As Black History Month began, Abington Friends School started our participation in the Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action. In schools across the country, educators taught lessons about the 13 principles of the Black Lives Matter Global Network and about intersectional Black identities and contributions to history. Lower School Music Teacher Keisha Hutchins Hirtlinger brought the notion of the school becoming involved in the week of action to colleagues and in each division, lessons and activities were planned throughout the week. Keisha and Middle School Teacher CJ Miller shared their personal stories and thoughts on the importance and impact of bringing these lessons into the classroom at AFS. On Thursday, February 6, Director of Diversity and Inclusion, Mikael Yisrael led a presentation and dialogue for students, faculty and staff entitled “Black Minds Matter” which explored how black minds have unique needs in an educational setting.
You’ve created lessons and activities based on the principles put forth by the national BLM movement. How did you select what to focus on and how were these messages shaped to be most impactful to Lower School and Middle School students?
Keisha: In the Lower School, we met over the course of several months in our Diversity Committee meetings to look at the principles put forth by the movement for this national week of recognition. As a community, we looked at the incredible amount of resources including age-appropriate messaging, lesson plans, events, etc. to help guide our thinking.
For some classes, they chose to follow the daily schedule that lifts up a different principle each day. Others of us focused on one principle we would lift up in our classes for the week. In Lower School, this will actually last longer than a week because of the age of our students and in the case of the Resource teachers, the frequency with which we see our students.
With our youngest students, we are focusing on the idea of fairness and what it means to be fair and inclusive. How we can be more fair to others and affirm the voices of others. While BLM was a response that came out of violence against Black and Brown bodies at the hands of police officers and other injustices inflicted on Black people, this is not the focus for Lower School. Rather, our focus is to look at what it means to be fair and to lift up how we can change unfair treatment of others and be “upstanders” and resistors. We want to leave our students with the feeling that while there can be injustice in the world, we can DO something about it. They must know that there is hope— we ARE the hope—by recognizing that all people matter and their voices are important. And when we see that someone is not being treated fairly, we can do something about it.
In the music room, I will be working with third grade focusing on the principle Intergenerational, Black families and villages. Students will learn about the work and teachings of Georgia Sea Isle singer, teacher and culture bearer Bessie Jones. We will learn songs, plays, games, clapping games, dances and more that were passed down to Ms. Jones from her ancestors steeped in the African-American tradition some of which have been around since the times of the enslavement of her own grandparents (who eventually saw freedom and lived to be in their 100s)! We will lift up how people can preserve their history and legacy by passing down stories, traditions and games orally through their family and how these fun games have contributed to the richness of the music classroom and music education.
CJ: I’ve listened to experiences that many students of color have made known to me. Many of their troubles seem to stem from them not feeling seen.
What do you hope this programming will bring to the AFS community? Why is it important to create this dialogue at a school like AFS?
Keisha: I hope that this programming will bring an awareness of the incredible contributions of Black people in this country across all disciplines. That Blackness–Black history–is American history. That our contributions are not relegated to a month, but that our contributions are alive and present daily in all areas of life from the sciences to the arts to politics.I also want to encourage our students to be true critical thinkers and interrogators of their learning and the stories they hear, even if those stories are coming from a trusted adult. I want them to ask themselves “whose story is this? Are they telling it? If not, who is and what might that mean for how the story is told? Whose voice/voices are missing?”
At AFS, we pride ourselves on being trailblazers in the work of social justice, inclusivity and equity. If we are to truly embrace this as our mission, we have to challenge ourselves to look honestly and critically at the ways we can dismantle inequity and elevate those who would be ignored or marginalized. It is my hope that this recognition will inspire us to then look at other communities and areas of inequity and ask ourselves, what am I going to do about interrupting and dismantling inequity in my school, community, friendships, family, etc.? What I have come to learn is that those steps do not have to be huge, loud and mighty. It is the small steps that can have an incredible impact. Speaking truth to power even in the smallest of ways is still speaking that truth and interrupting inequality.
CJ: I hope the dialogue that comes from Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action helps to highlight the fact that the standard of accepted and valued knowledge stems from Eurocentric culture and ideals, therefore any challenge to that system should not be viewed as a negative but a positive for all. AFS values community, so it is important for us to examine how people of color are included and viewed within the community. We must ask ourselves if we want people of color to conform to the norms of the community and how we as whole can allow all people to be themselves without the fear of being excluded.
How does the Quaker foundation and mission at AFS connect with the BLM movement?
