We appreciate the mainstream press we have received this year from such widely read publications as TIME and yet find it necessary to reiterate the history of how we got to the 3rd Annual Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action to include a variety of significant actors, organizations, and gatherings in to the story. This is not the full story, but a timely corrective. This will be integrated into the website soon, but published here for speed.
In September 2016, teachers at John Muir Elementary School in Seattle, Washington, organized a day of community uplift and solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Aiming to convey that “Black lives matter!” at John Muir, teachers wore T-shirts reading “Black Lives Matter/We Stand Together/John Muir Elementary,” and stood alongside dozens of Black men who lined the school’s walkway “giving high-fives and praise to all the students who entered” (included in Teaching for Black Lives). With a contentious, racially charged election looming in the background, this seemingly innocuous event was met with right-wing denouncements, hate-filled emails, and a bomb threat.
It was this pushback to the Seattle educators’ open valuing of Black lives that sparked Philadelphia’s social justice union caucus, the Caucus of Working Educators (WE), to immediately begin organizing the first Black Lives Matter Week of Action. The first week was purposefully scheduled during the last week of January to not diminish the focus on Black History Month in February, and it was only changed to collaborate nationally so that the dates worked for all cities. Due to testing schedules in places like Seattle and school breaks in New York City, we decided that the only viable date was the first week in February. The name is also important because Philadelphia did not want the actions and work to be limited to schools but to also include surrounding communities in their shared struggles.
See original: Why the Black Lives Matter Movement is Vital For Us All
In Philadelphia, the Racial Justice Committee of WE — sparked and led by Black educators and parents- started collecting curricular resources, developing lesson plans, and organizing community events centered on the 13 guiding principles of the Black Lives Matter movement. As stated by WE organizer, Tamara Anderson, “we just wanted to shine a light on the fact that the Black and Brown children of Philadelphia and the communities they live in continue to get the short end of the stick. . . we simply wanted to stand up for our schools and communities” (also talked about in Morrison & Porter-Webb, 2019). From January 23rd to 28th, teachers across the city did just that. They sparked conversations with colleagues, parents, and administrators, wore solidarity T-shirts, engaged with students in their classrooms, and hosted events addressing everything from incarceration to Black feminism, to issues facing LGBTQ youth of Color. At the conclusion of a week that saw strong community engagement and widespread press coverage, organizers quickly turned to make the next iteration a nationally coordinated action.
At Free Minds, Free People 2017 in Baltimore, educators from the WE Racial Justice Committee and parent activists led a session on how to organize toward a Black Lives Matter Week of Action in your city. With widespread excitement, it swelled to over 20 cities and locales, becoming the Black Lives Matter at School National Week of Action. Local organizations, educational scholars, and even several unions and districts began openly endorsing the effort, with social justice caucuses and supporters leading the organizing. Additionally, a clear set of national demands were added to the already constructed city-specific demands from early organizers in Philadelphia. In 2018 and 2019, the growing nationwide coalition called on schools to (a) end zero-tolerance policies, (b) mandate Black history and ethnic studies, (c ) hire more Black teachers and (d) fund school counselors instead of school police. The collective vocalization of clear demands centered on racial justice has led to their integration into teacher union efforts beyond the National Week of Action. The work resulted in the creation of a National Black Lives Matter At School Steering Committee led by Black educators, parents and community organizers, and a national curriculum that includes resources from all of the national participants and partners.
There is also some clarity required in the African American studies requirement for high school students that attend Philadelphia public schools:
Students gathered on November 17, 1967, in front of the old Board of Education building on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to peacefully demand better conditions in schools, the hiring of more African American administrators, the inclusion of African American history in the curriculum, and acceptance of Black culture in the classroom. Teenagers shouting “Black Power!” and “Black Studies!” marched in from all over the city to the rally on the Parkway that early winter morning. Religious and secular advocates, School District officials, and students from Catholic schools joined the crowd in solidarity. The demonstration was organized by student leaders with the help of famed Philly community activist Walt Palmer. The action would go down in the books as one of the country’s largest protests led by teenagers. It would also become one of the city’s most violent displays of police brutality after former Mayor Frank Rizzo, the acting Philadelphia Police Commissioner at that time, ordered nearly 400 police officers to attack students and supporters participating in the demonstration.
The demand and need for curriculum and training are still imperative in Philadelphia despite it being a requirement. In addition, the original language included in the resolution passed by the School Reform Commission (SRC) not only made African American History a required course but also called for African American History to be integrated into all grade levels, which currently has not been fully achieved for grades K-12.
Portions of this have been drawn from the following sources with permission of the authors:
Morrison, D., & Porter-Webb, E. (2019). Building Power Through Racial Justice: Organizing the# BlackLivesMatterAtSchool Week of Action in K-12 and Beyond. Berkeley Review of Education, 9(1).
Watson, D., Hagopian, J., & Au, W. (Eds.). (2018). Teaching for Black lives. Rethinking Schools.
Remembering Philly’s 1967 School Walkout & The Attack On Teen Activism https://hiddencityphila.org/2018/03/remembering-phillys-1967-school-walkout-the-attack-on-teenage-activism/