By Tracy Castro-Gill, educator at Rainier Beach High School
The culmination of a year’s worth of work was celebrated tonight at Cleveland High School where students, artists, activists, parents, educators, and community members gathered to shout, “Black Lives Matter!” And while the mood was certainly celebratory, the message to be ready to continue the fight was front and center. One of the night’s MC’s, Jerrell Davis, artist, activist, and educator, set the tone early when he said Black lives will matter when it’s happening, “not on a policy level, but on a real level; on a heart level.” Jerrell’s co-MC was Momma Nikki, and together, they led the audience through a host of speakers and performers, all centered around the themes of the week, the three national demands, and two Seattle-specific demands.
Donte Felder shared the stage with Jesse Hagopian to elaborate on the origins of this historic movement and week of action. It all started when John Muir Elementary School received bomb threats because an educator, DeShawn Jackson, wanted to affirm the lives of his Black students. After the district cancelled his event, in which educators in the building planned to wear shirts that said Black Lives Matter, educators from across the district rallied around DeShawn and the John Muir Community to organize a Black Lives Matter at School district-wide event. Thousands of educators, students, and community members showed up in their shirts, provided resources and support, and brought the message into the classroom through lessons, stories, and art.
Donte pointed out, however, that this work is more than a t-shirt; it’s curriculum and stories. It’s a week, as one parent shared with Donte, “that we are not going back from.” Jesse highlighted the groundbreaking nature of this week. Never in history has a group of educators, in the form of labor organizations, collaborated on a national level to bring racial justice directly to the students. This week, thousands of students across the country learned lessons and shared stories about Black lives, Black stories, and Black history, but the success isn’t measured in the numbers. Jesse reminded us that the success can only be measured by the narratives that Black students create from this action.
The need to continue the fight, and the importance of student narratives was made clear by the members of the NAACP Anti-Racist Youth Coalition when Aneesa Roidad proclaimed that the Coalition is, “here to change the abysmal racial disparities,” in Seattle Public Schools. Skala Leake reminded us that, “This happens right here in Seattle where we pride ourselves in being progressive.” The students of the group spoke to the three national demands: Restorative Justice, Black History/Ethnic Studies, and Hire More Black Teachers.
Of zero tolerance policies, Alli Shinn said, “Harsh punishments view people as problems, and diminish stories.” Later in the evening, these sentiments were reiterated by a senior, named Maryym, from Rainier Beach High School, where they have received grants and assistance from government agencies to fund a full time Restorative Justice facilitator. “The more we learned about healing circles, the healthier our school became. Our suspension rate has fallen by 40%, because we now know how to handle conflict.”
Laila Mohamud demanded mandatory ethnic studies, because, “The true history of this land does not begin and end with Columbus. I demand that I be taught that my life matters!” Makhari Dysart argued, however, that those two things won’t be enough if there’s not more diverse representation in the teaching force. Makhari described her school experience as a place where, “I only had white people who were considered ‘normal,’ which meant I was not. You need to put teachers in places that look like us; that we can aspire to.”
The Center for Race and Equity, which helped sponsor the evening’s rally, was represented by Marquita Prinzing who spoke to the need to fully fund our schools, one of SEE’s local demands. Marquita spoke about her own experience teaching at Dearborn Park Elementary School, where, in her most recent year of teaching, she had to ask her students’ families to supply the most basic of materials, like copy paper, and lined paper for students. Through her work, Marquita says she’s been privileged to get out of her classroom, and work with amazing educator leaders that have been doing the hard work of racial equity, but those educators had been siloed until the Center came to be. The fact that educators are doing the work on their own initiative, and mostly independent of district efforts tells her that even if schools are fully funded, “We don’t have the lens to apply it.” Racial equity needs to be the focus of fully funding schools.
The rally rounded out the evening emphasizing the role that labor organizing and solidarity played in creating the National Black Lives Matter week of action. Maru Mora Villalpando, an immigration rights activist recently targeted by ICE, called for the dismantling of the government agency saying, “What they don’t’ know is we don’t care [that we’re being targeted]. We’re not afraid, and they’re afraid of that!” Edwin Lindo of the Seattle Peoples Party compared ICE to slave catchers. “Undocumented” is what they used to call runaway slaves, he reminded. “We’re all fighting for this idea of citizenship. We all want our full rights.”
Jesse Hagopian’s father, Gerald Lenoir, spoke to the globalization of not only the African Diaspora, but of white supremacy. He said, “When we talk about Black Lives Matter, we have to have a global perspective,” because of the global exploitation of resources by the United States and other Western nations that cause wars and forced migration. Kshama Sawant echoed the voices of previous speakers as she took the stage saying, “I’m honored to be here as a socialist, activist, woman of color, immigrant from India, and rank and file educator.” She recounted the moments of solidarity since Trump’s election: shutting down Seatac Airport after Trump’s bigoted Muslim ban; the Block the Bunker movement led by Black youth; the new Black Power movement that includes this week of action; the powerful resistance of Native American sisters and brothers at Standing Rock; and the #MeToo movement for womxns right to live free from sexual assault and harassment. She pointed back to history when these interests have previously intersected in moments of solidarity. The next step, she claims is for the workers to unite in the struggles “rooted together in capitalism.” “Our fight,” she says, “needs solidarity, courage, and determination.”