MLK Jr.’s Legacy and the Work of Our School

Our school is in the middle of an awakening- a reimagining, a rebirth.  Over the last 15 months, leadership, staff, the Board, and families have come together to work hard clarifying our vision for our future and articulating our core values as a school.  One of our 4 core values is EQUITY.  How do we seek to live that value every day?

When I accepted the position of Executive Director of GRCDC 15 months ago, it was with a deep knowledge of our strengths, our opportunities for growth, and the dynamic hope and possibilities of this place.  Last March, I addressed the school community and publicly framed the problem our school faces regarding inequity and the first steps towards change. If you missed it, you can read the deck here or watch the video here (super side note: I fall over in the video 41 minutes in.  I was fine, but I feel the need to warn people before they watch because it can be a little surprising.)

Our school, as most schools in our country, has an equity problem that is based on race and class.  You see, it is common knowledge that every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets. Our major institutions, including education, were never designed to well serve all people equally or equitably.  As a result, we find ourselves now in a situation where we can choose to change our system, so that we may achieve different results or continue to maintain a status quo that harms us all.  We have a staff committed to equity work, we have a vision and core values to guide us, and now we need to make sure that ALL of us are a part of this work to create an equitable, life-affirming, and options-expanding school for all children who attend here.

Martin Luther King Jr Day is an opportunity to reflect on our work in context of his work- what was he calling for, what have we done, and where are we going?  When we reflect on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., calling on all of us to work towards nonviolent social change through information gathering, education, personal commitment, discussion/negotiation, direct action and reconciliation, we must take stock of where we are currently striving, where we may be missing something, and where we must go next.  

Martin Luther King Jr., who is pretty universally beloved now, was not universally beloved in his time.  In fact, he spoke hard truths in beautiful ways and lead and participated in many direct actions that were unpopular.  He was brutalized for it, and eventually killed. His legacy is of doing the hard, uncomfortable work, of keeping at it each day, of making mistakes and trying again, and speaking truth in times of conflict.  This quote from author Austin Channing Brown grounds me in my thinking, as a white leader of a racially diverse school district, A whitewashed understanding of King is incredibly frustrating….King’s demonstrations were controversial. King was physically assaulted on multiple occasions. King was too extreme for some and too moderate for others. King received death threats from strangers and suggestions to commit suicide from the govt. King was imperfect fo sho (aren’t we all). But he believed deeply in the inherent dignity of black folks. If your political desires aren’t rooted in seeking justice that recognizes the dignity of blackness, you are whitewashing his quotes, taking him out of context, and (mis)using his legacy of books, essays, sermons. If you really want to honor King, I suggest you take some time to reflect on how you have undermined black dignity, and how you can work to restore what you tried to destroy.”

So what are we working on, as a school, to restore what our country has tried so hard to destroy? We believe that this work is daily, systemic, and never ending.   Grand Rapids Child Discovery Center is proudly in year 1 of a 3 year Equity Pilot through MiBLISI and the Michigan Department of Education. Through this pilot, we have monthly facilitation, support and coaching from Beth Hill, LMSW and Dr. Ruth Payno-Simmons, the leaders of the project. This pilot takes our staff through deep professional development around issues of identity, race and equity, while also teaching us the tools and helping implement the systems to end racial disproportionality in our school.  We have been hard at work in this pilot since September. The intended outcomes of this year’s work are:

  • Emphasize results and focusing on adult behavior
  • Meet on a regular basis to systematically examine data specific to understanding behaviors and disproportionality
  • Foster critical consciousness amongst staff and administration
  • Decrease in disproportionate discipline
  • Explicitly name and understand the role of race in inequitable outcomes by engaging in ongoing learning around implicit bias and our socio-historical context
  • Develop and carry out action plans specific to the data review process
  • Align action items to school/district improvement process and plans

I share this work with you for 3 reasons:

  1. I am incredibly proud of our staff and their dedication to equity work.  In all my years in education and in the dozens of schools I’ve visited across our nation, I’ve never seen a staff more ready to do this work than ours.
  2. I acknowledge that right now, we don’t have some of the MLK Day programming that other schools may have, and I want to name that we have chosen to approach our equity work as part of our daily life and ultimate goal of our system- not a special celebration that we think of one day and forget the next.  However, we are ready to build new, sustainable traditions in our school that represent this point of view and need your help.
  3. It is time for our equity work to involve our whole school community in a more specific way, especially our families.  Please be on the lookout for many opportunities to engage in this work together.

In closing, I want us to remember Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy by pushing towards this challenging quote from his Letter from A Birmingham Jail (1963) that grounds us in the work ahead towards an equitable GRCDC, “I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed in the white moderate.  I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal of your work but cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season”.  Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating that absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.” We are poised and ready to push GRCDC past a negative peace into a positive peace- the presence of justice within our school.  How do you plan to join us?