Black Lives Matter at School: A week of action

The AFT has launched into Black History Month with a resolution supporting an annual week of action for Black Lives Matter at School, Feb. 1-5. Affiliates are celebrating with a range of activities across the country, from panel discussions and professional development sessions to a Black history film series and meetings about how to advance ethnic studies.

BTU’s Joel Richards, left, with colleagues during last year’s Black Lives Matter at School week of action
BTU’s Joel Richards, left, with colleagues during last year’s Black Lives Matter at School week of action

The week of action is just one part of a resolution, passed by the executive council Feb. 3, expressing the AFT’s ongoing commitment to support Black communities in public schools. It declares that the union will continue to press districts to hire more Black teachers, implement restorative practices and end zero tolerance discipline, teach Black history and other ethnic studies, and fund more counselors—as opposed to police officers—in schools.

“It shouldn’t be just a week, it should be all the time,” says Cecily Myart-Cruz, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, which is sponsoring a Conference for Racial and Social Justice on Feb. 6. Year-round, UTLA actively advocates for the objectives listed in the AFT’s resolution and maintains a collection of resources for members, which supplements the AFT’s Share My Lesson offerings. “Every single education union should be taking up this fight,” says Myart-Cruz.

The Boston Teachers Union has events slated for every day of the week of action, including a panel of members sharing how they’ve directed discussions about race in their classrooms; a session on preparing testimony on Black Lives Matter at School demands, for public meetings; and a performance showcase.

“The most important thing is making sure that the children and the families we serve know that they matter and that we care about them,” says Joel Richards, a K-8 teacher, a BTU member and an antiracist organizer. “Secondly, what is happening to them—the conditions of their schools, and the conditions of their neighborhoods, and how they’re being treated by the system and by society—is wrong.” As educators, “we’re at the frontlines” and can be “catalysts for change,” he says, borrowing a phrase from Shirley Chisholm.

At the United Federation of Teachers in New York City, a series of films about Black history has already begun with a documentary about Chisholm, the first Black woman to run for president of the United States, followed by a conversation that traces her groundbreaking campaign to Kamala Harris’s recent inauguration as the first Black person, the first person of Indian descent and the first woman to become vice president. Black history is about more than oppression, it’s about accomplishments as well, says UFT Secretary LeRoy Barr. The UFT also works through several channels to diversify the educator workforce, he adds, and it recently exceeded its goal to increase by 2,000 the number of educators of color in New York City.

Some of the AFT’s largest affiliates serve predominantly students of color: In Chicago, 88.5 percent; Detroit, 97.3 percent; Los Angeles, 88.5 percent; New York, 84.9 percent; and Philadelphia, 86 percent. Nationally, the percentage of Black teachers has dropped from 8.1 percent in 1971 to 6.7 percent today, while the percentage of the Black population has risen to 13 percent. Research shows that Black children—and others as well—benefit from having Black teachers.

AFT investment in “grow your own” teacher recruitment and training programs has helped prepare more Black people for careers in teaching, and its resources on Share My Lesson have provided lessons on racism, equity and civil rights. The union continues to press for more counselors and social workers in school, and fewer armed police: The Chicago Teachers Union and UTLA won increased staffing of social workers and nurses, and they will continue to fight until school districts hire, staff and retain clinicians and counselors in schools at levels recommended by their respective national professional organizations.

Union commitment to antiracism extends beyond K-12 as well. At Rutgers University, the Rutgers AAUP-AFT faculty union has sewn “common good” elements like diversity hiring and pay equity into its labor contract. Graduate workers at the University of Michigan won job positions that focus exclusively on improving diversity, equity and inclusion on campus. The California Faculty Association, which represents lecturers, professors, counselors, librarians and coaches from California State University campuses, has a “cultural taxation” contract provision that recognizes the mentoring work faculty of color so often contribute as part of their workload.

“When we talk about Black Lives Matter at School, it’s beyond wearing a shirt,” says UTLA’s Myart-Cruz. “It’s beyond having a Zoom background. … This is the moment to radically change and shift the narrative. It’s right for us to do. And it’s just for us to do.”

[Virginia Myers]