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Black Students Are Not ‘Marginalized,’ They Are the Center of Our Work

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Better Conversation bias black identity Black students Black Voices COVID-19 Dr. Gholdy Muhammad educational equity equity identity Jamila Dugan Learning Loss liberation Mental Health Pennsylvania Philadelphia Social and Emotional Needs street data student trauma systemic bias Systemic Racism White Supremacy

Black Students Are Not ‘Marginalized,’ They Are the Center of Our Work

Black Students Are Not ‘Marginalized,’ They Are the Center of Our Work

So many headlines these days are about how Black students are “falling behind” during the pandemic. They’re “missing” and “lost.” But the truth is, Black students aren’t lost—the question is, do you see them? 

While there are many educators who serve the students in front of them, we cannot dispute facts. Black students are still unseen in school. Our schools are still designed to perpetuate deficit narratives about Black students and ignore their true existence as whole human beings, complex in nature with hopes and dreams. 

When I was in 10th grade, I failed out of high school. I had hopes and dreams, but I can’t recall exploring them at school. Some may ask what I did to fail out. I’d say that in many ways, the system failed me—as it does so many other Black students. 

In high school, I experienced family trauma, struggled with developing a positive self-image, and felt at times like there was no way for me to move forward. I took honors classes and realized none of my peers, mostly Black students, were in them because they got tracked into other courses. I felt out of place, so I left those classes. 

Jamila as a teenager

I was a product of others’ low-expectations of me instead of who I could become. I was bored and disconnected, but the focus was always on my shortcomings. I’ll never forget when the school counselor once told me, “Maybe you’re not college material.” With little support from teachers or mentors in high school, it felt like no one believed in me. School wasn’t the place for me to be seen, the streets were. This is why now, I spend my time coaching and mentoring leaders who can truly see students’ potential. 

I know firsthand what it feels like to be pushed out by systemic bias and low expectations. As a Black woman, I am deeply connected to the struggles of people who look like me. The media bombards me with negative images of the people I love most. When I do the work of my profession, I am constantly tuning into subtle messages that say Black people are inferior. And just when I’ve thought there was a glimpse of hope things could change for the better, I’ve been let down too many times to count by a system of structures, practices and narratives that tell me our liberation is not possible.

It can be exhausting.

Across the nation, I work with people who experience the same thing. They are often trying to navigate how to lead while reconciling who they’ve been, who they are, and who they want to be. The resounding message they are told is that they are not enough. 

Over the last 20 years, I’ve discovered that as much as I want to be a strong influence for and with those I care about most, it isn’t possible if I don’t believe within myself first. For years, I believed the narrative that my past defined me—including the Black identity placed upon me. But I am more than my trauma—and so are students like me.

Ikechukwu Joseph, a songwriter, poet and author once said, “The Scars come before the Stars. Black students aren’t lost. We’ve got to sharpen our lens and take seriously our responsibility as a nation to support their academic success, care for their well-being (including socioemotional and mental health), affirm their identities, and “see” them. This moment of challenge should be an opportunity to show Black students what they can be. I refuse to accept the framing that our students are “marginalized”—instead, I am choosing to center the margins. 

Choosing the margins means honoring Black and indigenous educational traditions by centering liberation over standardization, and choosing students’ experiences as our primary guides in school leadership and design.

Making Educational Equity More Than a Buzzword

Our efforts toward making ‘education equity’ more than just a buzzword for Black students must start with the following actions:

  • Widen your lens. There’s a ton of standardized test data and statistics to perpetuate deficit narratives about Black students. Our current data paradigm is narrow in scope and racist at scale. Stop using the data that problematizes our kids. Use street data (Safir, 2017, 2019) as a line of inquiry to understand how we are cultivating their genius. Instead ask how our schools and classrooms are nurturing what Dr. Gholdy Muhammad calls criticality, intellect, skills, identity, and joy
  • Prepare for potholes. We can intend to disrupt systems that leave Black students unseen, but we have to pay careful attention to landmines that can prevent us from liberatory impact. This is not a linear journey. We must resist the desire for quick solutions, “fix it” programs, and the belief that everyone is on board. It just isn’t the reality. It’s ok to prepare for that. Create checks, balances and feedback loops that include Black children, caregivers, and staff so they can work with you to act and iterate. 
  • Love as a mindset. Racism is real. White supremacy is real. And knowing that folx aren’t loving on Black children makes me furious. I can’t lead with that though. It is incumbent on me to believe that it is possible for (many) people to come along. We will fall but I know we’re building from a long history of radical love from within my community. The scars are real, but the stars are shining too. I can name tons of ancestral scholars and current leaders who don’t “think” liberation, they know it. Choose to learn from those who know and love Black people. They’ll help keep you focused on what’s possible.

I come from a long lineage of people who were fighters. They were knocked down many times and have the scars to show it. But we are still beautiful. Had we not experienced struggles, we could not possibly be the best leaders and mentors our students need.

If I had listened to my school counselor, I likely would never have made it. His low-expectations for me could have very well derailed my life. He chose to stereotype me instead of investing in what I could be. I know this happens to Black students every day—I want more for them. Black students are everything and more; let’s show them that’s true.

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