In early August, Rethinking Schools managing editor Ari Bloomekatz sat down (over Zoom) for a roundtable interview and discussion with four organizers and national steering committee members of the Black Lives Matter at School movement. At the “table” were Awo Okaikor Aryee-Price, Kyna Collins, Jesse Hagopian, and Christopher R. Rogers.
Aryee-Price is a mother, partner, anti-racist organizer, and former classroom teacher in New Jersey who also organizes through the MapSO Freedom School and with Parents Unified for Local School Education (PULSE).
Collins is an activist, high school English teacher, and member of the United Teachers Los Angeles Racial Justice Task Force. She is also co-chair of the Black Lives Matter at School curriculum committee.
Hagopian is a high school ethnic studies and English language arts teacher in Seattle, an editor for Rethinking Schools, and co-editor of the books Teaching for Black Lives and Black Lives Matter at Schools: An Uprising for Educational Justice.
Rogers, who is from Chester, Pennsylvania, is the program director at the Paul Robeson House & Museum and is a doctoral student in reading/writing/literacy at Univ. of Pennsylvania. He is also co-chair of the Black Lives Matter at School curriculum committee and is known fondly by some as the “People’s Librarian.”
The discussion lasted about 90 minutes and the following excerpts have been edited for length and clarity. For those who are new to the Black Lives Matter at School movement, we urge you to learn more at blacklivesmatteratschool.com.
Ari Bloomekatz: Okaikor, I’m wondering if you could take this one first. I’m curious how you have been thinking about and organizing around Black Lives Matter at School in the wake of the rebellion and uprising after George Floyd’s murder?
Awo Okaikor Aryee-Price: My organizing naturally is just Black lives matter at school. But I have been doing a lot more organizing work, or supporting organizing work, in the community that I am currently living in, as well as two of the communities that I grew up in — Newark and Maplewood-South Orange. I am finding myself in three places right now all at once — being pulled in whether it’s with youth or other educators. In the community where I live — maybe 75 percent white, 8 or so percent Black, and another 8 or so Latinx — there’s been an awakening of the youth — white, Black, Brown — who are pushing their parents, going beyond their parents, saying: “We are just going to go, we’re going to bust through the door and we don’t give a whatever and we’re just going to do it.”
I help support some of the organizing with the youth, help provide some guidance around the curriculum demands they are pushing for within their districts. When I saw their demands — they came to me after they had developed their demands — I asked, “Were y’all at Black Lives Matter at School’s website?” And they were! I was so amazed. I kept sending them a bunch of other resources, supporting marches and rallies, going to board meetings with them, and then looking over curriculum so that they can help highlight some of the areas they are needing to change. I also sent them a training on how to file OPRA requests, which is the Open Public Records Act that we have here in New Jersey. These youth took it and ran with it. One of the districts told them that they are not getting any Black applicants or applicants of color, so they OPRA’ed the applications and the racial makeup of the applicants. The district teacher makeup is 98 percent white and they found out 70 percent of the applicants were white and 30 percent were people of color, but they were not hiring people of color.
Jesse Hagopian: Okaikor, you tell a great story that is really a deeper, larger story of this entire rebellion, which I think is that it certainly exploded after the horrific murder of George Floyd, but because of the long years and years of organizing of Black Lives Matter activists, Black Lives Matter at School activists, people went into the streets with ideas and demands that were a lot higher than they would have been otherwise, and I think that has been such an important part about the story of this rebellion. It can look like a spontaneous explosion if you are not aware of the many years of organizing that happened beforehand. And because of that organizing, police were kicked out of schools in district after district starting with Minneapolis, and then you know on and on across the country — Seattle, Oakland, Denver, and that is one of the demands of Black Lives Matter at School, fund counselors not cops. And so seeing your students come to you with demands and they had some of them off of the BLM at School website really warms my heart, like all those years of organizing paid off in that moment.
Ari Bloomekatz: Can we talk about the history of the demands? How were they created and where did they come from?
