Activists and Advocates in the Face of Privilege
I look at all that is going on in the world, particularly in politics, and I have never seen more chaos than now. Previous generations have experienced similar moments in history and at one point or another shared the same sentiment; however, for the sake of my own call to action in this moment, I would like to think that I am living in the midst of the political and societal crisis of my lifetime. The gender divide is growing increasingly wider as allegations of sexual violence against women are coming to light more frequently and men are being held accountable for what was previously seen as typical “male behavior”. On the other hand, while race relations are continuing to shift since the civil rights era, there appears to be just as many schisms among races, classes, and political parties as there were fifty to sixty years ago. Everyone has an agenda, but not every agenda is heard. Why are some voices louder than others? Why do some voices matter, yet others belong behind a wall? These are the questions that I raise as I think about my own voice in the world. Until we live in a world where privilege doesn’t exist, it is the job of those who find themselves at the center of injustice to stand up and bring the dysfunction to light.
Challenging the Power of Privilege
As accusations and criticisms surrounding the Admissions Scandal continue to make headlines, I can’t help but think about why my voice matters in the world. I think about my role as an educator. I think about the significance of the work I am called to do in order to educate and empower black and brown children to be critical thinkers who know that their voices matter because THEY MATTER.
I find myself experiencing so many emotions regarding the new allegations against wealthy families buying their children’s way into elite schools and then I think about the black and brown children I taught in Harlem over a decade ago and the lack of resources I had to give them a quality elementary school education that would establish a strong foundation for learning and put them on the pathway to academic achievement. I think about the many urban children who attend school as early as 7am and leave school late in the afternoon all in the name of high-quality, rigorous instruction that will put them on the path to college. I think of the countless teachers working in “controversially” progressive charter schools. I think of those same teachers who are rising early, staying late, analyzing data, promoting character development, and committing to children and families who want to see their children succeed and believe that education is the pathway to success. I think of all the people who ask “does it really take all of this” for black and brown children to have access to college? I think of the sacrifices my families make to ensure that their kids are set up for success. Yes, SACRIFICES!!! Then, I think about privilege and its ability to take someone who hasn’t earned something and make them a recipient of a reward that they did not earn.
What do I tell my students and their families who sacrifice so much for a quality education that doesn’t come from privilege but the fight for equitable schools and access to school choice?
How do I empower more parents to be advocates and activists for their children and their communities?
It is important for students to grow up and be advocates and activists for themselves and all the communities they are a part of. I need them to know there is a seat at the table for them too.
Distinguishing Between an Advocate and an Activists
An advocate is someone who speaks on behalf of another person or group. There are times in which advocates are necessary. For example, someone who advocates for others may have access to knowledge, resources, or experiences that will benefit those that they are advocating for who may not currently have access to the same knowledge, resources, and experience. However, in my opinion a true advocate not only speaks on behalf of another but speaks on behalf of another until those they are advocating for have the knowledge, resources and experiences needed to advocate for themselves. This empowers others to speak for themselves in a way that is more authentic to their own unique experience in ways that a third party can never do even with the greatest intent.
On the other hand, an activists is someone who makes an intentional action to bring about social and political change. These are the folks who look for tangible ways to change the current realities of marginalized or disadvantaged communities. I believe activism should be owned by people within their own community in partnership with others to create a better outcome.
When I became a teacher 12 years ago, I never realized that I would be engaging in a social justice movement. A movement that would put me in the forefront of what it means to teach in schools that are culturally responsive, academically rigorous, and raise the bar for children who some people believe will not achieve success because they don’t want it bad enough. I am blessed to change that narrative. I am blessed to have new perspectives. I am fortunate to endure the blessings and the burdens that come from being a teacher, particularly a teacher in urban communities.
Behind The Scenes
Recently, while listening to the audio version of Michelle Obama’s top selling book Becoming, she shared an anecdote about a time in which her mother advocated for her to be removed from an unruly, low performing 2nd grade classroom to a class that was more befitting of her academic needs. At the time, she didn’t realize what her mother had done for her. She was unaware of what was being done behind the scenes on her behalf until she later thought about how after coming home to tell her mother about this crazy classroom she found herself in, she had been removed from that class and placed into another class. Her mother’s decision and ability to advocate for her was only one of the events that would change the trajectory of her educational journey. That’s the advantage of an advocate.
This short anecdote about her life impacted me in several ways. I thought about how one small action had a large impact on her life. The choice to speak up and take action had a long lasting ripple effect in Michelle’s life. Not only did she learn that in her household her voice matters, but she also witnessed how powerful it was for her to have someone speaking on her behalf and it ultimately showed her the power to speak up for herself. Michelle didn’t come from a place of privilege but she knew that she deserved better. I can’t even imagine the amount of time that would have been wasted or the setbacks Michelle may have faced had her mother left her in a classroom that was not befitting of her needs. I also thought about what happens to students or any person for that matter when they don’t have anyone advocating for them. What happens to folks who don’t know that they can advocate for themselves?
Something to Consider:
Who has advocated for you in your life? What was the impact?
In what ways can you advocate for yourself and/or your community?
What would true advocacy look, feel, and sound like in your own social context?
Just because our situation doesn’t mirror what we deserve doesn’t mean we don’t matter. – Tye
It is important to me that whatever space I find myself in that I remember that my voice matters and that I have the potential to shift an environment through the willingness to advocate for myself and for others who most closely resonate with my experiences and background. There is an advantage of an advocate, to change the trajectory of lives. We are called to be advocates and activists in the face of privilege.