Let's Get Back to Work

In social justice work, conspiracies are real. Communities of color have experienced the intentional conspiring of systems and players to secure power and freedom for everyone but us since America's inception. When I speak to students about inequity in my hometown of St. Louis, I invariably provide a brief history of segregation in the city: restricted housing covenants, sundown towns and public housing policies rendered St. Louis separate and unequal on purpose. Though the laws no longer exist, the legacy remains: St. Louis is still significantly racially segregated and two different zip codes less than 10 miles apart mean vastly different life expectancies, income, education and health care to this day. Growing up as a person of color means you don't dismiss the conspiracy theory-you listen, potentially for your own protection and survival.

Recently I've become aware of another conspiracy, one which I am apparently knowingly aiding and abetting, to my surprise. There is nothing quite like the experience of having your personal choices and beliefs dissected simply for deciding to stand up alongside many others and make an earnest attempt for freedom. Previously, my friend and colleague in this modern movement for racial freedom, DeRay McKesson and I were accused of using Teach For America (TFA) -- an organization of which we are both alumni and I am currently employed -- as a shell for our plans to build an army of fellow "racial rabble rousers." Somehow, a few months later, we are both again accused of using TFA for our own subversive intentions-only this time by someone on the polar opposite end of the political spectrum.

It is easy to portray me as the evil "Trojan Horse," a sell-out opportunist seeking power and access to carry out my evil scheme behind the mask of black skin. It is more difficult to acknowledge the truth: that on August 10th, the day after Mike Brown was killed, I stood in my own community of North St. Louis County, without the permission of my superiors, alongside hundreds of people who had been gathering since the day before, to have our questions answered, share our all-too-familiar grief, and demand justice for Mike Brown because it was very simply the right thing to do. It is difficult to acknowledge that we continued to enter the streets, night after night, to our own professional, personal and physical peril, before the media trucks came and Ferguson became the celebrity cause of the era.

It is easy to use Ferguson and our participation in it as fodder for your political theater. It is easy to criticize a movement from the comfort of your couch and the boldness that electronic detachment allows. But the truth is that this movement has taught the world a critical lesson in allyship and solidarity -- that your role, if you enjoy racial privilege, is not to speak for people or condescend those who actually grew up in St. Louis and/or belong to the racially marginalized community, like myself and DeRay. Criticism and feedback are always welcome -- in fact, I firmly believe they make us better. But racialized condescension, coded language and arrogance that lacks evidence is not valid criticism, and it does nothing to advance the cause of freedom and liberation for people of color. We are not to be used for your agenda, and I am not and wouldn't dare use my people for one, either.

It is easy to portray our work in Ferguson and St. Louis as one point in a series of ploys to gain entry for Teach For America and encourage the proliferation of public charter schools, kicking out educators of color to replace them with nothing but white teachers in black communities, ignoring the will of the communities we are privileged to serve. But the truth? The truth is that in St. Louis, where I have been honored to lead our efforts for the past three years, we place the majority of our teachers in traditional public schools where shortages still occur annually, and where two-thirds of our alumni who remain in education decide to continue their careers in our schools. The truth is that it has been our evolving organizational connection with my hometown community that pushed us to raise more money to transform our teacher training to be hyper-local , centered in culturally responsive pedagogy , and, along with TFA nationally, have been placing cohorts of teachers more diverse in race, economic background and age than ever before.

It is easy to reduce our time teaching displaced students in the Ferguson library to a scandalous plot twist, when the evil villains used children and a community stricken with pain for our own goals. The truth, however, is far more boring. The truth is that because we have a cadre of trained educators, economic resources and media connections, standing up beside the Ferguson teachers and parents who started the make-shift school was the very least we could do. After all, isn't that what it looks like to be in solidarity? Using our use our privilege for good meant we could send in additional teachers when Ferguson teachers had to go to crisis counseling training. Our financial resources helped secure additional supplies where before, teachers and retirees were buying them from their own pockets. Our media connections and, yes, partners with presence on Twitter, helped get the word out to worried parents who needed safety, security and instruction for their scared and confused children. Stepping into that work alongside several dozen parents, traditional teachers and community volunteers who brought their many talents was not a conspiracy: it was our responsibility.

I could continue to spend my space refuting every false claim, picking apart every unfounded ad hominem attack and outlandish connection masquerading as "investigative journalism" with facts, timelines and evidence. I could even spin my own tale, about the forces some believe are being used by the "powers that be" to maintain the status quo and prevent freedom from ever becoming a reality.

But that would be a waste of my time-and yours, too.

The truth of the matter is that would be too easy. As DeRay often tweets, "It will take all of us to win." If we are serious about winning in this fight against inequity in its many varieties, drawing up the people we disagree with to be nothing more than villains of cartoonish proportions abdicates us of the responsibility to figure out how to win, together-because it's the only way we will.

It would be easier, and probably far more entertaining, if there was a "there" there. But the only thing I see there is adults bickering, and as a result, children losing. My friend, Dr. Andre Perry, shared the same sentiment at this year's Education Braintrust during the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Annual Legislative Conference.

Let's be clear: Children deserve more than what is easy. They, along with marginalized communities across this country who continue to suffer from police violence, poverty and oppression, require that we get beyond what's easy -- the harder work of making change. In Ferguson, we stood shoulder to shoulder with people whose paths we may never have crossed, whose backgrounds, traditions, beliefs and even street organizations may have differed from the person next to them. But the cry for justice united us. I am willing to work with anyone who puts the most affected first. We all should be.

That will require that we stop yelling at one another and put children back at the center. It will require that we elevate our conversations beyond our personal ideological frameworks and the salacious viral posts that entrench them, and earnestly seek out what works best for kids -- regardless of where it comes from. It will require that we seriously question posts that do more to spin tales of adult actions than they do to honor what young people have sacrificed in Ferguson -- a story I work to take with me wherever I go -- instead of simply blindly clicking the share button. It will require that we continue to check our respective privilege, listening and learning from marginalized communities instead of using your privilege to demonize those among the affected community with whom you disagree.

For me, it means I need to spend my remaining characters to tell you about Clifton Kinnie, who stood each night while finishing high school and helping to raise his siblings after his mother died from stage four breast cancer. It means your time is better spent deciding how to support the students who came to the Ferguson Commission's Youth Speak and the youth activists who testified before our Task Force, whose substantive ideas and brave feedback shaped our final reports. It means supporting young men like Martese Johnson, whose bravery following his experience being beaten by police on his college campus continues to give voice to many with the same story while established voices attempt to drown him out. It means that when you finish reading this, you should be reading this, and pushing back on the recent findings in the killing of Tamir Rice, because the idea that it is ever justifiable to shoot a 12-year-old holding a toy should concern us all.

I don't plan to pen anything like this ever again. Instead, I want to get back to work, with any and everyone who wants freedom and justice for my community and yours. I want to follow the example of love, collectivism and resilience that our students display every day in classrooms, and that people have shown on the streets of Ferguson and beyond. Let's spend our time working together to build learners and leaders, empowering more young people with the courage to stand up for justice and the critical skills to achieve it. They are the true leaders of this movement. I work for them.