George Floyd could have been me, my students or many other black men in our city and our nation.
This has been a difficult week following Floyd’s killing at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD). I am sickened and deeply hurt by what transpired on that day, which coincidentally happened to be my birthday. I have had my own encounters with MPD in the past. While I was picking up my children at my mother’s house and loading them into car seats a few years back, police demanded to know my identity and questioned me aggressively — for no reason at all.
As director of the Office of Black Student Achievement (OBSA) within Minneapolis Public Schools, I know my state has one of the worst achievement gaps in the country. More than 13,000 black students attend our schools, and many are once again struggling with hurt, heartache and trauma. The coronavirus has disproportionately affected our community, forcing us into distance learning.
This means we are not in face-to-face contact with our Kings and Queens, as we call them, as part of our effort to change the narrative and the negative terms often used to describe black people. How do we support them when we can’t physically engage or physically see one another to give a hug, shed a tear or listen to their voices? How do we create a space that is free from judgment to hear their uncut, raw emotions at a time like this? All the while, my proud OBSA team members — Jamil, Richard, Marques, Isa, Shawn, Qiana, Dena, Nneka and Umar — and I are left trying to manage our own emotions.
In the storied history, context and spirit of blackness, we always find a way to meet our students’ needs, in the words of Malcom X, “by any means necessary.”
Our team didn’t allow distance learning to be an obstacle. We put on masks and went out in our community and became visible. We attended marches and made phone calls to check in. We participated in clean-up efforts and food drives and hosted a virtual healing space. My wife and my two older daughters were out protesting on the I-35 bridge on Sunday, May 31, when a semi-truck drove into the crowd.
We also witnessed King Payton Bowdry, one of our alums and a college senior, leading a rally inspired by B.L.A.C.K (Building Lives Acquiring Cultural Knowledge), a class we developed collectively in Minneapolis to help us answer questions about who we are and to uphold pillars of student engagement, character development, knowledge of self and identity.
We have heard so much pain, anger and anxiety from our Kings and Queens during these most traumatic and trying times. We share that they should exercise their First Amendment rights to a peaceful protest. We should also be mindful of those who are more outraged by the so-called riots and not by the murder of George Floyd. We want peace, but we also want and need justice.
As a people and as a community, we are not new to adversity. Our office does not pretend to have all of the answers. We admit that we are also navigating and processing our own feelings, as our Kings and Queens provide us with hope and comfort during this time of ultimate discomfort.
Building these essential skills is paramount for black survival in a society that has shown time and time again its anti-blackness through its interpretation of policies and laws. As a department, we remain in constant communication with one another, working to brainstorm the best ways to support our community right now. We don’t do this for recognition; we do this because it’s right.
The events we are facing today are about a far broader, more systemic problem. We are pushing for the end of police brutality, but we are also addressing disparities that affect black people negatively: educational outcomes, homeownership, employment rates and access to appropriate health care.
In my office, we’ve seen positive results from our work: Academic outcomes have changed positively here for students in our programs, with gains in both student attendance and achievement. Are we, as a society, ready to allow black people to create their own programs to address these issues?
In Minneapolis, we are showing that the answer is yes.
Michael V. Walker is director of the Office of Black Student Achievement for the Minneapolis Public Schools and founder of Critical Questioning Consulting.
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