Schools and districts across the country are diving into equity work in the American education system with the goal of creating more inclusive spaces. That work includes, among other things, listening to and elevating the voices of students and educators of color.
An expert panel of Black men in the education space joined us for a conversation about their own experiences and achievements in the K-12 education space. We heard from:
- Dr. Michael Lowe, Chief Equity Officer, Shelby County Schools (TN)
- Anthony Murdock II, Founder of Murdock LLC (IN)
- Justin Crutcher, Student Voice Expert, Shelby County Schools (TN)
- Abraham Diop, Client Success Manager, Panorama Education (MA)
The panelists shared the obstacles that Black boys face in our education systems—as well as how we can work together to create spaces that support all Black students.
Read excerpts from the conversation below.
What is an example of an achievement in improving the education system that you are most proud of?
Dr. Michael Lowe: One of my accomplishments this year has been working with teachers around how to grade students in a pandemic. We gave students laptops. We gave teachers laptops and Zoom links, but nobody ever told them how to teach via computer, or how to grade. If you give students meaningful work, they will do it, but meaningful work is not the same when kids are interfacing via computer. How are you grading when these students are at home? How are you assessing them? Are you really grading them based on what they can master and what they can show? Or are you grading whether they have a parent at home, up-to-date computers, and access to reliable wi-fi? If that's the case, you're not assessing progress.
"How are you grading when these students are at home? Are you really grading them based on what they can master and what they can show? Or are you grading whether they have a parent at home, up-to-date computers, and access to reliable wi-fi? If that's the case, you're not assessing progress."
–Dr. Michael Lowe, Chief Equity Officer
Anthony Murdock: I want to acknowledge that we're not dealing with one pandemic, but two. We're dealing with COVID-19, a public health pandemic, but then also this racial pandemic that precedes us by six centuries. In 2020, racism was brought into a place and space in a way, on social media and otherwise, that we have never seen before. We may be on the brink of another pandemic—a mental health pandemic. We’re also seeing a pandemic of access; the ability to function properly and independently in a pandemic is a privilege.
I was able to do work in my own city through a partnership with Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) to fight the “summer melt,” where we see student motivation to attend college the following fall “melting away” during the summer. Flora Jones, director of postsecondary readiness at IPS, and I presented our work last summer in another webinar with Panorama. I was able to partner with students and counselors and work with IPS Future Centers, which are school-based guidance centers to help students define and pursue career and college plans. We were not confined to what history said was appropriate, but instead able to speak to what futures might be possible.
I saw immediate impact in having critical conversations with students who were left out to dry prior to COVID-19. I saw versions of myself in them, and I was inspired to continue working. My organization, Murdock LLC, had the opportunity to walk its walk and talk its talk for an incredible school system.
What has been your experience with having a Black male mentor in your own schooling? Why do you think Black male mentorship is so important in K-12 education settings?
Justin Crutcher: It's very important to have a Black educator in your school because you need somebody older than you to talk to for wisdom and understanding. I encountered my first African-American teacher in 7th grade, and as he was teaching me, he was telling me “You're doing a good job. Keep going.” That motivated me to succeed in every class.
"It's very important to have a Black educator in your school because you need somebody older than you to talk to for wisdom and understanding."
–Justin Crutcher, Student Voice Expert
Dr. Michael Lowe: My first Black male teacher was in eighth grade. He was my history teacher and basketball coach, Mr. Higgins. He taught and encouraged me. He was hard-nosed but he understood us. We could just identify with him, and it was the first time I had that experience. They say “you can't be what you don't see,” and Mr. Higgins was a mirror and a window for me.
In our district, we do critical mentoring where we match young Black and Brown men, who we call “protégés,” with male mentors in the community. We've had different people with different experiences in life; we’ve had barbers, we’ve had lawyers, we’ve had mechanics. The mentors don’t have to have a six-figure salary or a high-profile degree. It’s about having the wisdom that life teaches.
We give the protégés and the mentors the chance to talk with each other and connect, and sometimes they don’t vibe. Not everybody can hold space with Black boys. It's about having that wisdom, and knowing you can't always censure young men. You have to speak to him in a way that lets him know you understand. A lot of people coming into this work think, “I'm going to save this young man.” We need to get rid of the notion that every Black boy we see has to be saved.
Anthony Murdock: My first Black male teacher was in eighth grade. Mr. Johnson taught Project Lead the Way, an organization that provides STEM curriculum for grades PreK-12. For many of our Black students, this was our first exposure to real STEM, seeing engineering presented in a way that we could understand. I saw Mr. Johnson holding his own in a space, and I saw myself inside of him, as did every other Black student at that institution. The sense of confidence that he gave me was unforgettable.
Abraham Diop: I had my first Black male teacher in kindergarten because I grew up in Ivory Coast where everybody's Black. Your teacher, your doctor, the president are all Black. So “Blackness” there is something different, and it creates a different experience. When I moved to the United States, to a predominantly white community in Brownsburg, IN, it was a complete shift. But I already had the confidence that the others have spoken about because of the experiences I had growing up in Africa.
We use the phrase “representation matters,” especially when it comes to the impact it can have on children of color in schools. What, in your opinion, does it look like to have meaningful representation in our K-12 education spaces?
