After 10 people were killed in a racist shooting at a Buffalo supermarket last week, Fatima Morrell knew the city’s educators could not avoid discussing the tragedy with students.
“We can’t shy away from the facts of the case,” says Morrell, the associate superintendent for culturally and linguistically responsive initiatives in Buffalo public schools. “For all our children, we have to unpack white supremacy, as hard as that is to talk about.”
Morrell spearheaded the creation of the district’s Emancipation Curriculum in 2020, aiming to promote equity in schools, spark conversations about the legacy of racism in the U.S., and offer students diverse perspectives and more lessons about the historic contributions of Black, Latino and indigenous communities.
During the last year, conservative groups and lawmakers have taken aim at that curriculum and others like it and have sought to restrict how race is discussed in school — efforts that free-speech advocates see as an attempt to whitewash history and prevent educators from teaching students about concepts like systemic racism.
The accused Buffalo gunman, who is white and targeted Black shoppers, left a manifesto in which he espoused white-supremacist views and cited a baseless, racist conspiracy theory about white Americans being “replaced” by Jews, immigrants, and people of color.
Morrell argues it’s important for schools across the nation to play a role in confronting that ideology and teaching students to combat racism, while offering social-emotional support for those who are grieving.
TIME spoke with Morrell about how schools are discussing the shooting with students and why the district’s anti-racist curriculum is so important today.
How has the district approached discussions about the Buffalo shooting with students?
It has been traumatic for our entire district community. You just don’t know how to respond to something like that right away, because it’s a shock. We decided to roll out culturally responsive healing circles and social-emotional learning. All schools were providing a space for dialogue, with support going to teachers and principals on how to actually facilitate discussions around the trauma — How are you feeling? How do we collectively, as a district community, as a school community, begin to understand and heal from this? We noted quite a bit of fear. There’s sadness, of course, and grief. But the young people have become very afraid. They are afraid of proms. They’re afraid of large gatherings of any sort right now. And so we’re trying to allay those fears, but then use it as a teachable moment to discuss how racism can lead to white supremacy. And as a community, how do we combat racism? How do we ensure that all children, all people in our district, are proud of the human fabric of who we are and are treated respectfully?
We can say [the gunman] came from three hours away and did this, but we know that in the Buffalo community, we have serious issues around racial segregation in our city. Economic disparities, housing disparities, and even educational disparities exist for our communities of color. And clearly this young man was horribly misguided and did not have the love, and nurturing and compassion that he deserved to be able to see the humanity in people of color.
We can call this what it really is, which is white supremacy and the idea that one group of people is disposable. In my eyes, this is a child, this is a teenager. So you have to think: What happened? It has become very, very clear to me that there needs to be a sense of urgency around educating our white children. Not just [educating] our Black and brown children around their own historical greatness and contributions, but also educating our white children around equity, cultural competence, acceptance and our common humanity.
Does this attack emphasize why an anti-racist education, like the Emancipation Curriculum, matters?
It really does. Right now, for all children, no matter what their race is, we have to do a kind of reset from this tragedy. We can’t shy away from the facts of the case. For all our children, we have to unpack white supremacy, as hard as that is to talk about.
The Emancipation Curriculum is very important. It is very important for us to humanize people of color in the eyes of the world, because I see a common thread with all these killings of unarmed Black and brown men and women and children, and this racist attack, and several others that have occurred around race.
With these attacks occurring over and over again, we have to start reprogramming our young people, and teaching them about humanity and love for one another. We need to talk about what we have in common, that we’re all special, that we ought to be treated fairly, and make sure our students know that at the youngest ages possible.
What do you make of the fact that there are efforts across the country to restrict how teachers discuss racism in class, possibly making it harder for teachers to discuss this shooting with their students?
I think we have to stop the political grandstanding. Everything that is taught is not critical race theory. Historical truths and facts are historical truths and facts. It is our history as one nation. The atrocities that occurred and continue to be perpetrated upon people of color have long standing roots in enslavement.
Our young people, especially our white children, need to be educated around this, so that they don’t end up being like this young man who committed this horrific act. They need to be educated.
Another thing that’s extremely dangerous is telling us what we can read and not read. We’re being censored in the classrooms, in schools, around what we can let our kids know. That’s not a democratic principle. It’s not freedom.
You first implemented the Emancipation Curriculum in the 2020-21 school year. What led you to create that curriculum?
We had been doing some work around equity and diversity in our curriculum to begin with. But then, when George Floyd died, it kind of pivoted. We wanted to create a curriculum that addressed systemic oppression, and racism and Black Lives Matter.
It was not something we could ignore. We wanted to create some foundational teaching strategies to center joy, but also equity, empathy and cultural relevance in the lives of our students and to edify Black and brown voices in the curriculum.
We know that our students weren’t getting information about who they truly are or their greatness, to begin with. In Buffalo public schools, teachers are about 77% white. Conversely, our students are about 86% of color. So we wanted to make sure our teachers were able to include the history and culture of the Black and brown kids.
People will say, ‘We need to have more Black teachers in front of the students.’ And I like that concept. But we’ve got great teachers right now who are white, and they can teach well if they are given the tools, resources and professional learning that they need.
There are some educators who might want to avoid discussing the shooting this week. Why do you think it’s important for educators to have these difficult conversations?
I think this needs to be an ongoing conversation in all of our schools. It should be a mandated part of the curriculum, that we talk about racism, systemic racism, and how seriously dangerous it is. When you look at what happened to Ahmaud Arbery, when you look at what happened to Trayvon Martin and George Floyd, and then here in Buffalo — it’s dangerous to be racist. It’s dangerous to hate.
I think that this is a teachable moment, and I call on all our districts across the country to teach our children about the common humanity of all people and what their contributions are. Children see us, and they’re always watching. We need to remember that. And how we respond as adults is the lead that our young people will follow. So if we decide we’re just going to ignore this because I just don’t want to talk about it, they will go on the internet, find out from friends, and then weave their own narrative.
You’re not going to keep something of this magnitude, like systemic racism and white supremacy, from kids when it’s all over the news. And if they get the wrong answers from the wrong place, we’re in a dangerous space. So teach, teach. Don’t be afraid of it, or we’ll pay later.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
More Must-Reads From TIME
- Inside the White House Program to Share America's Secrets
- Meet the 2024 Women of the Year
- East Palestine, One Year After Train Derailment
- The Closers: 18 People Working to End the Racial Wealth Gap
- Long COVID Doesn’t Always Look Like You Think It Does
- Column: The New Antisemitism
- The 13 Best New Books to Read in March
- Want Weekly Recs on What to Watch, Read, and More? Sign Up for Worth Your Time
Write to Katie Reilly at Katie.Reilly@time.com