Otero: Strong Education Leaders Are Key to Advancing Racial Justice in the Nation’s Ongoing Fight for Equity
In the aftermath of yet another tragic killing of a black individual by a police officer, the nation finds itself grappling with a sense of sorrow and a desire for solutions that align with our values. Among the potential avenues for progress, our education system holds significant promise.
Education has always been intricately linked to racial fairness and inclusivity for black Americans. Even before Rosa Parks ignited the Civil Rights Movement through her defiance on a bus or Martin Luther King Jr. led nonviolent protests nationwide, the NAACP fought tirelessly to desegregate schools. Figures like Thurgood Marshall, who saw themselves primarily as teachers, recognized that the notion of "separate but equal" was fundamentally flawed, and that schools were emblematic of the deep-rooted racial bias pervasive in society.
When policymakers aimed to address segregation, education became a focal point. Initiatives like Head Start and Title I emerged as cornerstones in the battle for civil rights. The visionary behind these groundbreaking laws was President Lyndon Johnson, whose formative experiences teaching in a low-income, rural Mexican community in south Texas shaped his understanding of education and its potential for fostering opportunity. Since then, leaders from across the political spectrum and all walks of life have consistently come together in their attempts to transform schools into agents of empowerment for children of color and those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Throughout my lifetime, I have witnessed numerous leaders pursuing educational leadership as a means to heal our racial divides. This compels me to step forward at this crucial moment and assert two fundamental truths that I hold dear. Firstly, that an equitable educational system lies at the core of achieving racial justice. Secondly, leaders in education who prioritize equity are uniquely positioned to contribute to the healing of the wounds that have been laid bare in our society today.
Aleesia Johnson, superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools, exemplifies this belief by viewing her role as an educator and administrator as an extension of the work initiated by her grandfather, Anthony Brooks Sr., in the realm of racial justice. In an interview conducted last year with the nonprofit organization Chiefs for Change, she acknowledged her grandfather’s integral role as not just an educator, but also as a social justice advocate in their community. Johnson attributes her choices in life to the powerful example he set while fighting for the rights of individuals who share her heritage.
Jason Kamras, the leader of Richmond Public Schools, effectively utilizes his position to make instructional decisions that empower students of color. In a recent endeavor, he collaborated with historians, civil rights activists, clergy members, and others to develop the "REAL Richmond" curriculum. This curriculum aims to educate high school students about the unfiltered history of the Southern city, including its deeply troubled racial past. Additionally, the district has adopted an English Language Arts curriculum designed by an organization committed to anti-racist education, further illustrating Kamras’ dedication to empowering marginalized communities.
Janice Jackson, CEO of Chicago Public Schools, has spearheaded significant academic gains within her district. She recently released a toolkit titled "Say Their Names" to facilitate productive conversations about race. Furthermore, Chicago Public Schools became the first district in the nation to incorporate the New York Times’s 1619 Project into the high school social studies curriculum. This initiative seeks to reframe American history by critically examining the legacy of slavery.
Transformational policies and programs require strong leadership as their foundation. The two components are interdependent, as one cannot succeed without the other.
However, it is important to recognize that strong education leaders alone cannot eradicate racism or address issues of police brutality. We must first initiate changes within our criminal justice and policing systems to ensure that all individuals, regardless of race, are treated with dignity, respect, and receive the protection and support they deserve. Additionally, we must confront the hindrances posed by unfair school funding formulas, deeply ingrained educational policies, and cultural biases that impede the progress envisioned by innovative and forward-thinking education leaders. Furthermore, broader reforms in economic, housing, and healthcare policies are essential in confronting the deeply entrenched structural racism that plagues our society. We require strong leaders both within and outside of the educational sphere to drive these transformative changes.
Mildred Otero holds the position of senior vice president, national impact, at Leadership for Educational Equity. Prior to this role, she worked as the chief education counsel for the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions.
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