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I’ve been a mother for 14 years. I have a teenage son and a young daughter. Being a mother is a great honor that brings an indescribable joy. I marvel daily at the ways my children are growing and developing. I am also humbled at how parenting has made me a better human being. At night, I often gaze at my two precious children sleeping and am filled with gratitude and warmth.
But being a Black mother is also a heavy mental load. At times, it is both physically and emotionally exhausting. My need to protect my children from all types of dehumanizing attitudes and actions in the world around them takes a toll. I feel the stress in my jaw when I get angry over an unjust situation and then realize I’ve been clenching my teeth. My neck and shoulders tighten as I worry about their well-being when they’re out with friends, and realize I’m unable to truly relax until I hear them come in the door. My heart aches and my eyes sting from holding back tears when we discuss an injustice carried out against a child who looks like them.
Having “the talk” in households of color isn’t just that discussion about sex. It’s also the talk about what to do when someone calls you a racial slur. Or what to say when a teacher tells you they don’t expect you to do well in their class. Or how to respond when someone disrespects you by touching your hair, your clothing, or your body because it’s “different.” Or how to behave in the mall so you don’t get accused of stealing. Or how to engage with police officers so you make it home safely. These are talks I wish I didn’t have to give, but they are necessary to keep my children safe.
Every day, I look at my precious son, who now towers over me, as he gets up and prepares for school. I pray that his mind and spirit are well as he faces each new day. I think about how the opportunities to thrive for boys and young men of color are obstructed by the day-to-day indignities they face in our society. The historical treatment of people of color, and the current laws, practices, and social conditions in communities in the United States continually send a message that it is okay to degrade, shame, and devalue our boys and young men.
The weight of these messages, and the trauma it creates, is a heavier burden than a boy should have to bear. The work of humanizing the injured heart and mind of a boy of color happens through protection, connection, affection, direction, and correction, as coined by my friend and colleague, Dr. Howard Stevenson. So, as a fiercely determined mother to a boy in this predicament, I work daily to liberate him from the weight of this load.
I protect his heart and his mind by affirming him each day. I call him “scholar,” and “prince,” and “world-changer.” I protect him by offering a counter-narrative to the harsh characterization of his people, and giving him the knowledge of his ancestral history that reveals the legacy and power that lives within him. I protect him by connecting him to media that tells positive stories about boys like him. I send him stories of triumph and tenacity to invalidate the oppressive stories of hate.
“I protect him by offering a counter-narrative to the harsh characterization of his people, and giving him the knowledge of his ancestral history that reveals the legacy and power that lives within him.”
I connect him to the rich history of his immediate and extended family — the men who came before him and worked tirelessly as laborers, entrepreneurs, pharmacists, teachers, chefs, and nurses. I connect him to a tight-knit circle of friends who are like family that we have created to be a part of our village. I connect him to community institutions that pour into him — our church, his martial arts master, his basketball coach.
I pour affection onto him like running water. Even when we are in disagreement, I want him to feel love in my words. It sets the tone for his day when the first words he hears before he leaves our home are words of love and positivity. I also shower him with physical affection. Even as a teen, he still accepts my wet cheek kisses and warm hugs. That affection beats back the harshness of the world around him. Proximity and touch do wonders for the heart.
“Affection beats back the harshness of the world around him. Proximity and touch do wonders for the heart.”
I direct him by listening to his dreams, and pushing him to develop the skills to support the fulfillment of those dreams. I point out for him abilities that he may not recognize yet in himself, and I encourage him to build on them. I direct him by helping him to conceive how seemingly disparate skills come together to form a vision for his life that is fulfilling and rich.
I have high expectations for his behavior, his treatment of others, his honoring of elders, his respect for women, and his work ethic. I correct him when he falls short, and I hold him accountable. I want him to understand what it means to walk strongly in his manhood — with a sense of purpose, responsibility, and grace. I correct to foster understanding and changed behavior. This requires a lot of conversations, examples, and sharing of my own missteps in life.
“This is how I show my love. To liberate his mind from the chains of dehumanization that threaten to drag him down when he wants to soar.”
This is how I show my love. To liberate his mind from the chains of dehumanization that threaten to drag him down when he wants to soar. To transcend the negativity, and instill a hope that stirs up in him the strength to thrive. I don’t always get it right. And, I don’t do it alone. I am held up by the power of the ancestors, my own mother, his fathers, and the village that wraps its loving protection around us. This is my child, and I see this as my charge as a Black mother. And to all the mothers of beautiful boys of color who embrace this as their duty, I see you, sis. I see you.
A mother’s love liberates.
I remember very clearly when I first became aware of educational inequity and structural racism. Just before I entered middle school, our family moved to the suburbs of Montgomery County, Maryland, which boasted one of the top school systems in the nation. I tested into a STEM magnet program and was excited for all that 7th grade would bring. As a naïve 12-year-old, I assumed my school experience would mirror the vast cultural and ethnic diversity of my new neighborhood that I loved. I was in for a huge surprise.
