Rochester, NY: “Black Lives Matter at School”

In this district, students, educators, support staff, administrators and community partners are coming together to affirm that black lives matter.

“Black lives matter at school.”

This affirming—and crucial—statement marks the agenda for today, February 17, 2017, in Rochester City School District. Students, educators, support staff, administrators and community partners are coming together to observe “Black Lives Matter at School: A Day of Understanding and Affirmation.”

In a letter to families and students, Rochester City School District explains the event’s purpose: “This day was created to affirm the lives of black children, who represent the majority of students we serve, and to promote understanding that will strengthen our community. Racial equity will not happen unless people are willing to talk about race, and this day is one important step in that process.”

That understanding—the need for schools to affirm black students and move toward racial equity, in part, through dialogue around race—was central to the efforts to establish “Black Lives Matter at School” in the district. In November 2016, a small group of teachers, administrators, parents and community organizers, including local Black Lives Matter activists, formed a committee. Their objective: to create a day of action for educational communities to “grappl[e] with the past, present and future status of [b]ack lives in our nation” and to “affirm that [b]lack lives matter in all of our lives.”

One member of the organizing committee is Chris Widmaier, a high school educator and a 2016 recipient of the Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching. Widmaier says the day’s programming is a response to a couple of different incidents.

“One, our entire boys' varsity soccer team [at World of Inquiry School #58] took a knee at a soccer game during the national anthem,” he says, “and [that] sparked a conversation within our school and in the news and in the community about that action.” Widmaier addressed the protest as a teachable moment with his students; yet he saw the need for a larger, district-wide response.

A few weeks later, on the other side of the country, schools and educators across Seattle Public Schools took steps to understand and affirm that black lives matter, garnering national news coverage. Widmaier says, “I had a couple of different parents and teachers and people that I … talk[ed] to about all of this, and it led to us saying, ‘Let's put together a meeting. Let's sit down, and let's see what can do about it.’

With its first meeting on the schedule, the newly formed committee got to work, seeking to address racial inequity in education systematically. Widmaier says, “We agreed, from the very beginning, Black Lives Matter is about self-determination. It's about black voices being out front. We knew that it was a tricky line … because we're trying to educate and help students that are black find a voice and find leadership. That's empowering rather than coopting.”

For Widmaier, who is white, the organizing committee itself provided a sustained space to engage in dialogue around race and racism, and to be critically conscious about what advocating for Black Lives Matter looks like in a district where, as of the 2015-16 school year, 59.3 percent of students are black and 75.5 percent of the teaching corps is white.

Early on, the committee drafted an organizing document with the key objective of establishing a district-wide day to affirm the value of black lives and the concerns driving the organizing agenda of the Black Lives Matter movement. This document, in turn, helped articulate the committee’s objective publically and helped engage community members. Widmaier says, “It's been a really open table and we really maintain this attitude of, ‘Anybody who wants to come to the table and participate, or just try to understand what we're doing better, is welcome to come and be a part of our organizing committee meetings.’”

The committee studied up on how to present a resolution to the Rochester Teachers Association (RTA), and then presented a resolution before the RTA’s Representative Assembly. This resolution states, “[S]chools should be places for the practice of equity, for the building of understanding, and for the active engagement of all in creating pathways to freedom and justice for all people.” It passed unanimously, with the RTA endorsing and encouraging district teachers to participate in a “day of understanding” that affirms that black lives matter at school.

Next, the Rochester Board of Education voted to adopt a similar resolution, making “Black Lives Matter at School” an official initiative of the district. Then, the Association of Supervisors and Administrators of Rochester passed a similar resolution. The district developed an instructional resource toolkit, communicated with staff and families, and offered professional development resources. At one of the professional development sessions offered, led by Widmaier, local Black Lives Matter activists spoke with teachers, followed by a group viewing and discussion of the Teaching Tolerance webinar Let’s Talk! Discussing Black Lives Matter With Students.

Today—the actual day of the event—the affirmation, dialogue, reflection and learning continues. Although participation among staff is voluntary, it’s expected that many classroom teachers and support staff will implement lessons or hold guided conversations around topics like race and Black Lives Matter. Some schools have organized book groups for teachers, with such titles as The New Jim Crow and For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood ... and the Rest of Y'all Too, that either kick off or culminate today. There’s also a district-wide art contest, “What Does Black Lives Matter Mean to You?” for students in grades 7-12, which some teachers are using as their main activity. And the organizing committee and district leadership have encouraged staff to wear visible affirmations, such as t-shirts, pins and buttons, to their workplaces.

Widmaier sees “Black Lives Matter at School” as a catalyst to build energy and momentum to affirm that black lives matter in Rochester—and everywhere else. “Versus some sort of mandatory racism training that we're pushing everybody to do one workshop,” he says, “this is more about people thinking about their own mindset, examining their own biases and taking action, working together to correct things we notice need to be corrected.”

Lindberg is a writer and associate editor for Teaching Tolerance.