Abraham Diop: We often hear “representation is important,” but I think we need to have more radical conversations about representation. Representation is important, but it isn’t everything. Getting a bunch of Black people in a room is not the final solution. We need to think about how we can move beyond “representation politics” to building inclusive systems in schools.
"We often hear “representation is important,” but I think we need to have more radical conversations about representation. Representation is important, but it isn’t everything."
–Abraham Diop, CSM at Panorama Education
Anthony Murdock: Black folks are not a monolith. Everyone has a unique set of experiences, and putting one Black man in front of one young Black boy does not mean they are going to connect automatically. Representation politics are not substantive. We are looking to substantially change systems, and in order to shatter systems you have to build new ones based in cultural competency. That competency is rooted in a language that affirms the least, the lonely, and the left out—the most marginalized. That competency does not come simply from representation, but through having wisdom and understanding.
Dr. Michael Lowe: We need to see Black men in schools as real men that know the craft of teaching. We have to look at their contribution to the pedagogical knowledge in the school: How can they lead professional development with other teachers? How do they teach writing, or parabolas? How do they add value to the school?
In order to make more equitable schools, we need to fix systems, not students. What are your perspectives on the challenges that exist for Black boys navigating the American education system?
Justin Crutcher: Prejudgement of character and intelligence are two challenges that exist for Black boys. When people tell us that we’re thuggish and ignorant, then we feel like that. We don’t do our work at school, or we do drugs or go on the streets. People prejudge us, and that’s why we do those things. That’s why Black men do those things right now--because of prejudgement from their past.
Dr. Michael Lowe: We followed some Black male students one day and listened to the things they were hearing: pull up your pants, tuck in your shirt, slow down. A lot of the comments that they would receive during the day were not words of encouragement. They were more words about their bodies and actions--I call that “respectability politics.” You can have a shirt and tie on every day and you still can get pulled over. Let's not think that tucking in a shirt is going to get you over the hump of being who you are or the pigment of your skin.
My friend was an assistant principal in an elementary school, and felt he was only there as a disciplinarian. “They just send all the kids to my office,” he said. “All I do is the three B’s: buses, butts, and books.” We have got to get out of the Black man just doing buses, handing out textbooks, and being the disciplinarian.
Anthony Murdock: Black boys’ bodies and actions are being policed outside of the school system consistently, not just by law enforcement but by our culture, by health systems and community organizations. Then they go to school, an institution that's supposed to be rooted in the development of wisdom, and even there they are being policed.
It's not a coincidence that Black men are given the role of disciplinarian. When Black boys are sent to see a Black man in a position as a disciplinarian, then those boys will begin to believe that they are wrong: “I am a criminal. I am not worthy of attention. I deserve to be in detention because this Black man told me I did.” These systems of policing are rooted in racism and slavery: on plantations, often a Black man would be chosen as an overseer because he looked like the people on the plantation who were perceived to have no power. It is not unintentional that in schools today, we see those systems being reproduced with Black men in roles as disciplinarians. It is easier to disenfranchise people when the person delegated to disenfranchise looks like them.
What are actionable ways educators (teachers, school administrators, district leaders) can support their Black students? How can we begin to build an education system where every Black student thrives?
Abraham Diop: We hear a lot of folks talking about a “deficit mindset,” where educators focus more on problems than potential. We need educators that have the intellectual capacity, the cultural competency, and the social awareness to acknowledge their biases and engage with this work to create meaningful change. Part of that work is to hire Black people and pay them what they need to be paid.
Dr. Michael Lowe: We can help our young people, especially our Black and Brown young people, by showing them that everything does not have to be centered in whiteness or white supremacy. There are histories that have yet to be taught in school.
I'm continuously learning from our young people. They are hearing and seeing things on the news and in their lives, and they can't come to school today the same way that they did yesterday. Our lessons can't go forward. There are many things that our students need to understand about the sociopolitical context in our country, and we have to start addressing these issues of driving, or running, or walking while Black. It's unfortunate, but we need to continue to educate our young men in order to get out of this. We have to continue to try to change the narrative and say, “Hey, we’re going to make it.”
"I have a message that I want all of you to share with your Black students. Tell them that “loving yourself is a revolutionary action, and you are worth the revolution”. If we want to shatter the systems that do injustice to our students and build more equitable systems in their place, then we need to engage our students in the revolution. "
–Anthony Murdock, Founder of Murdock LLC (IN)
Anthony Murdock: It's about creating a sense of belonging for the most marginalized. To do that, you have to listen to your students. So often we will ignore what's right in front of our faces and instead hire a consultant or expert company to facilitate conversations. But the answers you need are sitting right in front of you in the stories of your students. Take your students’ words for what they are: expert insight into the experience.
I have a message that I want all of you to share with your Black students. Tell them that “loving yourself is a revolutionary action, and you are worth the revolution”. To be part of the group that's not protected, that's neglected, that's not respected, that's seen as dangerous, or not seen as human at all—to love that is revolutionary. If we want to shatter the systems that do injustice to our students and build more equitable systems in their place, then we need to engage our students in the revolution.