How One Elementary School Sparked A Citywide Movement to Make Black Students’ Lives Matter
Illustrator: Sharon Chang
It was the morning of September 16, 2016, and a conscious party of resistance, courage, and community uplift was happening on the sidewalk in front of John Muir Elementary in Seattle. Dozens of Black men were lined up from the street to the school doorway, giving high-fives and praise to all the students who entered as part of a locally organized event called “Black Men Uniting to Change the Narrative.” African American drummers pounded defiant rhythms. Students smiled and laughed as they made their way to the entrance. And teachers and parents milled about in #BlackLivesMatter T-shirts, developed and worn in solidarity with the movement to make Black lives matter at John Muir Elementary.
You never would have known that, just hours before, the school was closed and emptied as bomb-sniffing dogs scoured the building looking for explosives.
That September morning was the culmination of a combination of purposeful conversations among John Muir administration and staff, activism, and media attention. John Muir Elementary sits in Seattle’s Rainier Valley, and its student population reflects the community: 68 percent of Muir’s roughly 400 students qualify for free or reduced lunch, 33 percent are officially designated transition bilingual, 10 percent are Hispanic, 11 percent are Asian American, 11 percent identify as multiracial, and almost 50 percent are African American — mostly a mix of East African immigrants and families from this historically Black neighborhood.
By that autumn, John Muir Elementary had been actively working on issues of race equity, with special attention to Black students, for months. The previous year, Muir’s staff began a deliberate process of examining privilege and the politics of race. With the support of both the school and the PTA, Ruby Bridges — who as a child famously desegregated the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans in 1960 — had also visited Muir as part of a longer discussion of racism in education among staff and students. During end-of-the-summer professional development, with the support of administration and in the aftermath of the police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, school staff read and discussed an article on #BlackLivesMatter and renewed their commitment to working for racial justice at Muir.
As part of these efforts, an African American male student support worker, DeShawn Jackson, organized the “Black Men Uniting to Change the Narrative” event for that September morning, and in solidarity, school staff decided to wear T-shirts that read “Black Lives Matter/We Stand Together/John Muir Elementary,” designed by the school’s art teacher.
A local TV station reported on the teachers wearing #BlackLivesMatter T-shirts, and as the story went public, political tensions exploded. Soon the white supremacist, hate group-fueled news source Breitbart picked up the story, and the right-wing police support group Blue Lives Matter publicly denounced the effort. Hateful emails and phone calls began to flood the John Muir administration and the Seattle School Board, and then the horrifying happened: Someone made a bomb threat against the school. Even though the threat was deemed not very credible by authorities, Seattle Schools officially canceled the “Black Men Uniting to Change the Narrative” event at Muir out of extreme caution.
All of this is what made that September morning all the more powerful. The bomb-sniffing dogs found nothing and school was kept open that day. The drummers drummed and the crowd cheered every child coming through the doors of John Muir Elementary. Everyone was there in celebration, loudly proclaiming that, yes, despite the racist and right-wing attacks, despite the official cancellation, and despite the bomb threat, the community of John Muir Elementary would not be cowed by hate and fear. Black men showed up to change the narrative around education and race. School staff wore their #BlackLivesMatter T-shirts and devoted the day’s teaching to issues of racial justice: all bravely and proudly celebrating their power. In the process, this single South Seattle elementary galvanized a growing citywide movement to make Black lives matter in Seattle schools.
For more like this, check out the book Teaching for Black Lives.
Organizing Across the District
Inspired by that bold action, members of the Social Equality Educators (SEE), a rank-and-file organization of union educators, invited a few John Muir staff to a meeting to offer support and learn more about their efforts. The Muir educators’ story explaining how and why they organized for Black lives moved everyone in attendance, and the SEE members began discussing taking the action citywide.
