As a Black man and like most of Black America, I have been angry about what has transpired over the last several weeks, not only recently but for decades (dare I say 400 years). I have watched videos of Ahmaud Arbery going for a run only to have his life callously snuffed out by two white men. I witnessed Amy Cooper tell the police that she was being “harassed by an African American,” reminding Black America that as a white woman, she has more power, even when breaking the law. I read how police officers entered Breonna Taylor’s apartment in the middle of the night, killing her and arresting her boyfriend for trying to defend himself from unidentified intruders. I repeatedly watched a clip of a white police officer plant his knee on the neck of George Floyd for nearly nine minutes, eventually ending his life. And I have watched and read countless other reports of Black people being killed with no justice in sight, in the last few weeks.
I have protested, spoken at length with friends about the state of our country, and cried to my therapist. And, as the Postsecondary Access Manager for the network of Urban Assembly High Schools in New York City, I have spent much of my time thinking about our youth.
While watching the news one night, teenagers were being blamed for the “looting” that was happening throughout New York City during the protests (without any context, of course, for why looting and riots happen in the first place and what they are really a response to).
The next day, a colleague emailed a list of direct quotes from students at one of our Bronx schools.
“It makes me upset, not only with the fact that [racism is] just what’s happening now, but what’s been happening for years even before I was born. It’s just sad to see people of my complexion and background being treated as if they are nothing when that’s not the case.”
“We are now split between those who will [riot] and those who stride for peaceful encounters. Just wondering when everything is gonna burn to become a rebirth of our cities.”
As I read through nearly 50 quotes from students, most of whom are Black or Latinx, I was quickly reminded of the importance of centering the voices of our young people. We are in service to them and we will never know how to best serve them if we do not listen to what they have to say. Especially when it comes to the racism they experience both outside and inside our education system.
These student voices also reminded me that most civil rights leaders were young when they offered their lives for our freedoms. Martin Luther King Jr. led the Montgomery bus boycott when he was 26. Fred Hampton died for his belief that Black people deserved a better life when he was just 21 years of age. Centering the voice of young people matters. They have not only been targeted by police throughout our country, they are also the future leaders of our nation and they need to be valued.
This past January, I attended a student forum led by Teens Take Charge, which featured a debate with the NYC Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack and other NYC DOE leaders. These students impressively convinced their opponents and a packed auditorium at the Bayard Rustin Campus that segregated schools were alive and well in New York City. These students, reflective of the NYC demographic, are still continuing the fight for school integration (yes, in 2020), among other things like the right to live without fear as a Black or Latinx person in this country.
Black and Latinx students face great inequity in this country. Our young people encounter the police on a daily basis, including first thing in the morning when many enter their schools. For years, they have complained to educators about such, but have we given them our ear? If a young person tells me that their school feels more like a pipeline to prison than a step towards their desired postsecondary plan, then it is my job to listen and make the adequate changes. And it’s yours.
As the great Paulo Freire taught us, who best to talk about what it feels like to be oppressed than those that are oppressed? I implore educators to collaborate with students. Prioritize their seat at the table when school-based decisions are being made. And education based non-profits should create student advisory boards, as they can help guide us to an equitable education system that nourishes the minds of our young people and fully supports them.
Our young people are angry about what is happening in the world right now, and our role as educators is to listen to them.
Ayinde Bennett is the Postsecondary Access Manager at the Urban Assembly, a network of 23 themed, public schools in New York City.