One of the most haunting images coming out of the Civil Rights Movement shows school-age children being catapulted into brick walls by the Birmingham Fire Department with hoses powerful enough to rip the skin off of those sprayed. At nine-years-old my mother, along with her sisters, became one of those photographed children.
Every year when Black History Month rolls around I think about my mother and her personal sacrifices in pursuit of unadulterated freedom during the Civil Rights Movement. So naturally, whenever I hear Teach For America, the organization I work for, refer to itself as a “movement” to solve the “Civil Rights issue” of our time it gives me tremendous pause.
I don’t think we’re ready to call ourselves a Civil Rights Movement and here’s why:
The Civil Right Movement was majority-led by the oppressed group. While I’ll never dismiss the power of having white allies, I believe until our organization truly reflects all the communities we serve we should dare not compare. At times there are encouraging signs. Recently when a local New Orleanian aggressively asked one of my Caucasian corps members why he was teaching, he responded:
“Ma’am, I’m working so that in less than 5 years I’ll be out of a job. My students should have my job. They should have my principal’s job. Our superintendent’s job!”
My eyes almost welled with tears. I wondered what would it be like if everyone in our organization thought like this? Would more people join without ulterior motives? Would our teachers teach to transgress (as a practice of freedom)? Would all our staff members and alums do everything in their power to ensure that the communities and children we serve are the ones occupying the seats of education leadership across this country? While as an institution I believe we are working to “know better, do better” we are simply not there yet.
At any point during the Civil Right Movement you could ask folks from age nine to thirty what were they fighting for and they would say “Freedom”! If you asked when they wanted it they would respond, “Now”! While the how may have varied, the what was always the same. The mission was centered. Now, try asking 10 people at Teach For America what “One Day” or “transformational” means to them. Chances are you’ll get 10 different responses. Until we are all aligned on what we’re fighting for it will be difficult to be a movement of any kind.
I often find myself in meeting after meeting about students, families, community members, and teachers, and I am always perplexed about why the folks we are planning for are not in the room. Who are we to plan anything without the input of the folks we serve? While our efforts may be well-intentioned, this supports the notion that we are working on and not with communities. Now imagine a church, basement, classroom, or living room full of the people being served sharing their input about how the fate of their community should be handled. This is what the Civil Rights Movement was all about. We cannot continue to have conversations devoid of the people impacted by our decisions. When we master this concept we will be well on our way.
As an organization we are a lot of things for better or worse, but a “Civil Rights Movement” is not one of them. Not yet. If we’re serious about becoming one we have to have some honest conversation about what the most successful movements in communities of color are made of.
This Black History Month I am proclaiming that, in my opinion, our organization is not the Civil Rights Movement of our time. But we are working little by little, region by region, to live up to the dream of those whose shoulders we stand upon: Bayard Rustin, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Soror Barbara Jordan, Rev. John T. Porter, Billie Holiday, Fannie Lou Hamer, Lois E. Germany, Huey P. Newton and countless, countless others.
Let’s get to work building a narrative with the people we serve that we are just as proud of—that has the potential to change the world.