Every so often in life, you encounter defining moments; events that contain echoes of your past, underscore the urgency of the present, and clarify the future. Recent weeks have provided not just one, but a series of such moments. Developments in Ferguson, in Cleveland, and in New York City have inspired a range of emotions from sadness and frustration to anger, disbelief, and despair. Above all, they provide testament to the disposable nature of black life in this society.
I’ve witnessed these developments as more than an interested observer. I’ve experienced the injustice of police harassment. I lived through it as a young black male in my teenage years, a kid of no particular importance to the powers that be. I lived through it just last year when I was an Assistant Superintendent for Denver Public Schools. My title did not protect me; the privilege of my position was insignificant next to the color of my skin.
Unlike Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner, however, my brush with discrimination did not cost me my life. I survived. This is what passes for consolation. That these unarmed men, children in some cases, were killed at the hands of those appointed to protect and serve is maddening. It’s a call to action for anyone who cares about equality or who believes that the ideals of this country must be demonstrated in actions as well as in words. It’s a source of anger across the country and profoundly felt by our black youth right here in Oakland. As educators, the challenge is to help our children direct this fear and anger in a way that helps them fight injustice—while remaining alive. We must give our students the knowledge, the support, and the tools to maximize their chance at the most basic of conditions, survival, so they can reform society to the point where these lessons are no longer necessary.
The essence of this reform is that we all are individuals and all individuals have worth. This is true of young black men and it’s true of police officers as well. There was a time when I was deeply distrustful of all law enforcement. As I grew into adulthood, my feelings evolved. I’ve had the good fortune of meeting and working with many excellent police officers. These are impressive public servants, men and women performing an incredibly difficult job with little acclaim. Police officers deserve our respect. Those who abuse the public trust deserve our condemnation and must be held accountable. This is for the benefit of all the officers who perform their duties honorably, for the people they are sworn to protect, and for society as a whole.
As Ferguson erupted, as people took to the streets of Oakland and clogged the arteries of New York, I recalled the message of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He wrote that, “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”
There is no time to wait. We must respond to the outrage of Ferguson, and to the same injustice that plays out in city after city, day after day. Yet, we must also work systematically to undo the structures that support the tragedy and farce that is racial discrimination. In assessing the outcomes in Missouri and New York, many commentators have said the system is broken. I disagree; the system is not broken–the system produces the results it was designed to produce. If we want to see equality, then we must transform the system into one that values and supports every single child regardless of background or circumstance. This is the foundation of a fair and just society.
As we go about this work, we must keep in mind the essential humanity in each individual and operate with a generosity of spirit. I agonize over mistreatment at the hands of the law. I also reflect on the police officers I know who are upstanding professionals and outstanding men and women. I know that we will not get where we need to go by demonizing each other and by focusing on superficial outcomes while ignoring the underlying problems.
To move forward as an organization and as a community, we must ensure that all employees model the values we want for our students. All adults must see the inherent good in all of our children. To do this, we must re-examine our biases and train our employees to overcome them. This includes me as Superintendent as well as each and every member of the Oakland Unified School District.
Our job as educators is to prepare our young men and women to go out in the world and embody the change we need to see. Until there are people of all ethnicities, all genders, and all income levels represented in positions of power at a level reflective of their inherent potential, we will relive the indignity of Ferguson and remain a house divided.
That idea is the heart of the new OUSD strategic plan, Pathway to Excellence, which states “Ensuring that each and every child receives a quality education is an economic necessity, a moral imperative, and a matter of social justice. That’s something this community understands better than perhaps any other town in America. For more than 60 years, Oakland has been a trailblazer in issues of equity and empowerment and the center of some of the country’s most powerful social movements. We are standard-bearers. No place is better suited for the fight to support children.”
I should add that no place is better suited for the fight to transform this country not into something new, but into its true self, a nation that upholds its promise and lives up to its ideal. The Oakland Unified School District will be at the center of this movement.
Nelson Mandela, a man with no small experience in coping with—and overcoming—harassment and persecution said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” I agree and I’m privileged to serve in a role where I can help effect this change. Let’s get to work. There is much to do and not a moment to waste.