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  • Writer's pictureDionna Roberts

No, but, for real. What are YOU gonna do?

The insomnia I’ve experienced during this global pandemic pales in comparison to the current social unrest being experienced in our country. If living through Covid-19, attempting to navigate distance learning, and closing out an abruptly disrupted school year wasn’t enough, then witnessing the undeniable outward expressions of racism in America sure has been. This wide-spread public outbreak has made many of us sick. It has made me sick. Sick of the repeat episodes of racial injustice against Black lives that are now being recorded and shared, LIVE, and in living color. 

Beginning with a tragic event in late February with the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man, who was shot dead while jogging in a neighborhood outside Brunswick, Georgia, after being pursued by two White men in a pickup truck. It wasn’t until May when video evidence of the crime surfaced, that the majority of America (including me) were even aware of this story. Many of us became enraged, laced up our running shoes in solidarity, and demanded people say his name. Folded into this event was the story of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman, who was shot and killed by police officers that entered her home as she slept in late March. If we hadn't seen enough, in late May, we then watched the video of blatant racism expressed by Amy Cooper in Central Park against Christian Cooper, a Black man. During a heated exchange over leashing her dog in a restricted area, Amy made a phone call to police falsely declaring that her life was being endangered by this man wielding her whiteness as a weapon. This horrific string of events was triggering for Black America, to say the least. However, it all came to a violent boiling point when in late May, America watched George Floyd, a Black man, be murdered by a White police officer who exercised excessive force during an arrest, resting with his knee on George Floyd's neck for almost 9 minutes. 8 minutes, 46 seconds. Floyd's violent death unleashed pain and anger that is disrupting business as usual. Enough was and is enough.

Many have taken to the streets in protest to demand justice. Not just for these most recent human lives lost, but for those that for years, decades, centuries have been terrorized, silenced, and killed. The events concerning racism and the ongoing fight for civil rights I'd learned as a child, and later taught as an educator, are now manifesting themselves in my present reality. I am reminded of the "If you Lived During..." series written by various authors, that chronicle historical events of the past. I can't help but consider how often these books are used in classrooms where teachers pose the question: "What would you have done if you were there?" It's one thing to think hypothetically about these events, it's another to find yourself faced with it as a legitimate question. Like--no, but, for real. "WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO?" Like all of us, I am faced with making decisions during a time in history where I can actively choose to be a part of the solutions to this unrest or sit paralyzed in silence and watch everything play out. Believe me, I understand not everyone is built to be on the frontlines of protests, sit-ins, and marches, (not to mention Covid-19 is still an issue), but we all have the power to incite change. 

As a Black educator in this country, I am committed to doing my absolute best to ensure all of my students feel seen, heard, valued, and celebrated in our classroom. My students of color, more specifically my Black students, need this more than some may realize or care to acknowledge. The storm inside of me is raging. A storm, a call to action, that at this point is strong enough to cause sizeable damage and discomfort to a system built on a wicked, warped foundation. I've decided that my work in this fight against injustice will take place first within myself, followed by my family, in my classroom, my school, and finally my district. The marching I choose to do will be done alongside others. Family members, Parents, colleagues, and students who are committed to engaging in intentional learning opportunities toward educating ourselves on what it means to truly fight for justice for ALL. I am an advocate for books and access to individual and collective stories. In this work, books, workshops, and discussions, as well as my own stories will guide me as syncopated drumbeats. There are many lists being compiled by booksellers, educators, and people around the country around the topics of racism and social justice work. I would like to offer a few book recommendations that I've personally found to be helpful in my understanding of these topics. Please note: My learning is ongoing. I am not done. This isn't even a tip of the iceberg of resources available to us.

Begin the Internal Work

This is the book I wish I would have read well before beginning college. It's the history that wasn't taught at home or school that would've helped me to have a deeper understanding of how our nation was built and the roles we played in it. This is the "remix", or the young reader's edition, of Ibram X. Kendi's Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. It taught me what it truly means to be racist and antiracist. I finished reading it only weeks before our country erupted in outrage, which could not have been timed more perfectly. As a result of reading this book, I am experiencing this moment in history through a righteously angered, enlightened lens; the result of some necessary "unlearning" and deep digging. I've since penned the following on the inside cover:

Dear America,
Dig this here. Your roots are showing—AGAIN. Deep they are. Such a complicated system. Roots, that is

Amplifying Your Voice and the Voices of Others

"To be WOKE is to understand that equality and justice for some is not equality and justice at all. We must ask hard questions. We must stand for what is right - even when it is difficult and scary."

