Teachers Are Civil Rights Leaders: What We Can Do to Stop the Next Water Crisis
I saw Concetta Lewis, who I know through America Achieves, posting about the Flint water crisis a few weeks ago. Her passion on the issue and how it relates to the larger struggle for poor people in this country was clear then and is clear below. In this piece, she lays out an argument for how teachers can use our experience in communities to fight and pull our country towards more complete fulfillment of its democratic principles. Enjoy and share your thoughts/feelings with Concetta and I below and on Twitter. - JRTM
As a special education teacher in Michigan, I am deeply saddened by the long-term impact of the water situation in Flint.
On a daily basis I am faced with providing educational programming and supports for students with disabilities. To know that children in the city have been subjected to the irreversible damage of lead poisoning. and to understand the implications this has for their future academic success is disheartening.
During a recent presidential debate Hillary Clinton articulated what I have been feeling for years: "If the kids in a rich suburb of Detroit had been drinking contaminated water, and being bathed in it, there would've been action"
She's right. If this type of government failure occurred in more affluent communities, the situation would have been corrected immediately.
Schools today can no longer just prepare students to be "model" citizens who go along with the system. We must prepare students be critical thinkers and problem solvers, even if it means challenging the status quo.
When I worked as a high school history teacher, I challenged my students to think beyond the information that was presented to them and to seek answers to the questions they had about "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." I wanted them to know the importance of fulfilling their civic responsibility by being actively engaged in electing our officials and having a voice in the decision-making process. I wanted them to recognize that they have the power to make change.
Lessons about citizenship, core democratic values and civic responsibility ought to focus on how these principles can be put to use in students' own lives. School should teach students in Detroit, Flint, and every other community in America that each word in the constitution is for them, and every right afforded citizens in more affluent communities is applicable to them as well
Unfortunately, students in Detroit and Flint can also find examples of times when the system disregarded them. Both communities have a history of disenfranchisement of local citizens through state (Governor) appointed emergency managers who strip locally elected officials of their authority and offer limited or no accountability to the communities they serve. In addition, both of these communities have a high percentage of their members who are underprivileged, with limited educational access often leading to limited financial resources.
This leads to limited housing options, health care options, and educational opportunities for children. Without these things, community members will not have the capacity and resources necessary to fight against injustices and inequities within our systems in a manner that will bring about effective change.
Those of us who know how to advocate and who have access to those with decision-making authority must help build the capacity of all members of our community to fight for justice and equitable access to high quality educational opportunities. Those with limited resources often feel that there is simply nothing they can do to change their circumstances, whereas those with more education and financial resources often feel the exact opposite. For example, teachers (and other direct service professionals such as doctors and nurses) see these inequities first hand and have the cultural capital and access to highlight them.
Although our elected leaders have failed the city of Flint, the bigger challenge is the mindset many members of the community have of feeling insignificant. Our society has pushed many into believing that their voice and well-being does not matter if they do not have a certain "net worth."
Many of the civil rights trailblazers, such as Septima Clark, took the time to educate poor and African-American members of the community. It is time we reviewed our history to understand how those "ordinary people" were able to effectively make an impact and spark change. I recently heard a pastor on the news speak about the situation in Detroit and say that "teachers are not civil rights leaders because they do not have time because they are teaching in schools every day." I counter that by saying that teachers most definitely are civil rights leaders. Some of the most basic civil rights lessons are taught in schools on a daily basis - such as fairness, equity, and treating everyone with respect.
There is no easy or "quick" fix to this problem. However, we can begin by coming together across color lines, income lines, and boundary lines to ensure that all members of our community understand how to advocate for change and are fully experiencing the benefits of our constitution. I encourage teachers and those in the community with knowledge and political capital to begin to facilitate lessons to build the capacity of both students and parents. When elected and appointed officials know that community members have come together, are educated on the issues, and understand the power they have, the needs of all members of the community are better served.
Concetta Lewis, an America Achieves and Michigan Educator Voice Fellow, was a teacher for 13 years in Detroit schools and is currently a special education administrator with Ann Arbor Public Schools and Vice-President of the Michigan Council for Exceptional Children. @LewisConcetta on Twitter
Photo by msalguero https://pixabay.com/en/tap-bathroom-drop-of-water-water-943297/