Surely, in homes and families, the polarization between “Black Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” has been formed within experiences, bias, and long held beliefs. We believe in family and we believe in the power of family values. We also believe in the power schools, their teachers, leaders, and staff hold as influencers. That power brings with it a responsibility. That responsibility requires leaders to honestly reflect on their own beliefs, the beliefs of their community, and take the step to open courageous conversations. Singleton’s ‘Courageous Conversations’

engage those who won’t talk, sustain the conversation when it gets uncomfortable or diverted, and deepens the conversation to the point where authentic understanding and meaningful actions occur (p.26).

For those integrated communities where an achievement gap may occur, an entry into the conversations can be found in asking the three questions Singleton suggests:

Why do racial gaps exist?
What is the origin of the racial gaps?
What factors have allowed these gaps to persist for so many years? (p. 26).

But for schools that do not have a gap or an integrated school population, the entry is founded in the belief that students will be free to enter a more global university environment or work population if the issue of racial bias is addressed in their K-12 community.

In The End
In order for leaders to take this courageous step into opening conversations about race, an honest reflection inward to recognize one’s own beliefs is needed. This does not suggest a leader must be bias free, because none of us are. It does mean that the leader be able to join the faculty and staff in an investigation of what beliefs exist and be willing to open their thinking about those that may be latently biased.

For some it may be beneficial to include professionals from outside of the school community to lay the foundation for opening these conversations. The important factor remains that news outlets are regularly carrying stories that raise questions about racial issues, police shootings, trials and politics. Along with us, students are watching the videos and listening to the rhetoric. Issues of race exist in our country. How well prepared students will be to live as adults in this next generation can, in part, lie in educators’ hands today. Why does ‘Black Lives Matter’? It matters because our students matter.

Singleton, G.E. (2015). Courageous Conversations About Race. Thousand Oaks California: Corwin
Conversations on Race is a series of short films published by the NY Times

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.