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Siege at Capitol reveals systemic inequities educators must undo
Equity Corner by Victor Tam
January 18, 2021
There are times when I act spontaneously, and there are times when I prepare. I had completed this article during Winter Break. I was prepared.
What I wasn’t prepared for was what happened Jan. 6 when supporters of President Donald Trump invaded our nation’s Capitol, forcing Congress, in-session, to be evacuated. Watching the take-over was horrible, as was seeing these people march through the halls waving a flag that represents hatred directed toward people of color and other marginalized groups. These people broke into our political leaders’ offices and destroyed them, being so bold as to steal a podium.
Something else that I was even more unprepared for was how these protesters were treated by the police. For days, there were reports that MAGA protesters would be in D.C. to disrupt the certification of the electoral ballot counting. There were even reports of the National Guard being prepared to support the police in keeping order. But that day, what we saw were three police officers being overrun at the top of the front steps of the Capitol building, while others opened gates to allow the terrorists into the Capitol, and one taking selfies with them inside.
We’ve witnessed police kill an unarmed, handcuffed Black American. We’ve seen Black Lives Matter protesters be corralled, beaten and arrested, sometimes thrown into unmarked police vans.
This type of inequity is indicative of something far deeper than random, bad decisions by rogue actors. Instead, it is indicative of a system of racism and societal injustice, predicated upon “Black males hav[ing] been made into the fathers of fear.” Ibram X. Kendi writes, “All they see is what I am. A black male. And what I am pronounces who I am. A criminal. The embodiment of danger. The producer of fear.” This inequity is systemic.
But systemic inequity is also what stoked the fires of disinformation to tell these people who stormed the Capitol that the institutions of government are not to be trusted. Yes, Trump pushed them forward with his bold, incessant lies, but he was just a part of the overall problem. There were social media systems, GOP members and corporate leaders who empowered and enabled Trump for these four years to convince these people to believe his lies.
This is just the tip of the iceberg in the polarization of America. We are living in different realities. Some of us can go jogging without being chased down by armed men in pickup trucks, while certain people of color cannot. Some of us can smash into the nation’s Capitol and then, afterwards, be helped down the stairs by the police and allowed to go back to a hotel, while certain people of color cannot. And some are convinced that Trump won the presidential election, while we know for a fact that this is not true. We are a polarized country.
Polarization is poison to people in a peaceful society. It causes instability, fear and harm. And who holds the power to make societal change like what we so desperately need right now? The president? Lawmakers? The designers of social media platforms? Parents? Educators? The right answer is all of these and more. It’s everyone, because each and every one of us is a part of the fabric of society. We each hold responsibility in its change.
We need dramatic and systematic changes so that we can equitably serve our students and families. We need to break out of these cycles that have led to the polarization of this country. What was “normal” is simply no longer acceptable. Sonya Renee Taylor says, “Our pre-corona existence was never normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack. We should not long to return, My friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.”
“Normal” is no longer acceptable for any of our children, especially as we push forward into the future.
Too many of our students have suffered under what was “normal.”
In the three decades I’ve worked in schools, countless teachers, principals and administrators have voiced frustrations during parking lot conversations with the way things are, but at the same time, they have felt disempowered to change the systems that be. During this pandemic, these frustrations have only worsened. So what is the answer?
One idea for us to consider is the application of former President Barack Obama’s message to us on citizenry. He said, “No single American can fix this country alone. Not even a president. Democracy was never meant to be transactional — you give me your vote; I make everything better. It requires an active and informed citizenry. So I am also asking you to believe in your own ability — to embrace your own responsibility as citizens — to make sure that the basic tenets of our democracy endure.”
When we go deep into our reasons “why” we chose to pursue careers in education, it is almost certain that part of our reasons touch upon a desire to change the world for the better, and that “better,” in some way, shape or form, likely is tied to a sense of equity and social justice.
Who holds the power to make societal change like what we so desperately need right now? The president? Lawmakers? The designers of social media platforms? Parents? Educators? The right answer is all of these and more.
Perhaps it is high time that we, as educators, take responsibility and power over the education of students. We live in a world where too few politicians, policy makers and even board of education commissioners have been inside schools long enough to be familiar with the intricacies of the day-to-day workings of a classroom teacher or a school principal, never mind the diverse needs of children. Perhaps, then, educators must do what President Obama called for each and every one of us to do (if I may alter his words to fit our topic of discussion): Embrace your own responsibility as educators.
When we return to in-person instruction, retired Voorheesville Central School District Superintendent Teresa Thayer Snyder says there will be a whole lot of “pressure from whatever ‘powers that be’ who are in a hurry to ‘fix’ kids and make up for the ‘lost’ time.”
We need to be careful and remember that what needs to be fixed is this broken system of education. And, as we wrestle with this obligation, there is an absolute sense of urgency to act, especially because our advocacy is on behalf of countless students and families who do not often have a voice in their educational systems. Like what the late Congressman John Lewis said, “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”
Colleagues, reforming and changing our system of education is a responsibility each and every one of us, as educators, must accept and act upon together as our moral obligation. We need to assume our power and our moral imperative to shape our educational system to equitably serve all our students.
While I may not have been prepared for what happened to our Capitol that day, if we work together, we will all be better prepared to create a brighter future for our students.
Victor Tam is principal of Edwin and Anita Lee Newcomer School in the San Francisco USD, and a member of the ACSA Equity Committee (Region 5). You can follow him on Twitter at @PrincipalTam.
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