Op-eds | January 13, 2021

From our CEO: the insurrection directly reflects changes needed in our education system

Like many, I’ve reflected a great deal over the past several days on the insurrection at the United States Capitol and the events leading up to this attack on our democracy. As I watched the attack on television, I found myself unable to comprehend how a mob of mostly white Trump supporters could so easily break into the most sacred symbol of our democracy while both the Senate and House were in session.

I mentally contrasted what I was seeing to the militarized police responses to the Black Lives Matter protests last summer.  The differences were undeniable. It was chilling to think about how close our elected representatives and the Vice President of the United States were to being massacred on live television. I was struck by the incredible fragility of our institutions.  Looking back on it, though, I’m ashamed that I was so shocked. I should have seen this coming. White people: we should have seen this coming.

The fissures in our country are so great that it’s sometimes hard to wrap my mind around how individuals can make a difference. At times it’s easy to feel helpless. I keep coming back, though, to The Mind Trust’s mission of ensuring an excellent and equitable education for all students and the ways white supremacy and systemic racism must be confronted and eliminated to achieve this goal. It is within this context that I share four takeaways from last week’s events and the path forward.

Integration is not a silver bullet.   

I can’t stop thinking about conversations I’ve had with parents of Black children over the past few years about the trauma that is oftentimes inflicted upon children who attend ostensibly integrated schools. These conversations have taught me that culturally affirming institutions are critical for marginalized people, especially when society is constantly reinforcing negative stereotypes about marginalized groups. Who can blame a Black or brown family for not wanting to send their children to school with people who might sympathize with what transpired last week? I sure don’t. Can you see, then, how well-meaning white people who claim that “integration is the only thing that has worked in education” can come across as patronizing (at best) to a Black family desperately searching for a school where their child will be known and loved?  

More than 65 years after Brown v. Board, our segregated schools are largely a function of our segregated society. We should undoubtedly work to change that. The reality, though, is that Black and brown families shouldn’t have to wait for white people to get it together or need to live in a certain neighborhood in order to receive a quality education. Their children should be able to attend schools that will see them as fully human, schools that are funded equitably regardless of how many white students are enrolled, and schools that have educators who look like them and who will hold them to the highest academic expectations. Anything less than ensuring that marginalized families have access to high-quality, culturally affirming schools in unacceptable.

Teachers participated in the insurrection.

We must be honest in recognizing that teachers participated in last week’s insurrection. This shouldn’t be surprising, as people from all types of professions were part of the mob that shook our Republic to its core. And don’t get me wrong: teaching is our country’s most noble profession. Great teachers are our most precious asset. But it’s hard for me to engage in conversations about how teachers are going to make sense of what happened with their students without acknowledging the structural realities of our teaching profession.

Ninety-two percent of public school teachers in Indiana are white even though 34% of Indiana students are students of color.  Many of our universities preach diversity, equity, and inclusion yet continue to produce an overwhelmingly white educator workforce even while students of color make up a greater and greater share of public school students.  We know conclusively from research that students of color who have one or more teachers of color during their academic career will achieve more academically.  Yet millions of students – of all races – finish their educational journey not having a single Black or brown teacher.  It wasn’t until I was a junior in college when I had my first Black teacher. As a father of two white boys, it is my responsibility to ensure their reality is different.

Self-reflection and coalition building are hard. They’ve never been more important.

It’s tempting to retreat to our respective corners, send some disparaging tweets, and pat ourselves on the back for not participating in the storming of the Capitol. We sooth ourselves by claiming that, of course, we would have marched with Dr. King. We take solace in the notion that we’ve mastered the language of equity more than our racist uncle has. We build a façade that we are the “good” kind of white people and not the gun-wielding-insurrectionist type of white people. The reality is that as white folks who tell ourselves these things, we are often in closest proximity to people of color and have the potential to inflict untold damage if we don’t constantly ensure that our actions align with our stated beliefs.

We are colleagues, bosses, loan officers, police officers, real estate agents, nonprofit executives, and educators. We don’t realize that we are the ones implementing the systemic oppression that we so eloquently speak about. Systems, after all, are merely collections of people. Instead of putting a Black Lives Matter sign in our yard to make us feel better about sending our kids to the exclusive all-white magnet school and talking over our Black and brown colleagues at work, we should examine what we – as well-meaning white folks – can do to tangibly bend the arc toward justice. What are we willing to sacrifice? What specific steps will we take? Are we willing to truly follow people of color? Everything else is window dressing.

But we can’t stop with self-reflection. Structural change doesn’t occur without diverse coalitions pulling multiple levers at once. It’s hard to imagine, but many people who disagree with us on certain issues came to their beliefs sincerely. We must keep challenging our assumptions, seek out perspectives with which we disagree, and understand that differences over policy ideas are not the same as disagreements about acknowledging a group’s humanity or subverting democracy. When it comes to education, The Mind Trust must continue to build diverse and durable coalitions that lead to long term and sustainable change. Too often “education reform” is done to a community even though enduring positive change is only possible if those most impacted by injustice lead the effort to dismantle and replace unjust systems. Many in our community have a stake in a high-quality education system. We should redouble our efforts to talk with people who disagree with us and work collaboratively to build a “beloved community” that is wonderfully diverse in all respects.

Our education system needs full scale transformation for students of all races.

The insurrection at the Capitol was not executed by the caricature of poor, disaffected, Rust Belt white folks motivated by economic anxiety. Quite the contrary. The violence was incited by a sitting president and was executed by a wide swath of white society, including CEOs, members of state legislatures, and even people wealthy enough to fly a private jet to the insurrection.

While we should know by now that our education system certainly wasn’t set up to serve Black and brown students, it also does a fairly lousy job of serving white students. We talk a lot about the racial achievement or opportunity gap – for good reason. But did you know that only half of white students in Indiana are proficient in English Language Arts? The same is true for math. We must also acknowledge that proficiency in a subject – or a degree from an Ivy League school for that matter – isn’t going to ensure we raise a generation of Americans who see their role as contributing to a more perfect union. This is why we can no longer tinker around the edges if we are to create an education system worthy of our country’s ideals. We must build schools that produce critical thinkers who are ready to tackle the challenges of the 21st Century with clarity, conviction, and an eye toward ensuring opportunity for all.  An industrial age education system is not up to the task.

I still have a lot to unpack and a lot more to learn about how best to navigate this time, particularly as a white nonprofit leader. I’ve certainly made my share of mistakes and will continue to do so. One thing I do know, however, is that The Mind Trust cannot be silent in the face of injustice. We cannot choose inaction out of fear of making mistakes. We have no choice but to meet this moment head on and with fierce resolve. The Mind Trust will courageously pursue our mission by supporting leaders to launch schools, building a diverse educator workforce, engaging our community, and pursuing bold system level change.

We must also continue to ask our community to hold us accountable to living out our core values, pursuing our antiracism commitments, and making progress toward our mission to ensure every Indianapolis student has access to a great school. Our Republic and the opportunity for the next generation to recognize and dismantle white supremacy are at stake. I hope you’ll join us.