Everyone agreed that there were potential pitfalls of doing a citywide Black students’ lives matter event. The John Muir teachers had a race and equity team and dedicated professional development time from the previous year to discuss institutional racism, and they had collectively come to the decision as an entire school to support the action and wear the shirts. What would it mean at a different school if some teachers wore the shirts and taught anti-racist lessons, and others didn’t? What if only a few dozen teachers across Seattle wore the shirts — would that send the wrong message? What if other schools received threats? What if those threats materialized?
These and other considerations fueled an important discussion and debate among SEE members, and highlighted the need to educate our communities about why this action was urgently needed. However, with the videos of police killing Philando Castile and Alton Sterling fresh in the minds of SEE members, the group decided that to not publicly declare that Black lives matter would be a message in and of itself.
And it wasn’t just about the police murder of Black people that motivated SEE to organize action across the school system. It was also because of the institutional racism infecting the Seattle Public Schools. Seattle has an alarming pattern of segregation both between and within schools, with intensely tracked advanced classes overwhelmingly populated with white students. Moreover, the Department of Education’s 2013 investigation found that Seattle Schools suspended Black students at about four times the rate of white students for the same infractions.
SEE members decided that on October 19, 2016, they would all wear Black Lives Matter shirts to school and voted to create a second T-shirt design that included “#SayHerName.” The African American Policy Forum created this hashtag in the wake of Sandra Bland’s death while in the custody of Waller County, Texas, police, to raise awareness about police violence against women, to raise awareness about police violence against Black women, and to raise awareness about police violence particularly against Black queer women and Black transgender women.
As part of this action, SEE also developed a three-point policy proposal that would serve as an ongoing campaign to support Black Lives Matter in schools and aid in the struggle against institutional racism:
- Support ethnic studies in all schools.
- Replace zero-tolerance discipline with restorative justice practices.
- De-track classes within the schools to undo the racial segregation that is reinforced by tracking.
In addition, SEE voted to bring a resolution to the Seattle Education Association (SEA), the union representing Seattle’s educators, to publicly declare support for the action of the John Muir teachers and community, and to call on all teachers across the district to actively support the October 19 action.
At the September SEA Representative Assembly, SEE member Sarah Arvey, a white special education teacher, brought forward the following resolution:
Whereas the SEA promotes equity and supports anti-racist work in our schools; and,
Whereas we want to act in solidarity with our members and the community at John Muir who received threats based on their decision to wear Black Lives
Matter T-shirts as part of an event with “Black Men United to Change the Narrative”; and,
Whereas the SEA and SPS promote Race and Equity teams to address institutionalized racism in our schools and offer a space for dialogue among school
Therefore be it resolved that the SEA Representative Assembly endorse and participate in an action wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts on Wednesday, October 19, 2016, with the intent of showing solidarity, promoting anti-racist practices in our schools, and creating dialogue in our schools and communities.
SEE members expected a difficult debate at the SEA Representative Assembly, and many didn’t think the resolution would pass. But they underestimated the impact of the ongoing protests against police brutality and racism that were sweeping school campuses. Inspired by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the Garfield High School football team captured headlines around the city and nation when every single player and coach took a knee during the national anthem — and maintained that action for the entire season. The protest spread to the girls’ volleyball team, the marching band, the cheerleaders, and many other high school sports teams across Seattle. When it came time for the SEA vote, the resolution to support Black Lives Matter at School day passed unanimously.
As word got out about the SEA Representative Assembly vote, and in reaction to the threats against John Muir Elementary earlier in the month, allies also began to step forward in support of making Black Students’ Lives Matter. The Seattle NAACP quickly endorsed the event and lent its support. Soup for Teachers, a local parent organizing group formed to support the 2015 SEA strike, as well as the executive board of the Seattle Council Parent Teacher Student Association, also endorsed the action and joined in solidarity.
SEE helped gather representatives from these organizations for an Oct. 12 press conference to explain why parents, educators, and racial justice advocates united to declare Black lives matter at school. Predictably, news outlets repeatedly asked teachers if they thought they were politicizing the classroom by wearing BLM shirts to school. NAACP education chair Rita Green responded directly, “We’re here to support families. We’re here to support students. When Black lives matter, all lives matter.”
