Great Oak High School students leave campus in protest of the districts ban of critical race theory curriculum at Patricia H. Birdsall Sports Park in Temecula on Friday, Dec. 16, 2022.
Watchara Phomicinda—The Press-Enterprise/Getty Images

My work as a writer on race and social issues has me spending a lot of time in schools, especially predominantly white institutions. Every time I visit a school, I’m confronted with the ways in which students and faculty of color are being harmed by racist policies, peers, parents, and administrations.

This is not because schools and educators aren’t trying. There are people trying hard to create more inclusive and anti-racist classrooms. But this work has always been hard.

Across the country, whole states have banned the teaching of “critical race theory” in state schools and organizations. (Note: I’m putting critical race theory in quotes here not because it isn’t real but because those putting in place these bans have no actual idea what it is, and they really don’t care to know.) Since 2021, 44 states have taken steps to try to limit teaching around race and racism. There were 1,269 attempts to ban library books in 2022 alone. Of those bans, 58% were in school libraries and classrooms. It’s not only books like mine being targeted or those from other writers covering issues of race and racism, patriarchy, ableism, or queer- and transphobia. Children’s books featuring protagonists of color, or queer or trans protagonists just being everyday kids—books that have helped kids feel seen, heard, and safe in schools—are also being removed.

What little autonomy teachers have had to create inclusive classrooms has been stripped away in many states and many school districts. This is not just in Southern conservative areas, lest you try to rest in the idea that you live in an area “safe” from these attacks. One in four teachers have reported that they have felt compelled to change their lesson plans to comply with anti-CRT rules and laws.

You don’t have to be an educator, parent, or student to care about what’s happening in our schools. It affects all of us on so many levels. The norms for how we treat one another are set in school. Our social and political identities are formed at school. Many of us find our lifelong passions at school. But the U.S. education system is in a state of emergency. Our young people are only young once. We don’t get to give these important years back to them once they’ve passed. Safe, healthy, robust, and racially informed education is vital to the well-being of our young people—and our society.

Let this year be the one when the most important lesson students of color learn is that they matter. Here are four ways to get started.

Learn about and engage with your local school board

School board and superintendent elections are some of the most powerful votes we can cast. Our school board members are easier to reach and in many ways made more accountable to their constituents than most other elected officials. Who is elected to your school board matters. And the wrong board can make any change that individual teachers or even principals want to make nearly impossible.

This is something that those who wish to protect white supremacy in our schools know well. These parents and community members are showing up at school board meetings demanding that equity programs be dismantled, that all mentions of race and racism be removed from textbooks and lesson plans, that teachers who try to support students of color be fired. They are voting in school board members who promise all of this and more. And they are, in many school districts across the country, getting what they ask for. If we want to protect our students of color, we have to show up in these spaces to protect equitable education for our students and educators who are trying to provide that education.

Get police officers out of schools

Police officers in schools endanger students of color and disabled students. Full stop. The strongest correlations to be drawn when trying to determine which schools will have the most students arrested in school has nothing to do with truancy or violence and everything to do with how many Black students are in a school and if the school has police officers. Schools with police officers are criminalizing, terrifying, and abusing our children.

Courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers.

Ask about school policies

If you have children or are responsible for children in school, it’s important to know about that school’s policies and insist on changes where those policies could be harmful. Of special note are disciplinary policies: Who has to sign off on suspensions or expulsions? What reviews do they have to guard against bias? What are their policies for dealing with racist faculty and staff? What are their policies for dealing with racism among students? What is the school dress code and are students penalized for dressing in styles that are associated with people of color? How would a student report harassment, bullying, or discrimination?

Support PTA, booster, and school-supply fundraising drives for majority Black and brown schools

There are many ways in which wealth is hoarded in white schools and kept from Black and brown schools. Levies and property-tax-based funding puts many BIPOC-majority schools at an economic disadvantage. But that disadvantage is greatly magnified by how much money white neighborhoods are able to pour into their schools, due to more disposable income and more free time to fundraise. This is also magnified by the tendencies of white families in mixed-race neighborhoods to put their kids into private schools without contributing financially to public schools in their area. While the ways in which our schools are funded desperately need a systemic overhaul, we can help bridge some of the gaps right now by giving financial support to underfunded schools.

Adapted excerpt from Be a Revolution by Ijeoma Oluo and reprinted with permission from HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright 2024.

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