Christopher R. Rogers: In the spring of 2017 here in Philadelphia, we rolled out three core demands. That was ending zero-tolerance policies and really a focus on disproportionate discipline. Second, it was mandating ethnic studies and Black history. There’s a long history of Black struggle in Philadelphia that was able to get an African American history requirement. And the third demand was around hiring and retaining Black educators and expanding the conversation to not just think about new recruiting strategies, which are important for Black teachers, but also the ways in which Black teachers are being pushed out, particularly in places like New Orleans post-Katrina. There’s a huge moment where that happens, but also the rise of charter schools and the effects of defunding, or the ways HBCU teaching colleges have been limited. It’s also about how we restore the pipeline of Black educators and transform the conditions of the workplace to make it a nurturing place for Black educators and Black students. Those were the first three demands.
As we had our first national planning calls, Dignity in Schools, Racial Justice NOW! and Zakiya Sankara-Jabar really laid out how important it was to also add the “fund counselors not cops” demand.
It’s important to know that these demands are a compilation, a way of pulling on the threads that were already being built by organizing, whether it’s Dignity in Schools, whether it’s the Center for Black Educator Development, whether it’s the Black Teacher Project, or the Ethnic Studies Now coalition out in California. A lot of these demands are not held by Black Lives Matter at School, but they are promoted by them. We are trying to do that coalition work — lifting up how these demands interact.
Jesse Hagopian: It is amazing to see how people have been working on these before BLM at School even started, and then how people have taken ours and put them together with other local demands. Here in Seattle we recently had a Black Education Now rally where youth came together with educators and families and put forward 10 demands. They had our four demands, but then they also had local demands around ending the youth jail there and replacing it with a youth achievement center that would have holistic housing and wraparound services, and also a demand around community schools, and a demand around getting real estate and actual school buildings for community centers for Black education.
Kyna Collins: I think that is really the beauty of the whole movement: We are starting to see this coalition work come together, as Chris said. In LA we have a group, Students Deserve, who are fighting for community schools, fighting to end random searches, which was a big win in LA. Currently we are fighting to end the use of pepper spray and so bringing in those community demands and hearing directly from the students.
Going back to the first question about organizing around Black Lives Matter at School in the wake of the rebellion, I think all of us on this call have been organizing, we have been woke. But this awakening for the public — all of a sudden there has been the spotlight for some people who have been able to take the time for reflection and to start thinking critically. It is great for us as organizers that people are starting, but we have to continue the work and we have to continue to be inspired by the streets, and we have to continue to talk to the students and do that organizing work. It all ties together.
Christopher R. Rogers: One of the things that we see in terms of this coalition work is it’s also about pushing. We have a relationship with teacher unions. Students Deserve was there during the LA teachers strike and bringing up and pushing the teachers to think about “How can this moment be useful to make Black lives matter at school?” It’s tension there and it’s supposed to be, because these are the institutions and conditions that determine a community’s life.
In this moment there’s a lot of [larger groups] like the AFT that are starting to think about the role of teacher strikes and bargaining for the common good. Or the NEA, who wants to stand on certain principles. And it’s important as we document this history to lift up the ways in which the community has shaped those fights and those struggles and not to let these bigger face institutions try to claim them as victories, but rather that they’re being pushed by these grassroots community organizations — even us.
Awo Okaikor Aryee-Price: Even us. I was just about to say that because I think even around the police-free schools — we actually got called [out] on Twitter. Maria Fernandez (with the Advancement Project, campaign strategist for #PoliceFreeSchools) was like “Y’all talking about Black Lives Matter at School, but what are y’all doing in terms of police-free schools?” Because that has been one of the multiple ways in which anti-Black suffering has permeated throughout our schooling system and in the ways policing has its tentacles in it. And I remember when that happened, I was like “Ooh, wow, ouch that hurt,” but yes that’s very true, we need to be uplifting this hashtag and we need to be lifting up these narratives and these stories. Part of why we see such harm happening in schools is because of the policing in their communities and the ways it filters into our schooling. And I think we have done a pretty good job in terms of saying, “We want to be accountable to people and other organizers,” and not just be like “We are the be-all and end-all.”
Ari Bloomekatz: How are you thinking about Black Lives Matter at School as part of the resistance to the attempts to unsafely open schools this fall?
