I recently traveled to DC with my Early Childhood Education cohort for participation and presentation at a Department of Education, Special Education conference. Our nation’s capital is a remarkable place that allows you to combine official business with federal agencies and politicians, along with opportunities to increase your knowledge of culture, history and to have a bit of plain o’l fun. We did the official work and met with a representative from the office of our US Senator from Colorado, and took part in a presentation describing aspects of the federally funded program that allowed us to travel to DC. We also took time to hang out on the National Mall to visit monuments and simply enjoy the city. The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial was impressive and poignant — particularly at night.
The trip to DC also gave me the opportunity to enjoy a great meal, along with live music and poetry at one of my new, favorite places…Busboys & Poets. I immediately fell in love with this restaurant/artist venue. I was impressed to see material on prominent display by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Niki Giovanni as I walked through the book store to reach the dining room and performance area. I was beyond thrilled when I tasted my entree of sauteed catfish in lemon-butter sauce on a bed of tender collard greens and corn cake. That side dish of creamy crab grits wasn’t needed for my waistline, but it was equally amazing. Yes, I love amped up Southern/Soul Food! In addition to enjoying the food and talent at the venue, it was also enlightening to hear the conversation between my friends Rosemarie and Talina throughout the evening. They shared stories about their work and lives as wives, mothers, advocates and graduate students; as well as the common experiences they’ve encountered with their amazing sons.
Despite the differences between the gentlemen in ages — one is a student at Howard University and the other is an elementary student — I discovered that the lives of these young men were remarkably similar in terms of how their mothers have had to do extra work to ensure their boys received what they needed to be successful as students. Whether its been access, respect, or understanding, these mothers (and many others) have had to fight for those things that we expect to come automatically to our children. As time has passed, it has become evident that Horace Mann’s vision of education being the “great equalizer” has not been fully realized; particularly when you have to fight for what you need. Despite the frustrating aspect of hearing about the systemic issues these women faced as mothers of black boys within our education system, there was something very relaxing and familiar about their interaction. While they were discussing their sons, black hair, skin care, authors, husbands, barber shops, and strong grandmothers I’d hear the occasional “girl” and “honey, yes” as they shared throughout the dinner and performance.
I smiled to myself as I noticed the contrast in how they were interacting within their environments. Earlier in the day they were “suited up” and commenting before hundreds of individuals at a national conference and presenting on issues related to cultural competence and disabilities – now they were simply sister-friends letting their hair down and interacting based on shared experiences as black women. There was no need to mince words or contain their volume because someone might mistake passion for anger, nor was there a need to explain the meaning of what they were trying to convey, or have someone else say, “what she’s trying to say is…” as a way to alleviate unintentionally hurt feelings because of an open and honest conversation. Being “suited up” is never an issue and comes naturally when you’re qualified and skilled at what you do, but it takes a toll to maintain that state of subdued calm when you’re intimately aware of problems that continue to plague children and families in their quest for a fair and equitable education. It…can…be…tiring! When I think about the potential fatigue that friends and colleagues are likely experiencing when addressing challenging issues I often want to ask,
Are you tired?
Are you tired of continually hearing how systemic issues in society related to privilege are direct contributors to the inequities in education? Similarly, are you tired of having to re-explain the connection between privilege and inequity to individuals who feel it’s time to move beyond those issues?
Are you tired of hearing about the disproportionate suspension rates of children of color — and feel things could improve if certain children behaved better in school environments? Likewise, are you tired of continually explaining how implicit biases and lack of exposure to diverse groups causes educators to treat children of color differently based on race?
Are you tired of hearing how poverty continually plays a major role in the lack of achievement among students of all races, and don’t want to hear discussions of more tax payer-funded social programs? On the same token, are you tired of reminding individuals and providing data that shows the connection between poverty and student achievement?
Are you tired of being reminded what language to use when referring to children with disabilities – especially when you meant no harm? Similarly, are you tired of the need to continually remind individuals that dignity begins with how you’re referred to by others?
Are you tired of hearing about parents with little to no interest in their children’s educations, and question their desire to see their children succeed in school? Or, are you tired of seeing parents as scapegoats when schools fail to creatively engage families as partners in their children’s success?
Of course you’re tired! Despite your fatigue and readiness to move on or give up, you must stay connected and keep listening. Whether it’s unnecessarily taken personally and you’re feeling blamed, or taken personally when it feels as if others aren’t willing to listen as you continually fight for children who happen to look like you — you must continue. Whether you’ve had enough and feel the conversations have become too much, or feel you may have said too much, there’s a shared rationale for getting your second wind. Others are depending on you. It may be difficult, but oftentimes we have to look beyond our own moments of being disappointed and offended by others and answer a very basic question when considering whether to stay in the fight. If not you, then who?
I thought about that question as I toured the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial one evening. MLK loomed larger than life while on this earth, and continues to do so in his legacy of social justice. His 30 feet statue on the National Mall is surrounded by granite-carved quotes from his various speeches. While surrounded by his image and words you can’t help feeling moved and inspired as you consider your role in supporting others. Of the many quotes present, the one that struck me the most was from his 1964 acceptance speech when he received the Nobel Peace Prize. In that speech he stated,
“I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture of their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down, men other-centered can build up…”
While it’s easy (as an educator) to focus on the portion of his quote that pertains to education, we must consider the totality of that statement and our roles in supporting children and families in their basic quest for dignity and the promise that education holds for all individuals. Whether inadvertent or intentional, the issues facing our children are significant and require unwavering support from those who might be a little weary. As you begin to question or doubt your role or ability in changing the system, consider the “other-centered” nature of what we do as educators. Others are relying on you to speak and act on their behalf. If not you, then who?
SPECIAL NOTE: Being that our doctoral studies are funded via taxpayer dollars, I felt it was important to show that University of Colorado-Denver students did more than sight-see and listen to live music and poetry on our recent trip to the Capital 🙂 Here’s proof that we also worked!! As you can see, some of us (Alissa, Geneva & Rosemarie) are REALLY happy before meeting with a representative from Senator Bennet’s office!