Keisha: This year, we are focusing on the Quaker testimony of “Collective Purpose.” I cannot think of a better time to demonstrate our strength as a community than in raising awareness and lifting up the voices of the Black community both here at AFS and across the nation. If we are to work collectively towards a better world, then we must be committed to working collectively for and on the part of all voices, all lives, with a relentless commitment to social justice, no matter who it is “for.” The truth is, when Black lives matter, humanity matters. As it has been said before, none of us are free until all of us are free. We cannot say, “All Lives Matter” until ALL LIVES MATTER, including Black lives.
CJ: AFS once served as a part of the Underground Railroad. This is a great source of pride for the school and for many Quaker Meetings. The Quakers of the past took a stance to show they believed Black lives matter but they often did so in secret as that was how the Underground Railroad operated. I feel it is long overdue for communities like ours, and anyone in a position of privilege, to voice their support of social justice loudly and as an example to other schools and communities as to how human beings should be respected and treated. I believe AFS has the ability to put human rights before all else.
Talk about your personal story. Why is it important to YOU to have a platform to bring issues of injustice, racism, inhumanity, and repression to the forefront?
Keisha: As a Black teacher in the building, it is important for me to lift up these topics because it affects me and children who look like me directly. It is also important for me to lift this up so that students who do not identify as Black know that there is injustice in the world and that they, along with their Black friends, can CHANGE this narrative—this harsh reality. I want them to know that there are kids and adults all over the country, and over the course of time, who have made a difference in dismantling oppressive systems.
I went to a PWI (predominantly white institution) for my entire life. I was often the “only” or one of just a few in my classes. I remember feeling embarrassed and confused and lost when it came to understanding my own history and place in the world. There wasn’t consistent affirmation of my own Blackness nor Blackness in general around me save a few teachers and within my own family. So, when it came time to lift up accomplishments and anything that had to do with Blackness, I was uncomfortable because there was nothing that really came before or after that that affirmed that this aspect of myself—my Blackness—was particularly worthy, good, or something to be proud of. As with most of our education in schools, Blackness was relegated to celebrating a selected few from the “way past” or rested in an oppressive, deficit narrative that made me feel small and not lifted up at all. When you don’t see yourself reflected ANYWHERE in your learning, save a few novels that your teachers pushed to have taught in middle and high school, with little discussion before or after about what it means, its impact for you and your White friends, it means little and you feel like, well, like you don’t really matter.
One of the demands that was put forth by this national week of recognition was that ethnic and Black studies be a part of the curriculum. That is to say, curriculum that does not center the White, Eurocentric narrative alone. I would say further that when we make everyone’s history and lived experience a part of our curriculum, then our students, Black students and others, we demonstrate to our students that Black Lives, and there in ALL lives matter.
I never want my Black students nor my own children to feel this way—invisible and unseen—the way that I did at times during my own childhood. And I don’t want students who are not Black to feel uncomfortable about the legacy of Blackness and Black people because they only know about feeling sorry for them and a past they had no control over. I want all kids to feel encouraged and excited about the contributions of Black people and thereby ALL KINDS of people, centered in a place of strength, possibility and resistance.
CJ: I personally know what it’s like to have your family tree broken due to acts of racism. Through that traumatic experience, I discovered there is more danger in White people who believe Black lives matter but choose not to say so or act upon it out of fear of exclusion from friends, family, and colleagues who do not feel the same way.
Why do Black lives matter?
Keisha: Black lives matter because people matter, because all people matter, but not everyone has been held sacredly in this fact. The truth is that the mere fact that such a movement, such a catch phrase need exist is emblematic of the fact that not all kinds of lives have been held as sacred and essential. The truth is that some stories, some voices, some narratives have been quarantined, hidden or systematically erased for both the supremacy of others and to ease the consciousness of those in power. For if one were to truly believe that “all lives matter, ‘, one would have to confront the ugliness of our past and present systems that categorically marginalized, deny, or worst of all, kill those whom one has deemed unvaluable or not human. By suppressing the stories and humanity of Black people, White supremacy and White people who both embrace or do nothing to dismantle it, can feel reconcile their choice to either promote or ignore it.
Black lives matter because Black people have built this country and continue to build it. We challenge our nation to take a hard look at itself and hold us all accountable for the incredible injustices that pervade today. As long as Black Lives Matter, we cannot ignore both the legacy of White supremacy that would erase us as well as the undeniable and relentless resilience, strength and resistance of a people who have fought to be treated equally and fairly in a nation that they helped to build. As long as Black lives are lived, Black life will always matter. We cannot say “All Lives Matter” if only some of us are allowed to LIVE.
CJ: The reason Black Lives Matter as a movement is important is because “black lives matter” as a phrase has been an oxymoron to much of America for the last 400 years. That fact that a statement about human life can be seen as controversial due to the color of one’s skin is all the proof anyone should need to realize a movement toward equality is mandatory in order for all people to achieve true freedom.