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Black Lives Matter at School: An Uprising for Educational Justice

reviewed by Horace R. Hall - September 13, 2021

coverTitle: Black Lives Matter at School: An Uprising for Educational Justice
Author(s): Denisha Jones & Jesse Hagopian
Publisher: Haymarket Books, Chicago
ISBN: 1642592706, Pages: 316, Year: 2020
Search for book at Amazon.com

We must recognize that structural racism, past and present, has relegated peoples of color to the outer margins of society. These margins, when ignored or left unchallenged, become hard-edged barriers, making it extremely difficult for peoples of color to overcome and gain access to the center of robust political and economic life. Black Lives Matter at School: An Uprising for Educational Justice, edited by Denisha Jones and Jesse Hagopian, brings together an informative and rousing collection of essays, interviews, and lessons by activists engaged in the contestation of erected White supremacist impediments that have long dehumanized and isolated Black and Indigenous Peoples of Color (BIPOC) in their learning institutions and communities.  

This volume generally speaks to processes by which personal meanings are created, negotiated, sustained, and enhanced within the specific context of collective human action against anti-blackness. Every chapter exposes and pushes against social constructions of Black folk, and BIPOC overall, as less than human and undeserving of basic human rights. Book contributors not only provide educators with critical perspectives on the role that schools play in perpetuating racism, but also offer concrete, lived examples of what it looks like to radically transform these institutions. Change is realized through re-imagining teaching practices and introducing policies that balance the scales of freedom and justice for Black peoples cloistered from their rightful access and opportunity in American society.

Black Lives Matter at School, more specifically, is a compilation of narratives based on the activism of thousands of educators and students involved in the “National Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action” campaign. This 2016 movement rose out of Seattle, when the John Muir Elementary School announced that teachers, staff, and students would be wearing t-shirts that read: “Black Lives Matter/We Stand Together/John Muir Elementary”—a move provoked by the police-involved deaths of Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, and Tamir Rice. In response to Muir’s protest, White supremacist groups leveled bomb threats at the school. Approximately 3,000 students and educators across the state, in a show of solidarity against this assault, chose to raise awareness of often ignored racist violence against Black peoples. Their protest drew national attention from other school districts, as well as anti-racist organizations. In years following, schools across the country participated in the Week of Action, hosting annual events and providing free curriculum resources for teachers at every grade level.

Throughout the early chapters of the book, it is made clear that the Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action campaign is not exclusively affiliated with the global organization Black Lives Matter (BLM). The campaign, however, was inspired by BLM’s 13 guiding principles. These tenets, with particular attention to restorative justice, globalism, transaffirming, and being unapologetically Black, are where the movement derived its four overarching demands and agenda: 1) ending zero-tolerance discipline in schools, 2) hiring more Black teachers, 3) mandating Black history and ethnic studies in K–12 curriculum, and 4) funding more counselors and less cops. Each demand serves as key coordinating points and organizing measures in addressing teacher training, student education, curricular reform, and the reallocation of school resources across the span of a week.

Black Lives Matter at School is divided into four interrelated sections of multiple chapters that respectively describe the movement’s origins, its garnered support from teacher unions, the on-the-ground work of educators, and the perspectives of student-participant activists. Sections also include a number of feature vignettes from weeks of action presented in the form program mission statements, school lessons, organizational curricula, letters of endorsement, and personal reflections. Given that various author contributions are incredibly rich and expansive in detail, I have chosen to highlight only a few select readings, most of which resonate with my own research and activism in Chicago. Despite my selections here, I highly encourage readers interested in anti-racist education and non-violent protest to explore this edited volume more fully.

After its introduction, the book’s first section delves into the roots of the Black Lives Matter at School’s Week of Action. Two contributors, Tamara Anderson and Christopher Rogers, speak to the purpose of the movement and the importance of curriculum building. Their essays focus on Philadelphia’s 2017 initiative, with Anderson recounting the city’s school planning process and Rogers emphasizing the development of curriculum to assist teachers in transforming traditional classrooms into anti-racist ones. Both their efforts echoed my own challenges connecting with parents and school leaders in seeing how anti-racist lessons in schools are integral to fostering freedom education rather than falling into disruptive, politicized propaganda, which today has positioned Black Studies as an enemy of the education system. Anderson concludes with an extremely important point: The Week of Action must go beyond seven days, beyond Black History Month, and become a year-round movement. This is a stance that I could not agree with more.      

