Sometimes the most unexpected opportunities turn out to be the best.
When I was asked to sponsor our school’s first Black Student Union in November 2017, my initial response was simple: “ I’m flattered, but I’m white.”
Our student founder, Talitha, was in my Philosophy class, and had wanted to start a BSU for two years, but was hesitant to organize a formal group. Even though our school has a reputation for embracing everyone, regardless of culture, gender, sexuality, etc. there was an apparent undercurrent of racial tension that I did not readily pick up on. She said that black students at our school “were very separated, and there was no group for them to get together and talk about their experience, current events, and history.” She wanted our group to be open to students of all races, so that everyone “could gain an understanding of the black experience.” She went on to say, “With everything going on in our country, now is the time to do this. And you have to sponsor it, because you understand.”
I had a long talk with Talitha about what it was that I understood. She told me that I listened, that I clearly cared for people who looked like her, and that I was passionate about her mission. I hummed and hawed, offering excuses, not because I didn’t want to sponsor the group, but because I was afraid of what people would think: Here’s another white dude trying to be woke to make himself (and other white people) feel better. My fears were dispelled when Talitha looked at me and said “ Tucker, you have to do it. There’s no one else.”
This was a year before the district adapted its Racial Equity Policy and created a Division of Diversity, Equity, and Poverty that focuses on providing all students with spaces and places to express themselves freely, while shoring up the many cultural inequities that have plagued our district for years. This office, and its accompanying policy also came in response to the threatened state takeover of JCPS by Commissioner Wayne Lewis, who has repeatedly lambasted how the district treats and, in his opinion, fails to educate students of color.
I do not think that our school was necessarily failing to educate students of color, but it was definitely lacking a space for them to think freely and expressively about their life experiences, one that was safe from criticism and critique.
I knew we had to take action. Once I got the green light from the principal, I asked two other teachers to co-sponsor the group with me. Having support when you are trying something new is essential, and my colleagues offered moral support and an immediate sense of urgency for what we were about to undertake.
The initial response at our first meeting was overwhelming. We had 75 kids of all different races show up. We had to pull extra chairs from three different classrooms. Standing at the front of my room, looking at those students laughing and talking together remains one of the most inspiring moments of my career.
We faced our fair share of controversy in the first few months, with meeting posters being defaced, and one rumored outlier student who asked to start a white student union in response to our BSU. While I was shocked by these events, my students were not. As people of color, they were used to this kind of attitude, and were grateful that they had the group to serve as a united front against ignorance.
Two years in, our group continues to thrive. We’ve taken field trips to the Ali Center, completed a book drive for underserved elementary school libraries, and continue to give students of all races a space to express themselves. And that has been the most inspiring part. The students select all the topics of discussion at our meetings. We’ve talked about everything from hair, to implicit bias, to racial and police profiling, and even about the upcoming elections and their impact on people of color. These conversations are unfettered and uncensored, some leading to tears, but all leading to a common ground that previously did not exist in our school.
And isn’t that what the best teaching is all about? Building community and building relationships from the first day of school, to the last bus ride home.
And yet, there is still so much work to be done. Even as we take small steps towards equity, so many aspects of our culture remain unequal. It is up to us to find common ground in these divisive days. In our hallways, and in our hearts.
Because there is no one else that will care for and understand our students like we do.