In Ferguson — and All of Our Communities — Education Can Be the Great Equalizer

This post originally appeared on The Root.

WATCH: Secretary Duncan Visits Ferguson
Following Michael Brown’s tragic death, people across the country—and the world—have grieved together and engaged in critical conversations about race and community relationships. When President Obama hosted a dialogue with young people on the issues in Ferguson, I asked the youngest members of the Ferguson Commission how I could be helpful. They asked me to visit Ferguson—to listen to the stories of the people who live there—because youth, in particular, were hurting.


Secretary Duncan speaks to students at Clyde C. Miller Career Academy in St. Louis, MO, on December 16, 2014. (Joe Portnoy/U.S. Department of Education)

I listened. Recently, I traveled to Ferguson, Missouri. I visited the Clyde C. Miller Career Academy High School, Grandview High School, Ferguson Library, and the Greater St Mark Family Church to meet with students, educators, and community leaders to hear their thoughts on race, equity, and trust since the death of Michael Brown.


Students and educators shared their stories with Secretary Duncan at the Ferguson Library in Ferguson, MO, on December 16, 2014 (Joe Portnoy/U.S. Department of Education)

The stories I heard from students showed a real sense of fear and uncertainty about the future that far too many young people in communities across this country feel. During one of several stops through Ferguson, I met with Gbemisola Fadeyi, a student at Hazelwood East Middle School. Gbemisola said, since the death of Michael Brown, “I feel like it would be a blessing to get to the age of 16 without being killed by someone. I am so fearful of a lot of things now, and I shouldn’t be scared, I shouldn’t be scared.”

She’s right—all young people should grow up free from fear and violence. But there are too many neighborhoods and communities where fear and violence are part of a student’s daily life. Gbemisola and other young people said that they have been scared not only for themselves—but also for their family members—particularly since Michael Brown’s death.

From the students, to the teachers, to superintendents and school board members, to union leaders—what I felt was searing honesty as well as a deep sense of selflessness. Diamond Smith, a junior at Riverview Gardens High School, shared that in an effort to help her community, she gave her entire paycheck from her after-school job to a homeless man who was feeling broken and hopeless. Stories like these from Gbemisola and Diamond are both heart-wrenching and inspiring.


Diamond Smith shares her story about giving her entire paycheck to a homeless man. (Joe Portnoy/U.S. Department of Education)

In Ferguson, I also saw a willingness to reflect and a commitment to long-term action. While there is a great deal of hurt and anger, there’s also great interest among the youth, community leaders, and educators to work together to turn around a very tough situation—to ensure trust and to build strong relationships among law enforcement and other officials and the communities they serve. The students I met with at Clyde C. Miller Career Academy High School, for example, are reviewing their old classroom notes on the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s in the hope of organizing their own movement toward social justice in 2015. They’re seeing and sensing that they are a part of rewriting the history of their own community.

Like Civil Rights leaders who came before them, these students and educators see education as a means of addressing inequities and injustices. They noted that they are tired of the disparities in their local schools systems—whether it’s a lack of access to quality early childhood education, to Advanced Placement classes, to adequately funded schools, to strong instruction, or to after-school programs.

Education is—and must continue to be—the great equalizer that overcomes differences in background, culture, and privilege. Educational opportunity represents a chance at a better life, and no child should be denied that chance. Where our children lack that opportunity—it’s not just heartbreaking, it is educational malpractice, it is morally bankrupt, and it is self-destructive to our nation’s future. I don’t believe that we are going to solve the challenges in Ferguson and places like it from Washington alone; but, we can be part of the solution if we listen closely to the people living in these communities. Making things better for kids, their families, and their schools will take all of us working together. We can—and we must—get to a better place.

President Obama and this entire Administration are committed to finding practical solutions to seemingly complex problems. In keeping his promise to find a way to bridge the gap between law enforcement and the communities they serve, the President established the Task Force on 21st-Century Policing, which will be releasing its recommendations by March. I also have assigned members of my team to continue to work with the Ferguson community. In the long term, we are committed to growing opportunity through the My Brother’s Keeper initiative and through laying out principles for equity that must guide a new Education and Elementary Secondary Act.


  1. I am a teacher who was lucky enough to be a part of the talks at the Ferguson Library. Thank you for sharing our kids’ stories. We have some of the most remarkable students in Ferguson (and surrounding districts) and letting their voices be heard was truly powerful for them. Not enough people understand what our kids go through, and the worst part, not enough people try. By making this video, it will hopefully help more people become aware of their situation and begin to understand the need to improve relationships between authority figures and our communities. Our youth is our future. Please share this video with as many people as you can. This discussion should not be stopped.

  2. This kind of conversation should be taking place in schools throughout the country. Perhaps we should be looking at the role of magnet schools in bringing diverse groups of students together at an early age and providing them with experiences that bring them together to solve problems. Perhaps this has lasting effects that we need to know more about.

  3. The need to provide all students with the opportunity of a quality education is critical. Are we as a nation committed to making this a reality for all our children? It will require us to challenge some of our accepted practices that have historically benefitted the majority, including such practices as reactive discipline and punitive grading.

  4. Educators know all too well the difficulties that are brought into the schools daily. When the Ed Dept. helps us and brings us into the social environment of the 2015’s, we are more able to meet the challenges and provide better circumstances to those we serve. Modernizing Education is and has been a priority for a few. This meeting let’s us know as Educators it is a priority for all, because without good development for communities: Educators, students, and families are left behind and the learning does not reach those in need at any socio-educational, socio-economic, and in social development. Appreciating Arne Duncan making it to this type of needed historic meeting. I am also hoping that through this meeting, a standard of work can be continued and develop. And, can be the creation to support other communities as large as the LGBT group as well. Thank you for paving the way. Thank you for caring to work on the bigger complicated problems affecting many.

  5. If states can force people to go to jury duty and get a waiver for their absence from their job, then the state can force all parents to sit inside a classroom for one week a year and help the teachers. Parents who do not view education as a priority will not instill the importance of education as a core value in their home.

  6. It is so unfortunate that each time there is a tragedy, there is the same song and dance relative to dialogue and no real action–Education is the key (or the real Equalizer) is a resounding cry. The businesses with answers to move in the right direction are shunned for non-profits. The answer has been evident for the past 12 years and no one sees that, since NCLB was signed into law. It was a joke that has had such a far-reaching negative impact, that it is going to take another 12 years to rebound. Adoption of the NCCS was a step in the right direction, but now digging an even bigger ditch.

    You are correct. Education is the key for parents who know enough to run from government programs that prey upon their children. When is the United States going to get back to the task at hand–educating children. Before you know it, these children become adults who commit crimes because they are not capable of doing anything else. I am hurt by the way these students lives are taken so lightly. I am even more troubled when I see the hurt in children’s eyes who realize their lives don’t matter.

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