While my school’s overall enrollment was very diverse, the magnet program was filled mostly with White students. As the students in this elite program housed within the school, we had separate classes and totally different educational experiences than the other students. In those two years, I saw over and over again how my opportunities were vastly different from that of the other students of color in my school. Back then, I didn’t know the desegregation policy requirements placed on school districts or their implications. I didn’t know that this program was designed to integrate our schools according to the letter of the law, but not the intent. All I knew was that it didn’t make me feel good.
I guess I was supposed to feel “lucky” or “fortunate” because I got to be one of the few Black students participating in the education that White students were receiving. But, even as a 12-year-old, it didn’t feel right. I was getting a great education, but I felt isolated. I remember being voted “Most Likely to Succeed” as an 8th grader, but it didn’t feel like it was an accomplishment at all. Because although I was excelling academically, I didn’t have a connection or real friendships with the kids who looked like me — or the White kids in my magnet program either, for that matter. I wanted to be Black and gifted, not gifted and isolated. But my school did not offer the opportunity to embrace both my Blackness and my genius at the same time. I’ve carried that experience with me for decades, and it angers me that Black children are still struggling with the dehumanizing, hurtful experience of structural racism in our schools.
“I wanted to be Black and gifted, not gifted and isolated. But my school did not offer the opportunity to embrace both my Blackness and my genius at the same time.”
Nowhere in the United States do students feel this struggle more deeply than in the South. The dark history of deep-seated racism and violence over the integration of Southern education serves as a backdrop for the problems that continue to have impact today. Schools are mired with issues of structural racism and inequity. This affects Black people deeply, as this is the region of the country where the majority of Black children live. According to NCES, in 2015, 59% of Black school children were enrolled in school in the South. The United States is also experiencing a reverse migration, as many Black families are returning to the South. Ironically though, it’s not a region of the country often studied for the impacts of education on its residents.
Since the 1990s, the South has rapidly returned to the segregated, unequal schools of its past. Fully half of Southern comprehensive high schools are extremely segregated, with enrollments either being more than 75% Black or more than 75% White. Nearly 60 percent of White public high school students in the South attend an extremely segregated White school, while more than one-third of black high school students attend an extremely segregated Black school. To be clear, this does not happen without intentionality on the part of policymakers that draw school district boundary lines and establish school feeder patterns.
A look at these segregated Black Southern high schools reveals several key disparities. In these schools, 1 in 14 teachers are not certified, as compared to White high schools where the ratio is 1 in 100. These schools are less likely to offer algebra 2, advanced math, calculus, chemistry, and physics classes. According to the United States Department of Education, there are approximately 5,000 secondary schools with high Black and Latinx enrollments that offer mathematics and science classes at a lower rate than the overall population of high schools. Nationally, only 57 percent of Black students in all types of schools have access to a full college preparatory curriculum. In the South, less than one-third of Black students enrolled in these segregated Southern high schools have access to a full college preparatory curriculum. And beyond the issue of access is the matter of opportunity to actually participate in these courses, which was the struggle of my childhood school. Research tells us that having certified teachers and participation in a rigorous college preparatory curriculum in high school impacts whether a student enrolls in college, requires remediation, or completes their degree.
“Less than one-third of Black students enrolled in segregated Southern high schools have access to a full college preparatory curriculum.”
Our current education system places Black students in the South at a clear disadvantage. Southern education in many states, as currently constructed, is either maintaining or widening the educational and economic divide between Blacks and Whites. This is supported by the persistent gaps in college matriculation and completion, as well as household income between Blacks and Whites in the South. And we are kidding ourselves if we think that Black students don’t see these inequities and internalize the horrible message that it sends, just like I did in middle school— “Black students are not valued. We are not good enough to be invested in equally. Our education matters less.”
Black students internalize a horrible message: “Black students are not valued. We are not good enough to be invested in equally. Our education matters less.”
A quality education is touted as the great economic equalizer, providing everyone access to the American Dream. But what happens when structural racism takes hold and the education isn’t high quality for every child? What happens when the vestiges of a Jim Crow era maintain a chokehold on the educational structures of an entire region of the United States? What happens when those in power put all their weight behind preserving the status quo because they want their children to maintain advantage, to the detriment of Black children in their communities? Then education is not the equalizer, but instead it is the preserver of white supremacy.
The ability to move from poverty to the middle class in a single generation, build wealth, and change the trajectory of the family is denied most Blacks in the South, and it begins with inequities in how we teach the children. The solutions to this problem exist — and have existed for decades. What does not exist is the real will to change.
Those who hold the purse strings of education and make decisions about policies and practices implemented in Southern schools must care about what happens to Black students and Black families. This caring must be demonstrated in the form of real action — a commitment to true racial equity analysis of school and district structures, a timely plan for implementation of just and fair policies, and true accountability for making Southern schools equitable for Black students.
