The World We Wish For

On this difficult anniversary, it’s easy to feel weighed down by the events of the last 12 months. But a new school year offers the opportunity to not only resist but create.
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The one-year anniversary of the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, is Sunday, August 12. It’s a disturbing anniversary—for the people of Charlottesville, for the family and friends of slain activist Heather Heyer, and for anyone who has watched in anger and disgust as the visibility and brazenness of the alt-right has grown steadily before our eyes. 

For folks at Teaching Tolerance, it is also an opportunity to reflect on the last year as the teachers we serve head back to the classroom. What can we say about the state of hate, and what does it mean for our students?

We wish we could say that white nationalists were no longer gathering in the streets of our cities, intimidating communities with weapons and paramilitary gear. But Portland, Berkeley, and New York City witnessed such rallies in just the last month, and more are planned this weekend, in Washington D.C, and—yes—in Charlottesville. We wish we could say that schools were immune to the polarizing and often hateful rhetoric that seems almost commonplace in our public spaces these days. But we’ve been tracking hate incidents in schools for almost a year now, and we know it’s not true. Acts of racist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-LGBTQ bigotry in schools are making the news from coast to coast. What’s worse: The perpetrators are often adults.

Even as we fight against hate we must also hold some of ourselves in reserve.

We wish we could say the 2017-18 school year was one of positive synergy and growth for teachers. But when we met with our advisory board this summer, they were tired. It wasn’t an easy year. In fact, it was one of the most difficult these seasoned educators had experienced. Their spirits were visibly dampened as they told us about the trauma and anxiety their students were experiencing and the discord amongst their staff. 

And we wish we hadn’t felt compelled over the last 12 months to create resource after resource to help the TT community interpret and teach about state-sanctioned civil and human rights violations: the separation of immigrant families at the border, the launch of a Department of Justice task force that threatens the health and safety of LGBTQ students, and the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the Trump administration’s travel ban on six majority-Muslim countries, just to name a few. But we did. And we will continue to do so, as long as the rolling back of rights and protections appears to be a priority of the Executive branch.

No, it wasn’t an easy year for anyone, and this weekend may bring more news we’ll struggle to explain to our students. But we will—not only because we owe young people a clear-eyed vision of the world we live in, but because such clarity is necessary if they are to participate in creating a more just and equitable future. 

It’s hard to be hopeful when we think back to Charlottesville and look ahead anxiously to what Charlottesville II might bring. But the new school year is ahead of us in this moment, and its newness offers us an opportunity to articulate an affirmative vision for safe streets and schools, for civil discussions, for humane and solution-oriented policies, for healing. Resisting hate and bigotry consumes our energy, our time and our spirits—and it must. But even as we fight against hate we must also hold some of ourselves in reserve. We need this reserve to feed our aspirations and fuel our affirmative work for respect, for justice, for unity and for love. So that next year on this anniversary, we’ll be one step closer to the world we wish for. 

van der Valk is the deputy director for Teaching Tolerance.