Over the last few days, our country has been engaged in a very public conversation, with many having to take to the streets to protest in order to have their voices heard. The recent homicides of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery have been unacceptable acts fueled by ignorance and racism, and many have decided to no longer be silent and instead speak truth to power. The events that followed have caused us to reflect on our roles as educators regarding humanity, equity, and justice.
Pain, anger, and despair have led not just to protest, but to a heightened and unyielding demand for solutions that change the very system that allows these acts to happen. This is a historic time in our nation, one that we hope will be transformative and lead us to a better, shared future. However, transformative change is hard-earned. As educators, we have a responsibility to be on the right side of history by listening, by learning, by supporting, and by acting in ways that not only confront racist acts and individuals, but that dismantle racist policies, practices, and institutions. This is a time where we, as members of the education community of Rhode Island, need to take a stand and support our black students, their families, and our black colleagues by acknowledging their pain and frustration, saying publicly, “Enough is enough!”
I am so grateful to be here in Rhode Island. My family and I have been welcomed by the community in ways we could have never imagined. This has been an incredible year full of great moments, but also painful realizations about the magnitude of the work that lies ahead. Soon after beginning my tenure as Commissioner, we started meeting with teachers of color statewide. We heard from countless adults who had experienced racism in the workplace and felt powerless to enact change. I was devastated. As a 20-year veteran in this field, I hold exceptionally high expectations for educators and expect schools to be places where diversity of thought is encouraged.
Meritocracy is a core belief held by so many in our field. In education, we are taught to think about our field as the great equalizer. But we must confront the hard truth that our schools and our education system have contributed to the inequities in our society. As adults, we are often reluctant to acknowledge and confront the heart of an issue. We must not pass this problem on to the next generation of leaders and thinkers.
I am a woman of color married to a well-educated black man. My husband proudly served in the Army, including two tours in Iraq, to protect our nation and our values. He is an MIT, Howard, and Columbia grad and has achieved considerable career success. Still, he knows first-hand that his education does not protect him from the cruel realities of racism that impact all men of color in this country. I fear for my own son, who is black and on the spectrum. When my son is no longer viewed by the world as cute and curious, will he suddenly be perceived as a threat? This is the type of question that many mothers and fathers of color confront as we go to bed each night.
As we reflect on our education system, I urge us to consider how education disparities mirror and affect health disparities during this global pandemic. Here in our great state of Rhode Island and across the country, people of color have been disproportionately hurt by the COVID-19 virus. This pandemic has magnified what many educators already knew: Our most vulnerable are living on top of a foundation riddled with holes and missing key supports.
With deep pride, I can personally attest that when COVID-19 hit our communities, educators across Rhode Island rallied and created a new system based on distance-learning to continue education. We immediately organized and responded in a way that has made the system more equitable. We persevere as a community – and the nation has taken notice. We have shown that we are leaders during times of turmoil and despair, if we jump in and work together instead of acting as complicit bystanders. Today my community is hurting. I am hurting as a woman, a wife, a mother, and an educator. This pain is rooted in the lived reality of so many people of color in this nation. And it is that collective pain that must be the impetus for a way forward.
As Commissioner of Education, I am committed to continue to lead the change that is necessary to meet the needs of all of our students. My commitment fuels every decision I have made since I arrived in Rhode Island. We will take our efforts to a new level. To start, as an agency, RIDE is preparing to undergo internal equity work that will better position our staff to make equitable policy and implement culturally-responsive and sustaining education to help all educators create student-centered learning environments that affirm cultural identities, foster academic outcomes, and elevate marginalized voices.
Further, we will be hosting a series of conversations with students, educators, school and district leaders, and community members so we can foster change and ensure that conversation leads to action. In the long term, we will develop and implement a plan that addresses the systemic injustices in our education communities.
I ask that each of us reflect on these questions: Will we join the struggle to seek justice and equality? Will we have the courage to build a more robust educational system that addresses racism and social inequities in earnest? I ask that we commit as a community to lead with courage and compassion. This is our moral imperative. Enough is enough!