It is the absolute right of Black students to have a quality, equitable education.We cannot continue to allow the majority of our nation’s Black children to be neglected by an education system that only pays lip service to equity and academic progress for all. We must fight to end the unchecked systemic racism in Southern education.
by Rhonda Bryant
The issue of access to afterschool programs is one that is deeply personal for me. When I was 9 years old, my family lived in northeast Washington, DC. We’d recently moved there, and we didn’t have family or friends living close by. I was in the 4th grade, and my brother was in 2nd. We attended LaSalle Elementary, our neighborhood school that was just a block from our home. My mother would see us off and we would walk there every morning. But after school, she was still at work. There was no free or affordable afterschool program in or near our school, and that was an extra cost that my mother simply could not afford.
So my brother and I were “latchkey kids.” We would walk home together and then call Mom at work to let her know we were safe. Then I’d make us a snack and we would read, do homework, and watch tv until Mom made it home. But my mother hated this and, secretly, I did too. I mean, really, look at that picture — does that little girl look like she can care for herself and a younger sibling for 3 hours a day? I’d never complain though because I knew my mother was doing the best she could.
A few weeks into the school year, the newly-built Lamond-Riggs Library opened in our neighborhood. My mother, being the resourceful and creative woman that she is, paid the librarians a visit. She was determined to figure out something so her two kids weren’t unsupervised each day for 3 hours. She worked out a deal with them so that, as long as we were quiet, we were allowed to stay there until she got off of work. A few other desperate parents had the same idea, and so a group of us walked together to the Lamond-Riggs Library every single day after school. And there we’d be — our little crew — doing homework, reading books, and playing games until one by one, our parents arrived to pick us up.
My mother did this for eight years. As we moved through middle and high school, she would just get to know the librarians at whichever library was closest, and that’s where we would go. She could not afford anything else. The fact that a responsible mother with a masters degree and full-time professional job could not afford the cost of afterschool child care on her salary is an economic issue in itself, but that’s another post entirely. She was not alone — many of her friends were in a similar predicament, feeling stuck and scared with nowhere safe for their children to go when school dismissed at 3pm. Those librarians gave my mother a precious gift — a free, safe place for her children.
The nation’s 21st Century Community Learning Center (21st CCLC) program wasn’t created until I was a college student. The program was started, in part, because America recognized that the hours of 3–6 pm, when children were unsupervised, were the most dangerous hours of their young lives. Organizations like Fight Crime, Invest in Kids threw their full support behind programs like 21st CCLC because they recognized the need to invest in solutions that kept kids safe and productive. Since then, millions of children whose parents otherwise could not afford it have had safe places to go after school. Two-thirds (67%) of participants in 21st CCLC qualify for free and reduced lunch, and more than 70% of participants are children of color.
Research compiled by Afterschool Alliance shows that students who participate in afterschool programs have better academic performance, better attendance, and are less likely to drop out of school. Schools have decreased behavioral incidents, and kids are less likely to engage in risky behaviors. More than 8 in 10 parents agree that having children in afterschool programs helps parents keep their jobs and gives parents peace of mind about their children while they are at work. The demand for afterschool services, however, far exceeds the amount of services available. About 19 million parents report they would use afterschool services for their children if they were available. Hispanic and African-American children are currently at least two times more likely to participate in an afterschool program than Caucasian children, and the unmet demand for afterschool programs is also higher for Hispanic and African-American children.
With outcomes and demonstrated needs like these, it is unfathomable that the Trump Administration is proposing to eliminate this program in their 2020 budget proposal.
Eliminating 21st CCLC will hurt working parents of color, who are less likely to have flexible work schedules or paid leave. It will increase their level of worry about their children, and also make it more likely that they will lose their jobs in the event their child has an emergency after school. It will steal opportunities from students of color who need these programs to support their academic success. It will impair the work of teachers, who will have to do so much more to help their students learn. It will also increase policing in communities of color, because a lack of afterschool programs practically guarantees an uptick in risky behaviors, as idle young people make mistakes and get into trouble. Knowingly creating these adverse conditions, particularly for those who can least afford to have opportunities and options taken away from them, is simply inhumane.
My first job after graduate school was working in a community center that offered afterschool programs to neighborhood children. My enrollment was 100% students of color. The federal funding we received allowed us to serve children for a nominal cost to parents. I literally saw hundreds of students each week. For those precious afterschool hours, they were MY babies. I collaborated with their parents and their teachers to pour into them everything I knew to give. I taught them how to read, practiced math drills, helped them create elaborate science projects, taught them about other countries, ran an SAT prep program, and helped them complete college applications and essays — all while their parents were hard at work trying to earn the money necessary to support their families. When my students excelled, my heart soared. They are now adults, and many of them have shared with me how the seeds sown in our afterschool program made a difference in their lives.
We know that afterschool programs work. They work for all students and, quite frankly, fill a particular need for students of color and their families. We must ensure that 21st Century Community Learning Centers don’t go away. Afterschool Alliance, a national leading organization working to ensure that all youth have access to affordable, quality afterschool programs, has developed an interactive map to show how this proposed cut would adversely impact students in each state. Check out the tools developed by Afterschool Alliance to see how you can make your voice heard and save funding for afterschool.