How Black Lives Matter Came to Philadelphia’s Schools

These Philadelphia teachers organized a week of activities dedicated to uplifting students and teachers of color. Teachers participated by wearing "Black Lives Matter" T-shirts, tailoring their lesson plans to relate to the principles of the Black Lives Matter movement, and participating in public panel discussions with students and community members. Photo: Caucus of Working Educators

When teachers in Seattle planned a Black Lives Matter action in response to an incident of violent racism last October, our caucus of teachers in Philadelphia got inspired.

Seattle’s John Muir Elementary had received bomb threats after planning a motivational event where elementary students on their way into school would be greeted by hundreds of African American men. After the threats, the union’s representative assembly voted to support the event, and thousands of educators wore Black Lives Matter T-shirts to support their students of color.

The Caucus of Working Educators (WE) saw our chance to bring that spirit to Philadelphia. But we knew our action would have to go beyond the hashtag, pushing educators, parents, and students into an honest and difficult dialogue.

About 20 percent of Philadelphia teachers are African American. Our city is mired in poverty and income disparity. Union jobs are steadily decreasing, and the district is shuttering public schools in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods. So we wanted to do more than a day of solidarity.

GOAL: TO PROMPT CONVERSATIONS

Our caucus decided to dedicate a week to uplifting students and teachers of color. We wanted teachers to have purposeful conversations with other educators, staff, and students about the 13 guiding principles of the Black Lives Matter movement, which include such points as thinking globally and affirming transgender identities. We hoped to illuminate the racial biases that still exist among Black and white members.

A small group of organizers began to plan the week, connecting each day to a principle and developing curriculum and events to highlight it. Even the organizers had to learn about the principles, turning the planning into a teaching opportunity of all of us.

We sent out emails to caucus members and others who had attended our events, inviting teachers across the city to let us know what level of participation they were interested in, from wearing or passing out “Philly Educators—Black Lives Matter” buttons, stickers, and T-shirts to planning an event at the classroom, school, or citywide level. We tried to provide an access point for everyone, even those who might feel uncomfortable with such a difficult topic.

Still, some caucus members expressed misgivings about the week. Some felt it would not be widely accepted; some said they supported fighting racism but did not support the Black Lives Matter movement. We decided to create “Frequently Asked Questions” letters for parents and administrators. Our team brainstormed possible questions, including:

  • “My spouse is a police officer and I heard that Black Lives Matter is anti-police. Are they?”
  • “I don’t feel comfortable teaching about this in my class. What should I do?”

Soon enthusiastic Philadelphia public school teachers and college academics began sending us curricula and lesson plans that fit with each of the 13 principles for grades K-12. We put all the materials into a digital folder that we shared with teachers via email, our caucus web page, and our Facebook page.

MANY WAYS TO PARTICIPATE

To spread the word about the upcoming week of action, caucus members brought our materials and message to every event we could. We hosted a Citywide Organizing Meeting and a Kick-Off Happy Hour where everyone could get shirts, buttons, and stickers to bring back to their workplaces. We always brought sign-in sheets too, so that we could keep in touch with participants afterwards and increase caucus membership.

Orders for T-shirts grew quickly. Whole staffs began wearing buttons even before the week began. On the first day, everyone was expected to show solidarity by taking group photos wearing the shirts at schools and community organizations. (Staff in at least one school have since decided to continue wearing their “Black Lives Matter” shirts every Monday.)

Many educators worked with colleagues to plan how to expand their curriculum for the week; others started telling their students about it. African American studies is a graduation requirement for public high school students in Philadelphia, but many elementary and middle school teachers took the opportunity to include lessons for their students too.

“This was an excellent opportunity to teach and learn authentic, accurate American history,” said caucus member and parent Robin Roberts. “All children deserve to feel pride in themselves. They deserve to know that they are worthy of love, support, and success—that they come from greatness.”

One high school teacher did a project where students investigated how mass incarceration affects their school community; she then brought these students to participate in a public panel discussion. At another high school, students decided to bolster their voice by starting a chapter of the Philadelphia Student Union.

Our week of action got national attention—an Associated Press story and National Education Association articles. Many Philadelphia teachers first found out it through the press, then got the lesson plans and moved their schools to participate.

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Throughout the week, teachers submitted images of their students’ work through our caucus’s Facebook page. Every time a teacher posted, we followed up using Google surveys, phone calls, emails, and weekly organizing meetings to find out more and help teachers to push their work further.

By the end of the week, our Facebook album had 140 photos showing student work and participating groups of educators in schools and allies in universities, nonprofit organizations, and government offices.

EVENTS BUILT RELATIONSHIPS

We also planned a series of community events for the week that reflected the 13 principles and movements for racial justice, including:

  • A panel of teachers, community members, and parents who talked about how to bridge the gap between parents/communities and school
  • A public screening of Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th,” with a panel of high school students, a teacher, and a parent who discussed mass incarceration and its effects in Philadelphia
  • An all-female panel about the silencing of Black women in society, in relationships, and at the workplace
  • A panel of queer youth of color and adults from the LGBTQ community who discussed the films “Moonlight” and “Pariah,” addressing labels, intimacy, and sexuality in the media
  • A closing panel on the question, “Next Steps: What comes after Black Lives Matter Week of Action?”

Despite the week not being “supported or sanctioned” by the school district or the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, many principals supported it. So did many local organizations, academics, and City Councilor Helen Gym, whose office hosted the conversation between parents and educators.

The closing panel featured football player Malcolm Jenkins from the Philadelphia Eagles. “If you ever want to change your environment or a system, you first have to be educated on how that system works,” Jenkins said. “That’s why I am on the journey that I am now, learning the inner workings of systems that have been set up to disadvantage minorities, especially Black people.”

Each of these events attracted high attendance, including many first-timers who had never attended our caucus events before. Caucus members got plugged into work that was already happening in Philadelphia, including parent organizing, student work, amplifying the power of queer youth, and connecting racial justice with immigration—and community members learned about our caucus. This relationship-building is critical to organizing, since we cannot work alone.

NEW PERSPECTIVES

However, many of our caucus leaders who had been active in previous actions did not participate in the week. During a debrief, some expressed their discomfort over anti-police sentiment and admitted they had not fully embraced or understood the 13 principles in the first place.

But those who had been hesitant also said the week gave them a different perspective on Black Lives Matter. These reactions made us realize how personal and imperative our social justice work is, even for our own caucus members.

This week of action moved people to talk about the central role of race in our movement and our work. For some, it was the first time having this conversation. Many union members do not see how race and racism are leading causes of the attack on teachers unions.

Nationally, public schools are a major employer of women and people of color—but many urban districts are hiring fewer and fewer African Americans and Latinos. Outside of professional development workshops or book talks focused on race, these points are not usually not brought up.

“Being an African American History teacher in Philadelphia schools over the last eight years, I have personally witnessed the damaging effects of racism manifested in schools and the gap of understanding between different groups,” said teacher Ismael Jimenez. “Unfortunately, honest conversations about race have been reduced to either speaking on it with similar, like-minded individuals, or simplistic narratives based on overgeneralizations.”

Race plays a big role in the problems of public education. It’s a core issue that we have to address in our organizing if we hope to win the learning and teaching conditions to which we, our students, and city have an unconditional right.

That’s why this week of action was so important, Jimenez says: we are “creating the conditions for real dialogue around racial justice in America.” And that’s why we’re already planning another Black Lives Matter week of action next year, to keep building racial justice as a key campaign issue in our union.

Tamara Anderson and Shira Cohen belong to the Caucus of Working Educators. Other members contributed to this article as well.