In March 2021, as high school seniors in Decatur, Georgia, we had the opportunity to imagine an ideal anti-racist school program. Learning about the City Schools of Decatur’s plans to institute a JEDI (justice, equity, diversity and inclusion) course for students, we recognized an opportunity—a necessity—to think big about anti-racist education, especially after some highly publicized instances of structural and day-to-day issues in the community. Working with Decatur High School’s Student Coalition for Equity, our community’s local Black Alliance and our district’s Equity Office, we first altered the acronym; education must be paired with practice, so we created the Justice, Action, Diversity and Equity (JADE) Program.
We’d long been advocates for social and educational justice in our community. As student leaders and members of the Beacon Hill Black Alliance, we helped remove Confederate artifacts from our city square and installed new works by artists of color under the Art for the People Project. Our activism was also part of the national fight for justice amplified by protests following the brutal 2020 murder of George Floyd.
Decatur’s school district had its own reckoning that summer. Videos of white students using racial slurs and threatening violence against community members of color were leaked during the pandemic. The district’s more privileged residents began to realize the hardships many of their neighbors endure daily. The school environment—conditioned by years of exclusionary curriculum, unfair gifted-identification practices, and other biased fundamental structures built into our education system, not particular to our district alone—had cultivated a climate of ignorance and insensitivity. Decatur had been working on combating such issues for a while through expansion of the Department of Equity, curriculum-review teams and equitable hiring practices. Yet a lot more work was needed.
While many politicians are mandating division, JADE embraces unity through engagement in open-minded, honest conversations and empathy through understanding the value of diversity.
Concrete investments in school culture had to be made, and JADE became one such initiative. Relying on building empathy and open-mindedness among students, the program seeks to help students and teachers actualize their power to advocate for justice.
JADE—envisioned as a three-year middle school program—has three main focuses: filling current curricular gaps in the Georgia standards, building communication and empathy skills across demographics, and giving students tools to be active in their communities. JADE can also support schools that cannot implement an entire program, providing a resource bank of lesson plans, pedagogies and teacher-training modules that can meet any district’s needs.
We originally intended for the program to be specifically for the City Schools of Decatur. In August 2021, we formed the Decatur Justice Coalition, a local collaborative of community advocacy organizations. And we gathered widespread support for the program—from students to school board members.
We realized JADE’s greater potential, however, in late 2021, with the state Legislature’s attack on the ability to openly discuss race in classrooms. No longer a simple curricular solution to some of our small district’s oversights, our program became an affirmative vision of anti-racism in the classroom. JADE curriculum is scalable to the environments and contexts of different school systems in Georgia. This malleable approach to the course provides educators with options in places where censorship presents risks.
While many politicians are mandating division, JADE embraces unity through engagement in open-minded, honest conversations and empathy through understanding the value of diversity. Holistic, inclusive lesson plans and safely facilitated dialogues are at the heart of the curriculum. Additionally, JADE invests in teachers as much as it does in students through its comprehensive training and protection infrastructure. We showcased teacher-facing support in October 2022 during a JADE Educator Organizing Summit.
JADE isn’t a Band-Aid for school systems that were once inequitable institutions. It is a proactive initiative to counter a nationwide war against honest education. The program is a testament to the power of unified communities to endure censorship and tyrannical practices and to grow stronger during such a time.
We plan to continue our work by piloting JADE during the fall 2023 academic year, adapting it to meet the needs of Georgia’s students, educators and diverse communities.
To support education justice, we urge everyone to attend school board meetings and advocate for inclusive curriculum, let your representatives know you do not support classroom censorship bills, and communicate with students when advocating for justice in education. JADE has only been successful because it always centered students.
Empathy and unity are at stake in this uncertain time. Initiatives like JADE demonstrate the ability of a community to provide what every student deserves: justice, action, diversity and equity.