Sarah Arvey, of SEE, told reporters, “It’s important for us to know the history of racial justice and racial injustice in our country and in our world . . . in order for us to address it. When we’re silent, we close off dialogue and we close the opportunity to learn and grow from each other.” Other teachers pointed out that students were having discussions all the time in the halls, during sports practice, and outside of school about racism, police violence, and the Black Lives Matter movement. A better question to ask, teachers asserted, would be “Is school going to be relevant to the issues that our students are discussing every day?”
In an effort to build greater solidarity for Seattle educators taking part in the Black Lives Matter at School day, one of us — Wayne — organized a national letter for professors to sign on to in an effort to build support for the action. After only a few days, close to 250 professors, many of them well-recognized scholars in educational research locally and nationally, had signed on. Another letter of support was signed by luminaries such as dissident scholar Noam Chomsky, former MSNBC anchor Melissa Harris-Perry, 1968 bronze medalist and activist John Carlos, Black Lives Matter co-founder Opal Tometi, noted education author Jonathan Kozol, and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas.
As support for Seattle’s Black Lives Matter at School action swelled, in a move that surprised many, the Seattle School District’s administration, with no formal provocation from activists or the school board, officially endorsed the event. An October 8 memo read:
During our #CloseTheGaps kick-off week, Seattle Education Association is promoting October 19 as a day of solidarity to bring focus to racial equity and affirming the lives of our students — specifically our students of color.
In support of this focus, members are choosing to wear Black Lives Matter T-shirts, stickers, or other symbols of their commitment to students in a coordinated effort. SEA is leading this effort and working to promote transformational conversations with staff, families, and students on this issue.
We invite you to join us in our commitment to eliminate opportunity gaps and accelerate learning for each and every student.
At that point, we in Seattle felt that we had accomplished something historic, because for perhaps the first time in Seattle’s history, the teachers and the teachers’ union, the parents and the PTSA, students and the Seattle School District administration had all reached a consensus support for a very politicized action for racial justice in education.
As the October 19 Black Lives Matter at School day approached, orders for the various Black Lives Matter T-shirts soared. John Muir set up a site where T-shirt purchases would directly benefit the school’s racial justice work. SEE’s online T-shirt site received some 2,000 orders for the BLM shirts, with proceeds going to support racial justice campaigns and a portion going to John Muir. Other schools created their own T-shirt designs specific to their schools. The Seattle schools were now poised for unprecedented mass action for racial justice.
Black Lives Matter at School Day
As October 19 arrived, Garfield High School senior Bailey Adams was in disbelief. She told Seattle’s KING 5 News, “There was a moment of like, is this really going to happen? Are teachers actually going to wear these shirts? All of my years I’ve been in school, this has never been talked about. Teachers have never said anything where they’re going to back their students of color.”
But sure enough, every school across the city had educators come to school wearing the shirts. Hundreds of teachers took advantage of the day to teach lessons and lead discussions about institutional racism. SEE and Soup for Teachers partnered to make a handout called “Teaching and Mentoring for Racial Justice” that suggested BLM resources for both teachers and parents. The SEA also emailed suggested resources to teachers.
Some schools changed their reader boards to declare “Black Lives Matter.” Parents at some elementary schools set up tables by the front entrance with books and resources to help other parents talk to their kids about racism. Many schools coordinated plans for teaching about Black lives, including lessons about movements for racial justice and lessons about the way racism impacts the school system today. Several teachers across the district showed the film Stay Woke
about the origins of the Black Lives Matter movement, and held class discussions afterward. Some educators used the opportunity to discuss intersectional identities and highlighted how Black and queer women had first launched the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag.
