President of American Federation of Teachers

Michael Brown was about to do what we hope all kids who want to can do: go to college. But his life was cut short. While we don’t know the whole narrative, one thing is clear: A young, unarmed Black man was shot six times by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo. Now his family grieves. To make matters worse, peaceful protestors were met with militarized force, reporters were arrested and children were tear-gassed.

The Ferguson community is torn, and our nation is trying to comprehend why this happened. Why is there a different response to young Black men than to young white men? Why are the legitimate protests of this discrepancy—protests that shine a light on the disparate treatment of young men based on race—met with violence?

As school begins, teachers are searching for ways to make sure their rooms are safe and welcoming for every child. They’re searching for ways to bring communities back together. In Ferguson last month, as the community was battered and the opening of school was delayed, teachers stepped up. Roughly 150 area teachers came out to the streets, collecting tear gas canisters, trash, water bottles and broken glass. They went into neighborhoods, handing out food and school supplies and offering to tutor Ferguson students who were eager to start school.

As teachers kick off yet another school year, many of the communities in which they serve are plagued by social immobility, economic inequality and segregation. In America’s public schools, one in two children is poor. Meanwhile, three-fourths of African-American students attend schools where a majority of the students live in poverty.

Teachers help feed kids who come to school hungry so they can learn. They search the school’s closets and their own to find winter coats for kids who can’t afford them. They lend an ear to kids who start their day with more stress and adversity than most adults could bear. They comfort their students when a friend or family member is killed.

Teachers are the first responders to poverty and inequity for our kids, and that is why teachers are so often among the loudest voices pushing to end injustice. They understand that a high-quality public education is the best way to fight the systemic struggles in our communities.

Brown’s death has stirred the consciences of teachers across the country, who spend every day helping students dream their dreams and achieve them. Teachers find themselves asking which one of their students will have their dreams cut short. They struggle with how to combat the effects of both income inequality and racism, which are still ever-present in our society. Regrettably, 51 years after the Civil Rights Act and more than 150 years after slavery was outlawed, we are still trying to answer the same kinds of questions.

How do we recruit and retain a more diverse teacher workforce? How do we ensure school safety without resorting to zero-tolerance discipline policies that disproportionately affect young men of color? How do we help students find hope in the midst of the poverty and violence they confront daily?

The events unfolding in Ferguson are exposing exactly what excessive polarization and imbalances of power are doing to our society: unraveling even the most basic dignity and respect, the simplest dreams and ambitions. So often, teachers are the glue that holds communities together. In the aftermath of this tragedy, teachers want that bond to be stronger than ever.

We must come together and act, which starts with both healing and respecting peaceful protest, but it can’t end there. We must look at the institutional barriers—the policies in our schools, our states and our nation that rig the game and perpetuate injustice. We must look at the cultural and socioeconomic barriers—the attitudes, prejudices and privileges that prevent wholeness. Ultimately, we must overcome polarization and divisiveness, and we must tackle challenges such as poverty and racism head-on, because every child deserves to grow up in a safe, welcoming community, and every family deserves a fair shot at climbing the ladder of opportunity and achieving the American dream.