Students of Color Fighting for Equity and Opportunity Stand on Shoulders of Giants

Written on 29 March 2015, 03:27pm under Homegrown

“The customer is always right” is a basic tenet in business but not in education. While teachers and administrators and policymakers and taxpayers engage in rhetorical wrestling matches, public education continues to ignore and operate counter to the needs and wants of its true customers: students. Listening to your customers is how you build and grow and succeed over time. And when you show disregard for customers, there’s often a price to be paid.

A look at history reveals a long and honorable tradition in education of students of color feeling a certain kind of way about being marginalized and disenfranchised by their public schools, and flexing their consumer muscles.

In 1964, Black and Puerto Rican students boycotted New York City public schools to protest segregation. Bayard Rustin, fresh from orchestrating the 1963 March on Washington, brought his consummate organizing skills to the campaign. Hundreds of thousands of students and their supporters participated in the walkout to oppose the city’s pattern of de facto segregation.

A year earlier Black students in Chicago staged a one-day walkout to desegregate the public schools and call attention to overcrowded and under-resourced schools attended by Black children. In what’s been hailed as “one of the largest and most overlooked civil rights actions of the 1960’s” more than 200,000 students – about half of Chicago Public Schools enrollment in 1963 – stayed out of school. This was an unprecedented student protest, with “customers” taking to the streets to voice their frustrations.

More than 50 years later, these mass actions for educational justice hold lessons for current students. Many have been inspired by these 1960s demonstrations. Their activism embodies the spirit and strength of those who fought for educational equity during an earlier civil rights movement. This is powerfully on display in Montgomery County, Maryland.

With the search for our next superintendent in full swing, Black and Hispanic teens put forth their list of priorities for the new hire. In bold and honest detail they shared stories of being viewed as “academically inferior,” being steered to community college as white students are guided to pursue four-year higher education, and feeling isolated, stigmatized and unwelcome in the learning community.

This comes on the heels of a successful rally last spring where hundreds of students from the countywide Minority Scholars Program raised awareness and called for accountability in closing Montgomery County’s large “achievement gap” between Black and Hispanic students and their white and Asian peers.

And not to be overlooked, as One Montgomery’s blog post noted, “Speakers during the rally made repeated comparisons to other youth movements in history, from the East Los Angeles Walkouts in 1968 to the 1976 Soweto uprising in South Africa.”

Youth voices – the customers – need to be heard and respected.

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