Kyna Collins: I think referring back to the teacher strike [in Los Angeles in January 2019], people were able to see their collective power in that movement. But one of the things that has been powering some of this organizing work in UTLA is we developed something — that’s actually how I got into this work — called a racial justice task force, which really has been navigating these conversations. We are excited to kick off the “Year of Purpose.” We have a committee that is ready to get to work on the curriculum. We are having tough conversations with our own members about defunding the police and getting police out of our schools.
So thinking about returning to school, and the conditions, we are having these conversations: What is safe for our kids? What is safe for our Black students? Are charter co-locations safe? And who does that affect the most? And so a lot of people have been vocal about having these conversations and identifying the systemic issues in our schools, in our district, and in everything that we do.
Christopher R. Rogers: What I love about Philadelphia education organizing is that this is not a single-issue sort of thing. We have to be mindful of what protections there are for Black workers trying to keep their families housed, trying to access necessary supports and food to keep things going. And sometimes, schools play a role within that. I think it is important, particularly for Black Lives Matter at School community and people who ascribe to that work, it’s not just about sticking to the principles you may see on our website, but about having an authentic and serious relationship with Black-led organizing that’s going on in your city, and being responsive to that. Whether it’s in the classroom, whether it’s at the parent town hall, or whether it’s in the school board meeting — figuring out ways to be accountable to those visions and demands.
Ari Bloomekatz: In previous conversations, some of you mentioned Charlene Carruthers, bell hooks, and the Combahee River Collective as helping shape the intellectual and strategic frameworks that you bring to this movement work. Can you talk about how those frameworks affect your organizing? And can Black lives matter at school under capitalism?
Christopher R. Rogers: No. (Everyone laughs.) If you look at the Combahee River Collective statement, it talks about how “inextricably intertwined” — I think is the phrasing they used — these issues are. That’s one point in terms of following and informing our framework — a Black, feminist, Marxist legacy. So, no, Black lives cannot matter at school under capitalism, but that is the ground on which we are organizing today.
We cannot transform economic conditions in this country as if this country is not a global empire built on finding somebody to exploit across the world. We also have to think about education in that way, how many people try to take the failed ideas that are happening in this country around education and export them to other places.
In terms of a Black, queer, feminist framework — and I really look to Okaikor as someone who has brought the resources to the table in terms of what we need to do around these issues — how are we uplifting Black leadership? Everyone needs to read Vanessa Siddle Walker’s book (The Lost Education of Horace Tate: Uncovering the Hidden Heroes Who Fought for Justice in Schools). It talks about the history of Black educators and their fight to change education throughout the South. We know that Black educators were there from the beginnings of public education. So how are we extending that legacy? Extending our relationship to Black-led organizing in our communities? And thinking about having Black leadership and Black voices and Black families be central to our analysis?
Awo Okaikor Aryee-Price: Black Lives Matter at School is the vehicle toward liberation, it is not the end goal. Right now this is a temporary thing that we are using to help people come to a place of transformation and push toward liberation. So no, it cannot happen within capitalism, it’s the thing we are using right now to get us toward disrupting and dismantling the system.
Jesse Hagopian: When you look at the Combahee River Collective statement, you get the core of a lot of what organizers in Black Lives Matter at School believe when you see an intersectional approach to understanding Blackness. There is not one singular Black experience that we are fighting for; there are overlapping oppressions and privileges that mitigate the Black experience. We want to liberate all Black people and by extension all people. An animating politics for our movement is a Black, queer, feminist framework that makes sure the most marginalized are brought to the center. When we fight and can liberate them, then all of us have the potential to be liberated.
Ari Bloomekatz: Black Lives Matter at School went from a day, to a Week of Action, and now it’s a Year of Purpose. What are the strategies for the Year of Purpose? How can teachers participate in the movement? What should people expect from the movement this year?