Poetry is the intimate expressive voice of a writer that often defies the rules of standardized writing structure. The beauty of this defiance is what makes the words of the authors of Woke: A Young Poet's Call to Justice the absolute perfect match. I love the diversity of subject matter presented in this collection as well as the engaging, colorful illustrations representative of diverse human beings. There are twenty-four poems that address topics such as discrimination, ableism, body positivity, prejudice, privilege, and more. This is a book that we all could learn from and be inspired by.

"The world needs your voice. If you have a brilliant idea... say something! If you see an injustice... say something!

It is imperative that we say something especially when we see injustices arise. I like that author Peter Reynolds offers many ways that one voice, one individual can make a difference and help to change the world. When I discussed this book with my students. some lifted the fact that it is not always easy to say something or speak out. One student said, "It's scary and hard to stand up to someone for doing wrong, especially if it's a bully or if someone is being left out on purpose. What if you get treated the same way for saying something?" Another student remarked, "I know that it's scary, but we have to. We can't be scared of what bad things could happen because good could happen too. We can keep someone from being hurt or worse." This book was perfect for facilitating the conversation about why the protests that many of them are hearing about and/or witnessing are happening. Each of us should feel called and encouraged to act on the chance to say something: with our actions, our words, and our voices.

"Black is urban and rural, wealthy and poor, mixed race, immigrants, and more—because there are countless ways to be Black enough."

The collection voices represented in this book are authentic, diverse, and should be amplified loudly for all to hear! This book affirmed my stories of being Black and provided a window into other Black experiences. A great text in my opinion to acknowledge and challenge stereotypes of what you believe to be the "Black Experience". Because it is a collective work, there are some stories that are more appropriate for older readers, but there are definitely some that even my 4th graders could rock with.

Commit to Cultivating Cultural Competence

"That's the problem with you, Minor" a student huffed. "You want to make everything about reading or math. It's not always about that. At school, you guys do everything except listen to me. Y'all want to use your essays and vocabulary words to save my future, but none of y'all know anything about saving my now."

In We Got This Cornelius Minor describes the power of conversation and building authentic relationships with students. What we as teachers learn about our students, inform the instructional and classroom climate decisions we make on a daily basis. As a classroom teacher, I purposefully focus on building and deepening relationships throughout the year knowing its power. The following quote sums up why this particular title is so important to me.

"A lone teacher can't eliminate inequity, but Cornelius demonstrates that a lone teacher can confront the scholastic manifestations of racism, sexism, ableism and classism by showing:

  • exactly how he plans and revises lessons to ensure access and equity

  • ways to look anew at explicit and tacit rules that consistently affect groups of students unequally

  • suggestions for leaning into classroom community when it feels like the kids are against you

  • ideas for using a universal design that make curriculum relevant and accessible

  • advocacy strategies for making classroom and schoolwide changes that expand access to opportunity to your students"

This book sits on my shelf full of annotations and post-its for all the "major keys" dropped by Dr. Emdin. I was grateful for the opportunity to hear him speak at Western Michigan University a few years back, which helped to bring his reality pedagogy to life even more. He echoes the sentiments of Cornelius Minor in his belief that teachers should prioritize relationships before content.

"For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too by Christopher Emdin explains how teachers from different cultures can connect and foster success when teaching Black students in poor urban schools. While aimed at black cultures found in the inner city, the advice here applies to anyone teaching students from a cultural background that is not their own."

Examine and Take Inventory of Your Classroom Library

Books are powerful teaching tools. We as teachers need to be intentional about providing students access to variety and volume while considering the need for diverse stories. My classroom library has continued to evolve over the 17 years that I've been in education. Yes, there are some titles that are considered timeless and have stood the test of time, while others should be retired with the quickness! There is a necessary question that we should consider when weeding and building our classroom libraries to be more inclusive and diverse: How are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) represented and depicted in the stories on my shelves? What we don't want to do is oversaturate any culture's narrative with limited lenses. As a Black person, I want my culture reflected beyond the struggle of slavery, oppression, and injustice. There is so much more to us than this and the students in our classroom deserve access to all of the stories! Below are a few websites were you can find quality, affordable, diverse titles to help build a better library for all of your students.

In closing...

Before we ask what can we do inside our classrooms, let's begin with what can we do to inform ourselves on how to identify areas of implicit bias, that ultimately impact our relationships with people and how we navigate the world. We should be reading shelves of diverse books to assist with this enlightenment and unlearning. Once we have gained a better understanding, we need to share it. We need to share it while walking it out. We cannot wait until we feel we have arrived, as there is no such destination in this work. Let's all commit to doing something to stand against racism and injustice when it stares us in the eyes and attempts to arrest our voices.

So, what are you gonna do?

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