Schools such as Chief Sealth International High School and Garfield High School put up Black Lives Matter posters/graffiti walls, which quickly filled up with anti-racist commentary from students and educators. A teacher at Dearborn Park International Elementary built a lesson plan from a photo of Colin Kaepernick kneeling. To capture the power of the day, educators from most of the schools around the district took group photos wearing the BLM shirts and sent them to the union for publication.
During lunchtime, the Garfield faculty, staff, and students rallied on the front steps of the school. In one of the most moving and powerful moments of the day, Black special education teacher Janet Du Bois decided she finally had to tell everyone a secret she had been quietly suffering with. In front of all the assembled school community and media she revealed that the police had murdered her son several years ago — and this had happened after he had been failed by the education system and pushed out of school. Fighting through tears, Du Bois said, “When our kids are failed, they have to go to alternative places and end up with their lives hanging in the balance because someone does not care.”
To cap off the extraordinary and powerful day, SEE organized a community celebration, forum, and talent showcase that evening that drew hundreds of people. The event was emceed by educator, organizer, poet, attorney, and soon-to-be Seattle mayoral candidate Nikkita Oliver. Spoken word poets, musicians, and the Northwest Tap Connection (made up of predominantly Black youth performers) delighted and inspired the audience. Black youth activists from middle schools and high schools engaged in an onstage discussion about their experience of racism in school and what changes they wanted to see to make the education system truly value their lives. Seahawks Pro Bowl defensive end Michael Bennett came to the event and pledged his support of the movement, saying, “Some people believe the change has to come from the government, but I believe it has to be organic and come from the bottom.”
By the end of the day, thousands of educators had reached tens of thousands of Seattle students and parents with a message of support for Black students and opposition to anti-Black racism — with local and national media projecting the message much further. While the educators who launched this movement were quite aware that the institutions of racism remained intact, they also knew those same institutions had been shaken.
In many ways we had a successful campaign around making Black lives matter in Seattle schools, and, from an organizing perspective, we learned several important lessons. To begin, we learned that one school can make a big difference: A single elementary school bravely took a stand that provided a spark for an already simmering citywide movement, and influenced national discussions as educators in Philadelphia, Rochester, New York, and elsewhere followed suit with similar educationally based #BlackLivesMatter actions.
We also learned that acting in the context of a broader social movement was critical. The police killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling in the summer of 2016, as part of the long-standing pattern of Black death at the hands of police, ensured that there were ongoing protests and conversations associated with #BlackLivesMatter. This broader movement created the political space and helped garner support for the actions of both John Muir Elementary specifically, and Seattle Public Schools more generally.
In addition, we learned that sometimes when the white supremacists, “alt-right,” and right-wing conservatives attack, it can make our organizing stronger and more powerful. In the case of Seattle, it was the avalanche of hateful emails and calls, the right-wing media stories, and the bomb threat against John Muir Elementary that ultimately galvanized teachers and parents across the city.
We also learned that developing a broad base of support was essential to the success of the campaign to make Black student lives matter in Seattle Schools. Garnering the official support of the teachers union, the executive board of the Seattle Council PTSA, and even the Seattle Public Schools, as well as gathering acts of solidarity from scholars and others nationally, helped build a protective web of political support to shield Seattle educators as they moved forward with their action.
In the end, we also learned that, with more time and resources, we could have done better organizing. For instance, we had to grapple with the fact that when the John Muir Elementary staff made the decision to wear their #BlackLivesMatter T-shirts, it was after being a part of sustained discussion and professional development that took place over multiple years. Ideally, all schools should have had the opportunity to have similar discussions as part of their typical professional development so that, when a moment like this happens, all school staff have stronger basic understandings of racial justice to guide their decision-making.
Another improvement would have been to be able to offer a clearer vision of curriculum across the district for the Black Lives Matter at School day. Despite the strength of the “Teaching and Mentoring for Racial Justice” resource handout developed by SEE and Soup for Teachers, the quality and depth of what children at different schools learned on the day of the districtwide event varied wildly from school to school. With just a little more time and resources, we could have provided teachers with a cluster of grade-level appropriate teaching activities that they could have used on that day if they wanted. In particular this is something that might have helped teachers around the district who wanted to support the action but struggled with ways to explicitly make Black lives matter in their own classroom curriculum.
