During the summer of 2016, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were shot dead by police within one day of each other in Minnesota and Louisiana, respectively. Meanwhile in New York City, Rashid Duroseau and Josef Robinson were teachers at Democracy Prep Charter Middle School (DPCMS) who believed as educators, particularly as educators of color who teach predominantly black and brown children, they were obligated to create a space for scholars to process the events and consider how they affected them personally and their communities, at large. Rashid and Josef knew teachers needed to be equipped to facilitate these dialogues. What began as a campus-based initiative to have frank and honest discussions with scholars about events that were weighing heavily on the community led to a session at DP YOU 2017.
As a start at DPCMS, Rashid put together a multimedia reader for the staff about the shootings that included video clips and articles. With the support of school leadership, Rashid and Josef continued to encourage and empower teachers on their campus to have conversations with scholars about other events as they happened.
“Rashid has done an awesome job of scaffolding and creating bite-sized things for our campus to be able to roll out,” said Josef. “Whether it’s a discussion centered around Philando Castile, or conversations around Jemele Hill and the marginalization of women’s voices in addition to race, we were able to find creative articles and present them to the team, and we had opportunities to present those to kids.”
Rashid and Josef see this process as not only critical to fulfilling Democracy Prep’s mission, but also integral to fully preparing scholars to navigate a society that marginalizes them.
“Our mission at Democracy Prep is to make sure that scholars go forth into the world prepared to be successful in college and successful [in] shaping society to be more equitable and connected,” said Rashid. “However, one of the issues that we find is if we send them into the world without looking at the world as it is, it creates a creates a lot of challenges where there is a dissonance between the things that we are preparing our scholars for and the needs of the real world.”
These conversations are paying off at DPCMS. Scholars are feeling ready to take a stand, take action, and use their voice to change society.
“[We are] watching kids have discussions not just about police violence but school violence altogether,” said Josef. “We had a walk out that was organized by Student Council, and that was all because our kids are seeing and understanding their role in the world. We want to make sure that teachers give space for that.”
They know that there are varying comfort levels among teachers about having these conversations with scholars, and that is to be expected. Josef’s co-teacher was unsure how to approach the conversation about Castile and Sterling with their scholars, but he told her that he believed her voice was essential.
“She contributed some very important things to the conversation,” said Josef. “She told them, ‘I’m not Black, however, there are some things that you do need to be cognizant of that happen in this world.’ I saw light bulbs go off… There was somebody– who did not look like them– able to identify a problem that affects them. They were hanging on every single word. There was so much power in that.”
Josef uses this story to emphasize a major point of the DP YOU session they led last year and will lead again this year. All educators, regardless of identity, should be having these conversations with their scholars.
“Often there’s a misconception that these conversations need to be had by people that look like [the scholars],” said Josef. “No. It needs to be all parties involved and all hands on deck. These conversations are important because they impact kids.”
For last year’s DP YOU session, Rashid and Josef wanted to expand on their own school-based experience encouraging these conversations for students’ benefit. They were blown away by the turnout to their session.
“When we had the opportunity to have a banquet hall full of people excited to have this conversation, we said, ‘This is a strong indicator that many educators in Democracy Prep are wondering the same things we are wondering,’” said Rashid. “How do we get our kids ready to go out into the world that often marginalizes people of color? How can we help them find their voices?’”
Rashid and Josef will lead another session at this year’s DP YOU in San Antonio. They look forward to, again, making space for DREAM team members to ask themselves, “What will it take to prepare the young people of color we [educate] to change a world which marginalizes them?”