In Our Hands

By The Editors of Rethinking Schools

Illustrator: Allison Fletcher Acosta

Students in Washington, D.C., walk out to protest Trump election, November 2016.

In the introduction to her new anthology, The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race, Jesmyn Ward quotes James Baldwin: “Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise. If we . . . do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.”

Baldwin was writing in 1963, the year before Mississippi Freedom Summer, but today his words provide sustenance—and a warning. Like so many others, we’ve been struggling to overcome our shock and fear over the election results and everything that’s happened since. We find hope in the fact that we aren’t a “handful,” we are a multitude; only about 25 percent of eligible voters voted for Trump. But what resonates most for us in Baldwin’s quote is the call to gather together and act. As educators, we have to plan: How do we educate all our students to be critical thinkers and engaged, responsible participants in the difficult times ahead? How do we protect our most vulnerable children and their families? How do we protect public education?

Responding to the Impact on Our Students

In a November survey of teachers, counselors, and administrators conducted by Teaching Tolerance, more than 2,500 educators described “specific incidents of bigotry and harassment that can be directly traced to election rhetoric.” These included white girls waving the Confederate flag at an assembly, Latina/o children told they will be deported, “Kill the n—–s” scrawled in a school bathroom, hijabs being ripped off Muslim girls’ heads, and boys grabbing girls’ crotches in Trump’s name. The children who are being targeted are traumatized. Many Muslim and immigrant students experience this as a painful reminder of the violence they escaped in their home countries and a threat of its repetition.

One bright sign is that schools with meaningful restorative justice programs seem to be faring best. For example, at Richmond Cal Prep in Richmond, California, students called teachers at home to ask for help organizing and participating in a walkout planned by students from five different local high schools. Teachers and administrators responded with a teach-in the next day that included workshops on “know your rights,” building a political platform and creating demands, political art, and the history of walkouts. A teacher and administrator accompanied interested students to a demonstration in downtown Richmond. Parents thanked the school for creating a safe context for their children to participate as activists.

It’s tempting to try to quash bullying with rules and more campus police, but administrative and authoritarian responses won’t do. These are children and they are our students. Our responsibility to them and to the future is to teach them what it means to be part of a loving community, part of a democracy. We need community meetings, talking circles, journaling, visiting artists. There has never been more need for alternatives to punitive discipline.

And, as we’ve said before, you can’t create safe schools without teaching historical and political content. From kindergarten on, we need curriculum about immigration, Black history, Native American history, Mexican history, Arab studies and Muslim history, climate change, and—perhaps we should have said this first—media literacy.

And don’t forget women’s and queer studies. Before Trump won the election, we planned to write this editorial on the impact of the campaign’s misogyny. The election results necessitated a broader view, but we remain appalled by the hatred and disrespect for girls and women exposed and intensified by this rise of the right wing. More than ever, there is a clear urgency to teaching the history of queer and women’s struggles for liberation, including reproductive justice, freedom from violence, and economic equality.

For years now, scripted corporate curricula and test prep have pushed social justice out of far too many classrooms. But we can’t let that happen anymore. The stakes are too high. Our students need the understanding and skills to protect themselves, their communities, and their futures.

Sanctuary Schools and Communities

One of the immediate threats from the Trump presidency is his campaign promise to deport millions of undocumented immigrants. A million young people who participated in Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and their families are particularly at risk because all their information is now on file at Homeland Security. But teachers and immigration activists report that many more immigrant children and their families are also terrified about what’s coming next. Can schools provide sanctuary?

As Alex Kotlowitz explained in a recent New Yorker article, the most significant sanctuary movement in the United States since the Underground Railroad was led by the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona, which provided sanctuary for immigrants escaping from U.S.-sponsored wars in Central America in the 1980s. Over 10 years, the church harbored 13,000 refugees; they were joined by 500 other congregations across the country. John Fife, Southside’s pastor during the sanctuary years, told Kotlowitz, “We had no middle ground between collaboration and resistance.”

Universities are discussing how they can protect DACA students on their campuses. K-12 schools and districts need to discuss how far we, too, are willing to go to protect the children we serve. At the least, we need to ensure that our schools never ask for documentation that might put immigrant parents at risk—for example, Social Security numbers on reduced-fee lunch forms. But we hope, and can already see, that many schools will do more. Educators and families in schools around the country are setting up emergency response phone networks. Many school boards have responded like the one in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which recently passed a resolution stating that the district won’t share information about students and their families with federal immigration authorities, and it will instruct staff to refuse to cooperate with immigration enforcement officials in any action against students. California Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León has proposed a bill that would prohibit state and local law enforcement, including school police and security departments, from using their resources for immigration enforcement. It would also create “safe zones” at public schools, hospitals, and courthouses, where immigration enforcement would be banned, and require state agencies to update their confidentiality policies so that immigration status would not be shared for enforcement purposes.

More than 500 cities in the United States are currently sanctuary cities. Specifics vary from city to city, but sanctuary status signifies some level of noncollaboration between local police and federal immigration officials. Trump has promised to cut federal funds to sanctuary cities his first day in office; in many of those cities, including San Francisco and Chicago, mayors have vowed to stand firm. In current sanctuary cities, we need to support and pressure mayors to uphold sanctuary status at whatever cost; in cities that aren’t sanctuaries now, we need to fight for sanctuary status to be declared.

Looking Forward

In the weeks after the election, tens of thousands of students protested in city after city. They are fighting for their future; our fight is to nurture and protect them—and, when appropriate, to join them.

As the country has polarized around issues of race, gender, economics, and environmentalism in the past few years, extraordinary leadership from people and organizations of color has emerged. Standing Rock provides one beacon, the work and platform of the Black Lives Movement another. The movement to defend public education, and to make it a force for compassion and justice, fits squarely in that context.

We have no choice. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote recently:

Now is the time to counter lies with facts, repeatedly and unflaggingly, while also proclaiming the greater truths: of our equal humanity, of decency, of compassion. Every precious ideal must be reiterated, every obvious argument made, because an ugly idea left unchallenged begins to turn the color of normal. It does not have to be like this.