The Aurora Institute stands with communities of color, especially Black communities, as we all grapple with the systemic racism and the unthinkable traumas playing out on the national stage today. While the heartbreaking death of George Floyd and the protests have arrested our attention, and perhaps only momentarily, we know that Black and Brown communities contend with these injustices on a daily basis.
As a national nonprofit dedicated to systemic change in education – as a means to ensure future success for all learners – we believe silence is as much a betrayal of American democracy as the immoral killings we’ve witnessed. Racial terror cannot be accepted as normal.
For nearly 20 years, we’ve worked to shed light on the deep inequities embedded in K-12 education, which give way to the inequities knitted into the fabric of our society. Our work has been to unearth solutions and challenge school systems to move from a system that ranks, sorts, and preserves marginalization to a future-focused system of teaching and learning that leaves no one out.
This is a collective call for action, and a deeply personal one. I received this plea in an email from a young, brilliant member of our team:
I find that I turn on the television every day and I see that my sisters, aunts, brothers, uncles, nieces, and nephews are being deliberately harmed on many fronts. If it’s not the murder of Black people by police forces across the country (see Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and “here I hold space for those names that I do not know”) or the disproportionate death of my community by the pandemic, it’s the harassment and deliberate harm of blatant racism for doing simple tasks like working out at a company gym or walking in a public park.
And then to see contrasting images of aggressive armed white protesters visiting state capitals to demand that states reopen in the midst of a global pandemic and being met with nothing but calm stares, and images of Black protesters taking to the streets against state-sanctioned violence and being met with tear gas and rubber bullets – my heart breaks but then anger boils inside of me.
It may seem inappropriate to have this conversation in the work of K-12 education but the hard truth is that this affects our work. Racism affects the children that we serve (the young girl who recorded George Floyd’s murder was only 17; imagine, as a child, watching someone die right in front of you, where you are only an arm’s reach away but there is nothing you can do about it). Racism affects the communities that we serve (we have done extensive technical assistance in Kentucky, Minnesota, New York, etc.). Racism affects the field partners that we work with (all of the partners that we work with make claim that equity is a core tenet of the work they do, this is indeed an equity issue). Racism affects the staff members at Aurora. Racism directly affects the lives of everyone, whether recognized or not.
In this time I think of one of the most poignant pieces of writing I have ever read, Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. This passage below stands out in this moment for me:
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
An education system that lives and breathes in the air of these injustices, whose hallowed walls provide the experiences forming the dominant frames of thinking and being for generations past and generations to come, must actively examine the purpose, the culture and systemic racism and inequity that prevail. Are we valuing all of our youth as the assets they are? Are we endowing each and every one of them to be active participants in our democracy? Are we creating learning environments that build agency, develop our youth, and set them up to thrive?
Unless we disrupt the institutional and societal racism so clearly in front of us and fight it in all of its forms, we perpetuate it. Do we continue to change the bloody gauze or stop the trauma causing the bleeding?
We are not separate from the communities we serve. Imagine the mix of fear and anger that our young learners are taking into their learning environments when they see these events unfold, and when they see Black death, or the summoning of Black death, replay in one corner of the country or another without challenge or change. Whether we like to admit it or not, our schools are a pillar of the structures that give way to these events, and that’s where our field’s collective work comes in.
Nick Donohue, the Chair of the Board of Directors for the Aurora Institute said, “The tepid official responses to these crimes are sobering reminders of the world we live in, the challenges we face and the importance of our work moving forward. What we can do is to be less complicit, less silent, more outraged and more active in our efforts to live up to our espoused values and commitments and to challenge these heinous acts and the unchecked acceptance of this brutality.”
Our culture, economy, and public systems: government, public health, housing, justice, and education are in a foggy convergence. Yet, the inequities are stark and clear, laid bare by the current context. Together, we must call out the root issues embedded deeply and invisibly in policies, as well as in our hearts and minds. We must mobilize to stop them from being exacerbated by inequitable funding formulas for education, communities, tax policy, health policies, housing policies, and telecommunications.
The opportunity before us is to re-examine our social contracts that cast a nearly uniformly deficit-based frame on our most vulnerable populations. We can rethink education as a means to serve all students for a better, healthier and more prosperous future for us all – a new social contract – designed for human thriving, excellence, freedom, and dignity.
President & CEO, Aurora Institute