LEE members and co-founders Kathryn Coleman and Sarae Addison have begun to create a national black education policy agenda as PhD candidates in the Education Policy and Equity PhD Program at St. Louis University. Kathryn and Sarae sat down with LEE staff member Danielle Guillen to discuss the importance of a national Black education agenda, honoring the unique needs of Black students in our schools, and what moving towards antiracist school systems would mean for the Black community.
Tell us a little bit about yourselves and what led you to begin to form a national Black education agenda?
Sarae: I moved to St. Louis in 2014 to teach as a corps member for Teach For America. During teaching, I noticed a lot of inequity from academics to resources when comparing my personal education to the education I saw children in other countries receive and in comparison to what I was seeing for black children in the United States. In 2017, I ran for the School District of University City School Board for 3 years and through that experience, fueled by what I experienced in the classrooms, I realized that there was an opportunity for policy to make systemic changes for children that looked like me. I could say, “these children needed support in these specific areas,” and create the momentum to put those policies and systems in place to advance the needs for black children. It is also bringing in people around me who are doing the work because we aren’t the only people feeling this way.
Kathryn: I taught in the corps in the high school I graduated from. I am from St. Louis. I realized that those children are me and the only difference between me and them was that I was also good athletically. Being an athlete was the only reason I was able to go to college. While teaching and coaching, I realized only the really smart or athletic kids were able to access college and scholarships. I thought about the average student and their access to education and opportunities to succeed. As a teacher, I was able to touch the lives of the students in my classroom but I realized that there were so many students who would not have those opportunities and this led me to join the education policy and equity PhD program at St. Louis University. I felt that changes in policy would directly impact students who fall outside of our ideas of success. We needed an education agenda for the students that fall outside of the success stories we see.
Why is a national education policy platform for black children important? What key insights have you discovered since beginning the process to create a national Black education agenda?
Sarae: It is common to call out a subgroup of students and respond to their needs such as low income students. At this point, black students have a need to be met and there are specific needs of black families where a response is needed. A policy platform is a recognition on a larger scale that these needs are happening and it allows funding to be given in order to signal that we need to fix this. For instance, black children should have access to information about building financial wealth in schools.
Kathryn: For me, a big key to addressing the specific issue would be to address the needs of the black community outside of school.
Sarae: Exactly, a national education policy platform for black children has to start by addressing communal issues in addition to school site issues. A national black education policy platform is powerful because it is organized. We are creating this national black education policy platform to have the same power as the list of demands from the Black Panther Party and Malcolm X. We need to build on past historical examples of black power and solve the needs of black children in education once and for all.
Kathryn: What we learn from the past is that it is not a one shoe fits all policy solution. Every community has specific needs. I wanted to create a national black education agenda because it allows us to address the differing needs of black children in different regions nationally. Our platform is not a universal platform but tailored to the unique needs of black children in different regions.
We currently see the historical impacts of education policy in our school systems as well as how these impacts affect the academic outcomes of black children. How can a national Black education agenda begin to address the historical impacts of racism towards the black community?
Sarae: The way that policies are written typically provide context. Something like this would call out all the ways in which black children overtime have been placed at a disadvantage. For example, it can give historical context on the impacts of segregation and integration and connect it to practices and procedures in schools that continue to perpetuate these historical impacts. It can also share examples of ways in which we have policy solutions that center around the needs of black children and we can do it collectively though kindergarten all the way to a PhD program.
Kathryn: First, we need to bring it to light and not be told we can’t talk about it or only use predetermined language to talk about historical events of racism and its impacts. By creating an agenda, we can set up a curriculum and game plan about what we want our children to learn. A national black education agenda will tell the whole story of black history in America - outside of the history we learn as black people in schools now (such as the history of George Washtingon Carver, Martin Luther King, and the history of enslaved people in America). For instance in St. Louis, the history of redlining and segregation are so apparent. However, it was never anything that was brought to my attention in schools.
When I went out on my own, I began to learn about how widespread these problems were for the black community. I did not learn about the Del Mar divide until I was in my 30s. However, there is clear segregation here in St. Louis. We learn how to exist with and normalize racism because that is how things are and this is why it is important to teach black children black history in schools. A national black education agenda is needed because until you bring these things to light on a national level, we will never be able to create solutions that meet the needs of black children.
Sarae: Yes, there is power in the acknowledgement that these historical impacts happened and why they happened. Oftentimes, black issues are overlooked, thrown under the rug, or grouped into other things. It is seldom acknowledged and while it can be difficult to be in a room where people know harm is being done but don’t acknowledge it, I would rather focus on those who are willing to do the work. A national black education agenda creates accountability where people can acknowledge historical impacts and do something about them.
On June 19, we will observe and celebrate Juneteenth, a day that is a pivotal moment in American history and one that we may not teach about in schools. Additionally, we are seeing how Ethnic Studies curriculum and Critical Race Theory is dividing communities and is causing some communities to finally feel seen while others are fearful of these changes.
As you think about the work you have done to create a national education policy agenda for black children, how do you envision our school systems becoming truly antiracist?
Kathryn: Our political environment puts us in a head space where disagreeing with someone means that you’re against them or to call someone out means you dislike them. This mentality does not allow us to grow and become better. Everyone has to grow. We have to get away from this idea that if we do not agree with this idea, we cannot do it. We can still work together, love each other, and have the same passion for others. I can call out what is wrong and still like you. For me, in order for our school systems to become antiracist we must first be willing to hear about what is happening in the country for groups of people.
Sarae: We are not at the place where we can talk about historical events like Juneteenth because when it comes to talking about race at all in America, there is a visceral response. There is constantly a negative response when talking about race. Critical Race Theory gives us a framework to talk about why we don’t talk about historical events like Juneteenth.
Kathryn: This is what happens when individuals do not receive info.
Sarae: Black education extends past the K-12 space. Black communities are being disserviced by the formal education system and there are opportunities to teach to the needs of the community. We want to create a network and living document of what we as black people think will contribute to our educational advancement.
Any advice you have for people who want to support a national black education agenda?
Sarae: Speak up when it is time to speak up and join us! Also, everyone needs to be an example of someone who knows this history or is open to learning about it.
Kathryn: I just want to second everything Sarae said and exclamation point it!
*This interview has been transcribed and is in subjects' own words, with edits for clarity or brevity.