Kyna Collins: Obviously, the Week of Action has been extremely successful around the different demands, different areas to teach in for each day of the week. And we have motivated educators who are connecting together now and saying “Let’s make this bigger.” And if you look at a lot of the board resolutions that have been passed, it says explicitly that this is not just about a week, this is all the time. So we are expanding that now to have this Year of Purpose — and giving educators the tools to have these conversations constantly. I think the really beautiful thing about this curriculum is that we cover everything from PK to college, early ed to adult ed. We have outlined dates for each month where educators can have topics that they can teach to. Something that I want to focus on this year with the curriculum: It’s not just the content, it’s how teachers deliver the content. It’s as much about the teacher having those reflective questions for themselves as it is for what we deliver with our students. An important part of this work is that it’s also about Black joy, being unapologetically Black. That happens all the time and it happens all the time for us as Black educators. We are giving people that curriculum so that they can do it more often.
Jesse Hagopian: Can Okaikor or Chris talk about the reflection questions for the Year of Purpose?
Awo Okaikor Aryee-Price: Chris and I, and Maria Fernandez, who is now with the Advancement Project, came up with the reflection questions as part of the work that we were doing to help create the Black Lives Matter at School feature in the plan book by Education for Liberation. Instead of just having a checklist of “OK, this is what you need to do in order to make Black lives matter at school,” we said that there needs to be some reflection: Before you enter this Year of Purpose, how are you reflecting on your practice — pedagogical practice and your own personal practices? We need to go back to being principled, we need to go back to being reflective, we need to be going back to looking at ourselves. And also looking at the institutions, because we make up institutions — they’re not just racist by themselves, we are like the wheels on the bus that keep it going. What is it that we are doing that are the wheels on the bus? And what are we doing right now that can go to flatten it and then create another vehicle? That’s what our reflection questions are. How can we make Black lives matter at school, in our practice, in our communities, with our students? We took from some of those different areas and put them into our Year of Purpose.
Christopher R. Rogers: Folks at Rethinking Schools probably know that there are people who want to lift up their Rethinking Schools subscription, or post an article and say “Hey, look at me, I am an anti-racist educator” or “I am doing the work.” And it’s not a matter of consumption, but a matter of praxis, a matter of ongoing reflection and action, and having these systems for accountability and building accountability in circles around how you do your work. In this moment where we are seeing anti-racist bestsellers, it’s important that folks understand it is not about buying the book or owning the book or the consumption of the work, but really a challenge to say this is praxis.
Ari Bloomekatz: Okaikor, from our previous conversation it sounded like one of the main challenges with Black Lives Matter at School and the work that you all are doing is the potential dilution of the message. I’m wondering how you are preparing for that.
Awo Okaikor Aryee-Price: Yeah, I’m sure Carter G. Woodson did not say, “Oh, you know, Black History Week is going to be this diluted thing where we just talk about it.” I know his radical teachings and it wasn’t that. We come from a place of some radical teaching too, standing on the shoulders of folks that we have learned from history like Carter G. Woodson, and seeing what has happened with that. In many ways, that has been my fear of what could happen with this.
Christopher R. Rogers: I guess the challenge — and I think this is just a challenge for left organizing in general in the United States — is people are more drawn to curricular sorts of changes, because in some ways I can close my door of my classroom and teach what I want to teach for the kids in my classroom. And I think that’s beautiful and important, it’s a beginning, but there is a ceiling that comes in terms of the ways that we can control those internal crawl spaces versus a more radical transformation of the policies and systems that govern the conditions of the world. I think we are trying to make that connection to say this is not just a matter of community care or changing the agreements by how you do things with your students in your classroom in terms of an abolition-style framework, but it’s also a matter of undoing policies at the local and state and federal levels that create the arrangements for those conditions to take place.
In education, we always talk about the level of the school, but I think we’ve got to think harder than that. We’ve got to build coalitions that get to our community as the center of our analysis, not just thinking of the more contained, constrained spaces, because it limits our radical imagination.
Kyna Collins: The recurring theme here is that we want to be transformational in our movements, not transactional. For me, the biggest struggle with this is that unlearning, which is one reason we focus on those reflection questions. I’ve been staring at this quote from Angela Davis: “Whenever you conceptualize social justice struggles you will always defeat your own purposes if you cannot imagine the people around who are struggling as equal partners.” And I think it is so important. It’s got to be about dismantling those policies. I think it goes back to that question about capitalism — it was: Can we do this under a system of capitalism? And the truth is as a classroom teacher I want to say, “Yes, I am making Black lives matter in my classroom. I am making my community feel heard.” Are there struggles and overlays that complicate that? Absolutely, but I am doing it when I get to open my door and teach these lessons. I think the challenges of making sure this is integrated social justice and keeping that energy up for abolition and dismantling those policies, I think that’s the biggest struggle.
