This year, Black History Month held special significance for my students in Brownsville. Black history – like that of all other marginalized groups – is an inextricable part of American history in any year. But 2014 was filled with examples of the struggles of the past persisting in the present. From the Mike Brown tragedy in Missouri to the murder of Eric Garner here on our own New York streets, the injustices that face communities of color are front and center every day.
My students have internalized the stereotypes and oppression that have created those injustices in ways both obvious and subtle. When I dressed up in traditional African garb from a trip to Ghana for Throwback Thursday, I used it as an opportunity to talk about the common ancestry we all share in Africa. Immediately, hands shot up. “My family is not from Africa,” they said emphatically. From Ebola scares to “third world” depictions in the media, my students wanted to be from somewhere else.
In the face of these realities, we have no time to waste. This school year marked the first in which the majority of public school students are minorities. Our generation has a responsibility to work to ensure that each and every one of them is moving through a system that affirms their identities, shows them they’re valued, and allows them access to the opportunities they have been denied for far too long.
While the “whites only” signs of the 60s have come down, the reality of separate and unequal endures. Alongside glaring gaps in educational, employment and economic opportunity, people of color in this nation face a variety of subtler, no less damaging assumptions. A successful black lawyer hears whispers of affirmative action. A young black boy on a corner is seen as “lurking,” while his white peers “hang out.” A black college student is asked to give “the black perspective” to a seminar full of white students who are never asked to speak on behalf of their entire race.
Growing up in Brownsville, I saw too many of my friends held back by these systemic injustices. But through my studies and involvement with the Black Student Union at City College, I came to believe that change is possible – and that education is the key point of entry to addressing structural, systemic injustice. When we are armed with an education, we equip ourselves with the tools we need to ask critical questions, challenge injustices, and create a brighter future for ourselves and our families. We gain knowledge and skills that nobody can ever take away.
I joined Teach For America because I wanted to show kids growing up in the same community that I did that they deserve all the opportunities a quality education affords. Now that I’m in the classroom teaching history, I work every day to illuminate for my students the importance of learning from the past in order to write the future. So many civil rights leaders and activists did not live to see the first black president. But without their leadership and courage, President Obama’s inauguration day may never have arrived. The activists who have come before us began to pave the way for equality – for black people, for women, for Native populations, for every person who is not born with every characteristic society has decided is the most desirable in a human being. It is up to our generation to empower the next one to continue paving that road until it becomes smooth for every single person who walks it.
We have a long way to go as a country before we truly achieve justice for all. To fix the systemic oppression that has created the gross inequality of the present will take the hard, dedicated work of countless leaders and change-makers – many who have experienced it first-hand, others who bear witness to it from further away. We must work toward these long-term changes as well as the immediate, urgent opportunities to change the way our students view themselves and their futures.
As teachers, we can play a central role in this. Every day, we can remind our kids that their thoughts, ideas, identities and opinions are important.
We can share our own stories so that when our kids look to the front of the room, they see a little bit of themselves reflected back.
We can remind them that they matter, that they always have, and that they always will.
Rakim Jenkins is a 2014 alum of The Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership at the City College of New York and a corps member with Teach For America-New York City. He teaches at Leadership Prep Brownsville Middle Academy in Brooklyn.