I am not a black man.
My brother is. My father was. So are Derrick, Nikko, all three Jameses and 32 of the other 3rd graders I taught in my years as a Teach For America corps member.
Just two months ago, I returned here to St. Louis, my hometown, to serve as executive director of Teach For America in the region. It’s an organization that recruits, trains and supports educators to deliver on the promise of equal educational opportunity.
As I think about the big challenges in this work, I think often of Derrick, Nikko, and their peers. And in a country that is so quick to regard young black men as lost causes, I can’t help but wonder if I did enough for those brilliant boys entrusted to me.
This question was front and center for me at this year’s Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Annual Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C. For the second year running, Teach For America convened hundreds of its African-American staff, corps members and alumni at the event, taking the opportunity to reflect, grow, challenge and support one another.
Throughout the conference, even as I savored the opportunity to be with so many others who share both my racial identity and passion for creating a just world for kids who look like me, mostly, I thought about the boys I taught. And the same question plagued me.
Had I done enough to empower them? Years from now, would they have a place at a gathering of burgeoning black leaders like this one?
As a third grade teacher, I was keenly aware of the high stakes in my classroom. Today, there are more African-American men in prison than college. Only by ensuring that all children in this region have the skills and ability to graduate from the colleges of their choice and compete in a global marketplace will we begin to change this unacceptable reality. We have a moral and economic imperative to provide every student the rigorous academic preparation needed to do just this. An excellent education can change their futures and that of our region.
Teach For America is committed to partnering with communities, parents, principals, pastors, district leaders and elected officials to meet the needs of our students. To do this, we must build a pipeline of educators capable of recognizing the unique challenges facing young black men in this country.
The fact that I am not a black man does not excuse me from this. It doesn’t excuse any of us. If we do not intentionally address the needs of our black boys, we will continue to allow stereotypes and the racism of low expectations to eclipse their potential. That makes us part of the problem.
As I look towards a New Year here in St. Louis, I know students like Derrick don’t need to be saved. They just need for those of us committed to social justice to continually consider the unique barriers they face.
Nikko reminds us that, if we are to achieve the change we seek, we must make his needs central to our work, to continue the quest for answers even as we end the search for silver bullets.
All three Jameses need us to remember that being honest, culturally competent and anti-racist is the only way to get to the future we envision. They deserve our very best.