Ari Bloomekatz: I was wondering if you each might talk about where you find joy right now in your work, and in this work in particular.
Jesse Hagopian: I love the question because it connects with what Bettina Love writes about in We Want to Do More than Survive. That Black joy is what we want to create in our educational spaces, not grit or zest — these other buzz words that dehumanize our Black children, saying that the problem is they are not tough enough, rather than the problem being a system designed to dehumanize them, to push them into prisons, to integrate them into a dramatically unequal society. And so rebuilding our classrooms, our schools, our broader society in terms of Black joy, is one of the fundamental tasks that we have. And I derive that joy through collective action. There’s nothing that raises my spirits more than coming together with my community and knowing that we have a common purpose.
Awo Okaikor Aryee-Price: My dad is from Ghana, my mom is African American. They’re both different in terms of cultures but also similar in many ways, too. Oppression is death, but at a Black funeral there’s always joy. It’s a celebration, too. Even in the midst of death, even in the midst of mourning. I am seeing the oppression that we are working and organizing against and pushing back against is death, but even in that, just like we are going to a funeral, we find some joy. In Ghana, truly it’s like a big party — everyone’s partying, got the music, got the food, it’s everything. And even at home here, it’s like we’re partying, we are enjoying each other, we are loving each other, it’s joy. It’s almost like what we are going through right now is the moment, but we can actually see that there is something on the horizon. We are not quite able to touch it and feel it yet, but it is there. It’s otherworldly. So we are, in this moment, able to celebrate that other world even though we are not able to touch it right now. We know it is there: It’s just a matter of getting to that place, and everything we do, every step we take as we chip away at this death, at this oppression, we are getting closer to that new world, to that universe, to that new galaxy. And that’s where I am finding my joy, it’s tied to who we are as Black people.
Christopher R. Rogers: I’m going to talk about this place. [Editor’s note: This interview happened over Zoom and Chris’ custom background is of the Paul Robeson House & Museum in Philadelphia.] It’s a twin Victorian house located at the corner of 50th and Walnut in Philadelphia. It was his sister’s house, Marian Forsythe. Paul Robeson spent the last 10 years of his life here after his life partner Eslanda Goode Robeson passed away in 1965. It was founded by Frances Aulston who was a Black, disabled, community librarian in the mid-’80s — founded the West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance and was able to do some fundraising and get a loan on this property in 1994. I show up in about 2015. I worked with Vernoca Michael, who is the executive director now, to pay this place off, and we paid off the mortgage in January. So we own this building outright. We do a lot of fundraising, we do a lot of programming, and in the midst of the pandemic we have gone virtual. We are talking about Black communist legacies, we are making connections between the historical movements of the past and what’s happening today. This is my passion space, the place that I go to do some work, as Okaikor would say, my “people’s librarian” work. You can find us @RobesonHousePHL on Twitter and Paul Robeson House Events on Facebook. It’s a Black organization that has a deep relationship to Black arts and cultural organizations throughout Philadelphia. I feel like part of my responsibility and where I find joy is maintaining and sustaining these long-running Black institutions that have been crucial to leveraging Black radical possibility through moments such as this one.
Kyna Collins: I think the connectedness and building the relationships with people across this country who have this same heart and soul that I do in wanting to do this work. The unlearning and the learning — I think a big part of this work is really looking at your identity and the histories of your identity, and for me, growing up in predominantly white neighborhoods even though I am in California and it’s supposed to be progressive and this and that, being able to dive into my own history and identity brings me joy. So today, we have a session with UTLA, it’s a brave space where we confront these things, where we talk about systems of oppression and how we play a role in it. So participating in that learning brings me joy. I know that sounds a bit ironic, but I am on a lifelong journey to continue learning with my students. That brings me joy.
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