ARTICLE

Chauvin Was Found Guilty. Now What?

This open letter reminds educators that accountability isn’t justice—and that justice requires an ongoing commitment to anti-racism from all of us.

Dear Educators,

It’s been one week since Derek Chauvin, the officer who brutally murdered George Floyd in broad daylight, was found guilty of all three charges against him.

You and your students, colleagues or staff are likely still experiencing a flood of emotions. Some of you may be feeling relieved or hopeful, while others might still be feeling the continual exhaustion that comes as a result of ongoing violence, vitriol and hate.

It has been a hard year—and perhaps this verdict makes some educators feel that our nation has finally arrived at a point where justice is being actualized. But I urge educators to be cautious about how we define justice, noting specifically that this verdict is a measure of accountability.

For some, the verdict may symbolize a victory that suggests it is OK to stop working to create and cultivate spaces of liberation. But this is dangerous, and we must remain committed to the work of freedom in schools.

I urge all educators, everywhere, not to use this verdict as a reason to relent. This verdict does not mean that now we should stop.

Now is still a time to prioritize the wellness of your students. This is especially true for Black students, who are more than likely exhausted, frustrated, traumatized or perhaps even numb.

Now is still a time to get clear on what curriculum violence is, to ensure that you are handling matters of race and racism without further traumatizing your students.

Now is not the time to play or replay any of the videos circulating that capture the murders of Black people at the hands of white police officers. Nor is it ever OK to expose or re-expose students to this violence within the learning space.

Now is the time to continue the work and the commitments to racial equity, social justice and abolitionist teaching that you may have begun nearly a year ago.

Let us be quick to remember the explosive calls to enact measures rooted in anti-racism and equity and slow to resort to places that would cause us to pause. Now is the time to ensure that your measures are not performative, that you are not addressing matters of race, racism or systemic oppression only when they are media headlines.

Now is a time to honor and balance the reality that, as our nation and the world awaited the verdict in Minnesota, many were grieving the death of Daunte Wright, a young Black man killed by police just outside Minneapolis. Now is the time to honor those mourning a 16-year-old Black girl, Ma’Khia Bryant, who was shot four times and killed by a police officer in Columbus, Ohio, hours before the verdict was read.

Now is the time to get clear on what we mean by “justice.” While many believe that the verdict in the Chauvin trial is an example of justice being served, it is important to recognize and teach students that justice—true justice—would mean George Floyd being alive.

Now is the time to double down, to ensure that your anti-racism and equity work are foundational to the work that you are doing as an educator or an educational leader. It’s time to remember, as I wrote in “What Anti-racism Really Means for Educators,” that our work must begin internally and extend to our learning spaces or classrooms.

Here are some ways to do that.

Continue to do your internal work as an educator. 

There is no way around this. All educators must continue to confront, examine and re-examine their beliefs, practices, biases and philosophies, particularly if they teach or lead Black children. You have to study what it means and requires to be an anti-racist educator. And you must commit to doing this work for the long haul. You must examine your stance on what it means to be a teacher or educator and be clear that educators either perpetuate oppression or work to dismantle it. There is no in-between. You have to get clear on the educator’s role within the work of liberation.

Teach an accurate history of the United States.

A part of the work right now should also be teaching how our country has arrived here. You must be vigilant and cautious about how you define victory, as the recent deaths of Black people at the hands of police point to long, enduring historical truths rooted in systemic oppression. Educators should be thinking about how to use curricula as weapons to fight injustice. They can help students think critically and deeply about the world we live in, rather than teaching the same old stories and lies that perpetuate ideas of white supremacy and sustain other forms of social injustice, including anti-Blackness, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia and anti-Asian hate.

Teach toward activism, and teach with care. 

The two do not have to be mutually exclusive. A part of liberatory education is balancing activism with teaching and caring for students. In fact, true liberation requires both. Your students, especially your Black students, are likely emotionally and mentally exhausted—rightfully so.

It is your job, therefore, to teach the whole truth. Balance teaching the hard history with teaching how Black people and BIPOC communities have always resisted oppression. Begin with teaching the beauty of the cultures that have built this country, and do not stop there. Be mindful of how you sequence your units, particularly when teaching history, so that children are not falsely taught that white people have been the saviors. Teach the stories of activists, those both living and those who have transitioned, so that students know that there is a path forward.

The belief that students cannot do anything and the idea that they are doomed by a past that haunts the present have long been tools of the oppressor. Teach the resistance and encourage students to find a lane that makes sense to them, even if that lane is caring radically for themselves and tapping into their joy.

Finally, allow space, hold space and prioritize the importance of your students’ need to breathe, to reflect, to ask questions should they desire to. Normalize and prioritize students’ self-care. Pause lessons when needed. Pivot when needed, but do not give up. Black educators, I stand with you. Take this time to set boundaries, to say no, to take breaks and to do whatever it is that you need to feel and be well. Our children cannot thrive if you are unwell.

Educators are integral to the work of liberation always, but particularly now. While it is OK to note that positive changes are taking place within our society, we must be clear that this work—our work of ensuring that our schools are places that promote justice, truth-telling, liberation and joy—is truly just beginning. Let us remain vigilant. Let us remain steadfast.

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Our work has evolved in the last 30 years, from reducing prejudice to tackling systemic injustice. So we’ve chosen a new name that better reflects that evolution: Learning for Justice.

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