Last Monday morning, each of my coworkers reached out to me and offered concrete support—did I need to talk? To move some of my work off my plate and onto theirs? To be treated to coffee? To ignore them? To take the day off?
Each of my coworkers reached out and each time, I cried. I cried, in each moment reminded of yet another televised murder, brutal in the cold and thoughtless treatment of George Floyd’s life. As if it didn’t matter.
I cried, prompted to remember the names and stories of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, only the most recent of too many hashtags. I cried as I tried to figure out how to answer the question. What do I need? What am I even feeling right now? This isn’t new; why am I confused? I cried at the realization that I had fully expected to have to mask my grief and anger, as I have done countless times before in other workplaces. I cried, and felt so tired of going through the motions of these all too familiar emotional and political cycles. I cried, knowing that what I really need is for systems to change.
I believe that the way systems are designed impacts their outcomes. I believe this country’s systems are intertwined and all affect one another. I believe that law and policy set the foundational framework from which these systems are built. I believe that these systems share a structural flaw of failing to respect and center Black lives, along with the lived experiences of far too many others.
And I believe that education, in particular, is a cornerstone system—so much of how we interact with and experience this system reinforces how we navigate others. It impacts how we experience the criminal justice system, the healthcare system, the workforce, to name only a few. I often think about the fact that enslaved people were legally forbidden to learn how to read. Those who dared to teach them would also be beaten. As my family often says—what was in those books? Knowledge is power, after all. To me, it is profoundly telling that every anti-racism action list includes some variation of “educate yourself.” What better way to challenge systems of power?
What I need is for the education system to change. Not magically, by itself, in the passive voice with no discernable actor—but intentionally, with clarity of purpose and with students at the center. I am privileged to spend my days at Higher Learning Advocates advocating for “solutions to break down systemic barriers and support the success of today’s students in their pursuit of education and skills development beyond high school,” our mission. And, to be clear, Black students are today’s students.
The education system I’m advocating for is one in which Black students are more likely than not to be literate by high school graduation and beyond; more likely to enroll in a school or training program of their choice and be able to afford it; more likely to persist and graduate. It’s one in which Black graduates in the workforce are more likely to earn equal pay, to hold positions of leadership, to successfully challenge discrimination they may face. It’s one that is well integrated with a much larger ecosystem; it does not only work if happening separately from a students’ food insecurity or need for child care or spotty access to the internet.
It is one that does not require another Black body to be involuntarily sacrificed so that others can finally throw energy into really seeing systems (that have been there all along), questioning systems, changing systems.
Changing the education system won’t erase generations of the trauma of widespread violence against Black people. But I firmly believe it is one important step to be taken concurrently in this march toward justice and progress.
So here’s what I really need, especially from all my colleagues privileged enough to do the work of designing, influencing, informing, interpreting, enforcing or implementing any system. Recognize the full breadth of the work and share the load, not just this week and maybe next. Recognize that bearing this load is a Black person’s everyday reality. Choose to help pick it up every day. Here’s how:
- Seek first to listen, without interrupting. Find out who in your area has been doing this work for years (I promise you, they’re there). Make sure they center and uplift the populations they seek to serve. Support their work however they ask you to.
- Actually do the thing. Then ask what else you can do. Repeat.
- Approach your everyday life with care for the systems you are reinforcing. Make intentional choices based on what you find conscionable, not just convenient or comfortable. Yes, it’s tiring. We’re all so tired.
- Last but by no means least, clarify and think critically about why you’re even doing this work. Seriously. Is there a clear vision in your head? What does the system you see look like? I especially urge my colleagues in advocacy spaces to run toward that vision, not just run away from the current reality.
There is so much work to do. There is so much work to be done. Start today.