I am a white woman and my fiancé, Brent, is a black man who grew up in Newark, New Jersey, at the height of the crack epidemic.
Unlike me, Brent was excited about his thirtieth birthday – a day several of his childhood friends didn’t have the chance to celebrate because they were in prison or dead. Brent’s mom may have saved him from meeting a similar fate when she sent to live with his aunt to attend school in the affluent suburb of Summit.
Brent and his friends were just as smart and talented as their suburban counterparts, but their schools were underresourced—as a result of a racially unequal society— and couldn’t support student development the way that staff and families knew their children deserved. That’s why Brent’s mom made the difficult decision she did.
And, that’s why Secretary Duncan’s recent speech on Investing in Teachers Over Prisons at the National Press Club resonated with me, both personally and as a social justice advocate.
I became a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the Department of Education to learn about education policy and champion my core educational beliefs—cultural competency training for teachers and human rights-based learning for students—toward the goal of creating a more just society in which future generations won’t experience the injustice that Brent and his peers did. I hope the Secretary’s speech proves to spur a nation defined by unequal access to resources and opportunities to feel “uncomfortable with this truth” and take action to change it.
The Secretary understands what happened to change the course of Brent’s life. He believes in the power of excellent educators to support students’ personal and academic growth. He also recognizes the pernicious effects of systemic racial inequity.
Black men are incarcerated at a rate six times higher than that of their white counterparts. Traditionally underserved students of color attend and complete college at lower rates than their peers. America imprisons black people at a higher rate than in Apartheid South Africa.
These facts aren’t coincidence – they’re the result of a system defined by racism and inequality on an individual, cultural and institutional level.
In his remarks, Secretary Duncan urged America to challenge the status quo. He urged us to examine unconscious biases by taking an “unsparing look at our own attitudes and decisions, and the ways they are tied to race and class”. And, he urged that we do “something transformational and revolutionary” to fix our broken system: shift funding out of prisons and into our highest-need schools. By doing this—along with the other key components of the Secretary’s plan— we can disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline and improve outcomes for all students.
The Secretary said that despite the progress we’ve made, “we have to do more” to provide all students with equity of opportunity. We have to do more to send more students to flourish in college and fewer to languish in prison. We cannot continue to squander the potential contribution of countless students who are left “on the sidelines,” like Brent almost was. This shouldn’t be a revolutionary idea, but it is.
And, the time is now to put this revolutionary thinking into action. We can’t wait any longer to do right by all of America’s children and to fulfill the promise of our nation.