The second section highlights the struggles and successes of teacher union support and collaboration with the Week of Action. Here, readers are presented essays and interviews featuring union delegates from various sites such as Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. The conversations with Chicago Teachers Union Chief of Staff Jennifer Johnson and United Federation of Teachers New York Chapter Leader Dermott Myrie were wholly informative, as they delivered essential insights into what their respective unions were able to accomplish despite city officials’ and union members’ opposition to institutional change. Another interview with Erika Strauss Chavarria, a teacher in Howard County, Maryland and member of the National Education Association’s Board of Directors, revealed how union support was gained through grassroots organizing. Strauss’s chapter was personally validating, as my own activist successes have largely come through forging coalitions with those community folk mostly impacted by inequitable school decisions and policies.

The third and longest section of the book, “Educators Doing the Work,” features chapters by teachers K–12 across the United States. One of the standout essays for me is titled “White Educators for Black Lives.” This co-authored piece stresses the role that White allies need to play in Black liberation crusades. Often, BIPOC are placed in fatiguing positions of explaining to White groups the nature and machinations of racism—a task I feel to be primarily the responsibility of White people. Hence, it was refreshing to have this chapter included as it offers a much needed outlook on how White allies are in effect “co-conspirators” who must take the same risks (if not more) in undoing White supremacist policies and practices. A “Feature” in this section, which I also applaud, covers a teach-in at El Paso, Texas, where migrant children were detained and separated from their families under Trump’s zero-tolerance immigration policy. This brief essay is critical to the text, as it not only exposes this often ignored social injustice, but also accentuates the interconnectivity of BLM principles with the liberation of all oppressed peoples of color.

Black Lives Matter at School ends with a number of chapters on student voices. I looked forward to this section given that much of my community work involves youth collaboration. This final section presents student interviews and a poem and essay sharing young peoples’ organizing experiences from their respective Week of Action. An interview with Marshé Doss, a student from Dorsey High School in Los Angeles, was of particular interest as it spoke to the Black Lives Matter at School demand of ending zero-tolerance school discipline. I appreciated Doss’s candidness around becoming wide awake to harsh security measures at his school, and later engaging peers, teachers, and other districts in events to confront this issue. Doss, as with other contributors of the book, alludes to community member inputs. If there is any criticism of this section, and perhaps the text overall, it is that there could have been additional testimonies from students’ family members/guardians, local business owners, and neighborhood activist groups. Their stories would have surely complemented the already expansive picture that the book paints around its successful partnership with community residents.

Black Lives Matter at School: An Uprising for Educational Justice is undeniably an important volume in our present sociopolitical atmosphere. This book’s significance rests in its capacity to move beyond mundane, divisive racial rhetoric and towards authentic, actionable measures in confronting anti-Black racism in schools. When we consider decades, even centuries, of structural racism in U.S. society that have blocked Peoples of Color from penetrating the core of fair political and economic existence, there is no doubt that tearing down barriers means fighting against racial disparities in education, employment, wealth, health care, and criminal justice. Black Lives Matter at School does just that. It presents not only the “what,” but also the “how to” in unapologetically fighting against the margins of White supremacy. This volume is crucial for teachers, students, and communities genuinely wanting to know and engage in loving and courageous ways for supporting educational justice, freedom, and dignity for all Black peoples.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 13, 2021
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23840, Date Accessed: 9/22/2021 11:30:21 AM

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About the Author
  • Horace Hall
    DePaul University
    E-mail Author
    HORACE R. HALL, Ph.D., is a professor at DePaul University, in the departments of Educational Policy Studies and Research, Critical Ethnic Studies, and African Black Diaspora. He is the author of such volumes as Mentoring Young Men of Color: Meeting the Need of African American and Latino Males (2006), Understanding Teenage Girls: Culture, Identity and Schooling (2011), Uprooting Urban America: Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Race, Class and Gentrification (2014) and most recently, Always on Lockdown: An Oral History of Policing and Discipline Inside Public Schools (2020). Dr. Hall is also co-founder and co-director of a Chicago-based, grassroots youth activist program called R.E.A.L (Respect, Excellence, Attitude and Leadership). Since 2000, R.E.A.L. has worked with Chicago youth and their families in challenging political and economic inequities prevalent within Black and Latinx communities.
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