This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
This week is full of events about racism, gun violence and trauma, all organized by the Working Educators Caucus of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers as part of the national Black Lives Matter Week of Action in School. Philadelphia is one of more than 20 cities participating.
The events were designed by the Racial Justice Committee of the caucus, which also distributed an extensive curriculum, for all grades and levels, that teachers can use in class. They expect more than 40 schools to participate.
In the evenings, there will be events open to the public.
Based on Black Lives Matters’ 13 guiding principles, four specific demands are being made by organizers, focused on improving the school experience for students of color:
- End zero-tolerance discipline for students.
- Mandate black history and ethnic studies.
- Hire and retain more black teachers.
- Fund counselors, not cops.
“My history classes in high school and society taught me early on that my black life didn’t matter,” said Keziah Ridgeway, who teaches African American history at Northeast High School and is a member of the caucus. “I decided to become a history teacher and participate in Black Lives Matter week so that the children that I educate will understand the value of their life and history.”
More than 20 groups, from the Student Union to the Philadelphia Writers Project, have signed a letter of support distributed by the Working Educators Caucus. The letter broadly advocates for an end to stop-and-frisk policing, safe and affordable housing, a living wage, and the right to health care. It also makes specific demands about race:
“We want public school-based policies that resist the criminalization of students of color. We want curriculum and pedagogy that recognizes the collective contribution of all groups to modern society. We want a full and fair funding formula that can provide for all the needs of our students and schools. We want standardized testing to end and no longer be used as the criteria to shutter schools, since these tactics adversely affect low-income, black, and Latino communities. We want to attract, develop, and retain more teachers of color.”
The event is also supported by some professional athletes, including Michael Bennett, an Eagles player who has been outspoken in his support for Black Lives Matter and the right of NFL players to kneel in protest during the national anthem. It’s also supported by one of the men who inspired the NFL protests: John Carlos, the sprinter who won a bronze medal at the 1968 Summer Olympics. Along with the gold-medal winner, Carlos raised a fist for black power during the award ceremony, in protest of the routine civil rights violations of black Americans and an economic system that impoverished black communities.
The evening events are organized around each day’s guiding principles, takenfrom the 13 principles adopted by Black Lives Matter.
On Feb. 5, the principles are intergenerational black families and black villages. A screening of The Hate U Give and a discussion afterward are planned at La Salle University. The event runs from 6 to 8 p.m. and is hosted by both the caucus and LaSalle’s Education Department.
On Feb. 6, the principles are restorative justice, empathy, and loving engagement. The day culminates in a rally at Temple University’s Ritter Hall that runs from 6 to 8:30 p.m.
On Feb. 7, the principle is black women. The event runs from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Community College of Philadelphia and features a poetic “dramatization” of rapper and activist Black Rapp Medusa’s childhood growing up in foster care and finding her outlet in hip-hop.
On Feb. 8, the principles are diversity and globalism. The event at Community College of Philadelphia runs from 6 to 8 p.m., featuring talks by local professional artists and art educators about the importance of the arts in black communities.
On Feb. 9, the principle is being unapologetically black. The event is called “A Celebration of Us Through Spoken Word” and will feature performances from members of the black diaspora. It will be from 6 to 8 p.m. at 6812 Chew Ave.
The final day is Feb. 10, when the guiding principles will be gun violence and trauma in schools. The panel discussion will be from 4 to 6:30 p.m. in the Church of the Advocate, 1801 Diamond St.
The curriculum features lessons and materials organized by age group, from preschool to college. It was designed by a committee of teachers across the country who met virtually to compile resources.
Chris Rogers, a former teacher from Chester and a member of the Teacher Action Group in Philadelphia, took the lead on the curriculum committee. He drew attention to an Advancement Project report on the history of school policing. One of the case studies in the report is from Philadelphia.
“It’s an amazing tool to organize communities around exposing police violence in schools, anchoring our demand around funding counselors, not cops in schools,” Rogers said.
Angela Crawford heads the Working Educators’ Racial Justice Committee.
“Many of the children are waking up to the riddles of gunplay in poverty,” Crawford said. “This can leave one angry and confused to why this happens to be life for them and people who look like them. They are forced to come to schools where discipline is more important than their intellectual growth. Black and brown children are poisoned with a curriculum that destroys the sense of self-worth. The lens of the world they are presented is one that demoralizes our ancestors and desecrates our contributions to civilization.
“The Black Lives Matter curriculum has been intentionally created to promote positive self-image for black and brown students. The added benefit for all other students is to learn other perspectives to allow them to see their fellow black and brown classmates in a new positive light, while receiving an equitable education that focuses on the viewpoints of others.”
In 2018, the National Education Association – the nation’s largest teachers’ union – passed a resolution supporting Black Lives Matter Week in Schools. The American Federation of Teachers, of which the PFT is part, has not endorsed the week. Many local chapters in major cities have done so, but Philadelphia is not among them. Instead, the week is independently organized by the Working Educators Caucus.
Ismael Jimenez , an African American history teacher at Kensington CAPA, is a co-chair of the Working Educators and a member of the Black Male Educators group that seeks to increase the number of black men who teach.
“Black Lives Matter week represents an organic effort by educators to create the conditions for students, educators, parents, and community members to discuss honestly about issues surrounding racial justice,” Jimenez said. “Through these conversations, we hope people in our community will gain a deeper sense of what is needed to start the process to move towards what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. referred to as a ‘beloved community’ based on justice, equity, and understanding.”