A Latino Principal from the South Bronx Urges Conversation in the Classroom Around Black Lives Matter

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"We have a responsibility to engage in dialogue about our students real lives," he says.

I work with young people of color everyday as a principal in the South Bronx. I am committed to serving a community of students who are brilliant and exciting yet often forgotten as they face the intense struggles that surround people of color in 2016. I do this work because I am committed to social justice. I am committed to fighting for our collective liberation. But I also do this work because I believe that when loved and supported towards leadership, young people are simply awesome, inspiring and brilliant. I believe in young people because I am captivated by the openness in which so many of my scholars see the world and our collective potential.

I get to see my scholars’ greatness because I invest in their dreams. I even make sure we invest in the dreams of students who can’t yet name their dreams butlike all of us as young peopleare all still dream-filled. I like to promote dreaming by making sure there is space for dreams that cross race, class, citizenship, sexual orientation and gender and just exist in the spirit of forward thinking. Dreams that often require evolution, the type of evolution that only happens with knowledge, access and new and inspiring experiences. While I am in the business of teaching and learning, I often feel like my real work is to facilitate opportunities that allow dreams to evolve. This pushes my scholars to see their unlimited potential through new experiences and their subsequent personal and academic growth. 

I love my kids. It's hard to articulate how deep this love is. Through their successes and mistakes, triumphs and setbacks, I love them because I am fully invested in their potential and their dreams. Because I am invested in the work of dreams, I find that I am often focused on the future and I fear that I am not able to fully honor the lived moment-to-moment experiences of our kids. I think this happens to many committed and compassionate educators. We juggle competing priorities, avoid difficult conversations and put our energies into strengthening our students' future with a laser focus on skill building, content acquisition, character development, college access and goal setting. Tomorrow comes before today and urgent vs important can sometimes get blurry.

And then these last few weeks happen- again. More Black men killed by police. A story that fills my Facebook feed time and time again. Another brown person with dreams, hopes, fears and triumphs. Another person who "looks like" my boys. It breaks my heart. It forces me to question my work. How do I juggle all these important elements of teaching and learning, while also honoring my students’ lives, cultivating dialogue around police brutality and institutional racism, and facilitating opportunities for leadership? How do we nurture dreams when the lived in-real-life experiences of so many of my dreamers are plagued by real and ever present messages that scream, "you don't matter, you aren't safe, and your life is in danger"?

We certainly can't be silent. We have to engage in real dialogue. This is a state of emergency and our conversations and actions must reflect it. Our work in schools must echo this. We have to collectively voice our concern about the killings of black and brown people and we must have these difficult and loud conversations with everyone we know. Yes—at every dinner table, every picnic, every beach day, and...with every student. Starting on the first day of school, we have to honor our young people and honor their dreams by tuning into their reality.

But how do we talk about this with our kids? How do we engage in this heartbreaking dialogue without extinguishing dreams? How do we create spaces for these conversations if so many adults are uncomfortable by these realities? Where is there room in this work to also engage in conversation about the historical violence, bias and hatred that has existed for so many of our families for generations? As progressive educators who work with students of color, many of whom don't share these lived experiences with our kids (only 8% of educators in NYC, the largest school district in our country, are men of color), we have a responsibility to engage in dialogue about our students real lives. And it's not just about shootings, though the reflection on these horrific and patterned acts of violence by police must be named and the lives of those killed must be honored. It's about the daily harassment our kids’ feel, the overt dehumanization by our justice system, and the steadfast criminalization of black and brown bodies. It's about the historical killings of black and brown folks, from Emmitt Till to Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. 

As the Black Lives Matter movement pushes media and our country into critical discourse and places a new visibility around the slaying of black and brown people, we need to leverage that in all our communications and fold that into our classrooms and school communities. As educators, if we are in the business of nurturing dreams, then we must honor reality.

This can't be a one-time conversation, a solitary assembly or moment of silence because these are not discrete occurrences in the lives of our students. It must be embedded in our conversations with students, honored in our curriculum, visible in our hallways, present in our communications to the entire school community, and reflected on/with our students' communities and families.

There is no prescription. No right way. But, I am a firm believer that together, we can began to identify ways that allow schools to transform pedagogy so that it both honors our current realities and uses truth as a catalyst for student growth (and the growth of the entire school community). 

I’d love to see this comment section turn into a brainstorm. No snarky comments, just love and an investment in sharing our best ideas. This is a space for educators, concerned parents, thinkers and citizens. It’s a space for all of us to think through how we want to nurture learning and honor truth. What does this shift in teaching and learning look like? If we are invested in the dreams of our young people, how do we honor their lived experiences? How can schools cultivate an anti-racist culture of reality that validates and affirms in service of strengthening the next generation of black and brown leaders? Share you thinking in the comments!

Brandon Cardet-Hernandez is the proud Principal of the Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters, a public school in the South Bronx serving grades 6-12. He is also the co-founder of Project Nathanael, a non-profit organization that supports free education and teacher development in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. He is a first generation Cuban-American and was awarded with the AmeriCorp National Leadership Award for driving national and global social movements.

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