It wasn’t until the end of the school year that we learned two more lessons. The first was that, despite widespread community support for the making Black Lives Matter in School day, the passive-aggressive racism of some of Seattle’s notoriously liberal, white parents had been lurking all along. In a June 2017 story, local news radio station KUOW reported on a series of emails from white parents who live in the more affluent north end of Seattle. According to the story, white parents complained not just about the perceived militancy and politics of the Black Lives Matter in School day in Seattle, but that children couldn’t handle talking about racism, and that we should be colorblind because “all lives matter.” Importantly, many of these parents openly questioned the existence of racial inequality in Seattle’s schools.
The second lesson we learned well after the Black Lives Matter in School day was that our action helped strengthen the political groundwork for a continued focus on racial justice in Seattle Schools. On July 5, 2017, the Seattle School Board unanimously passed a resolution in support of ethnic studies in Seattle Schools in response to a yearlong campaign from the NAACP, SEE, and other social justice groups, including formal endorsement from the Seattle Education Association. While this policy shift happened on the strength of the community organizing for ethnic studies specifically, Seattle’s movement to make Black Lives Matter in School demonstrated to the district that there was significant public support for racial justice initiatives in Seattle schools, effectively increasing the official space for other initiatives like ethnic studies to take hold.
Putting the Shirts Back On
The school year ended with a horrific reminder of why we must continue to declare the value of Black lives when on Sunday, June 18, 2017, Seattle police shot and killed Charleena Lyles, a pregnant mother of four, in her own apartment after she called them in fear her home was being burglarized. She was shot down in a hail of bullets in front of three of her kids, two of whom attended public elementary schools in Seattle. The immediate media narrative of her death dehumanized her by focusing on the fact that the police alleged Charleena was wielding a kitchen knife, that she had a history of mental illness, and a criminal background. This was the usual strategy of killing the person and then assassinating their character in an attempt to turn public opinion in support of the police.
But in Seattle, there were the countervailing forces of Charleena’s organized family, community activists, and Seattle educators who forced a different public discussion about the value of Black lives and the callous disregard of them by unaccountable police. SEE and the SEA immediately put out a call for teachers to put their Black Lives Matter shirts back on — many of which also featured #SayHerName — for a school districtwide action in solidarity with Charleena and her family on June 20. Within three days of Charleena’s death, hundreds of teachers came to school wearing heartbreak, rage, and solidarity in the form of their Black Lives Matter T-shirts — with shirt sales this time going to Charleena’s family.
A couple hundred educators swelled the ranks of the after-school rally that day with Charleena’s family and hundreds of other supporters at the apartment complex where she had been killed. With educators from her son’s schools and all across the district rallying to Charleena’s side, the press was compelled to run stories talking about her as woman, as a parent of Seattle schoolchildren, and as a person with talents and struggles like everyone else.
Seattle’s “Black Lives Matter at School” day is only a beginning. Having nearly 3,000 teachers wear T-shirts to school one day doesn’t magically end anti-Black racism or white supremacy. If that were the case, then perhaps Charleena Lyles would still be alive today to drop her kids off at school, chat with other parents on the playground, and watch the children play.
But something powerful and important did happen in Seattle. At John Muir Elementary, the school staff and community stood strong against white supremacist hate, and across Seattle Schools, teachers and parents found a way to stand in solidarity with Black students and their families. In the process, the public dialogue about institutionalized racism in Seattle Schools was pushed forward in concrete ways. And while we have so much more work to do, in the end, what happened in Seattle showed that educators have an important role to play in the movement for Black lives. When they rise up across the country to join this movement — both inside the school and outside on the streets — institutions of racism can be challenged in the search for solidarity, healing, and justice.