Don’t get excited, I am still not going for the full alphabet in review, but this blog post has been rattling around in my head for too long and it needs a home.
A few years ago I was asked to speak on a panel of “distinguished” women. I was pleased to be invited as the advocate for more rigorous local educational values and thoughtful policy alignment nationally. As a lifelong educator I live in daily torment that I should be willing to do much more to support a new and more equitable educational landscape: a space that no longer homes achievement gaps and disparate outcomes for every measure of success involving children of color. Disruption, innovation, creativity, and ambiguity are central to advocating for a new educational experience. The traditional 3 R’s of Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetic (as if the spelling isn’t a major problem) are not enough for any student, and yet it can still be heard bandied about as if these concepts are still the guiding principles of a 21st century education. I was invited to speak to close to 700 women about what is needed in education for North Carolina and beyond. I was introduced as an activist.
I am sure I chuckled at the superlative. Not, that ‘activist’ was a misnomer, it just felt rather lofty. Activist leadership is Angela Davis steadfast in her journey despite being on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted Fugitive list in 1970. Activist leadership was Martin Luther King, Jr. penning “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” after being arrested yet again as he organized for rights in Alabama in 1963. Activist leadership was Fannie Lou Hamer, scarred from a horrendous beating after false arrest, continuing to organize voter registration drives in 1963 and 1964.
My definition of ‘activist’ was intimately tied to these and many more examples of fearless leadership, sacrifice, struggle, and profound social change. I appreciated the title, but considered it aspirational at best, and a mistake, at worst. I went with it, the program was printed and I was already on the stage anyway. I used my minutes to challenge our status quo, to offer alternatives to a lazy and stagnant educational system, and to challenge our complicity in failing our young people. I used a few seconds to say thank you to activists and ancestors who have come before me. I am sure I said thank you to my daughter and probably my mother as well- they inspire me. I was grateful for the space and time to advocate for the often unheard.
Afterwards, many women asked me how they could get involved in local advocacy and I was happy to make connections to individuals and organizations that are doing great work and moving us all towards excellence. Less than a year later, after yet again being introduced as an activist and noticing frowns I would realize that this label came with a whispered weight. The winces and frowns came yet again at board meeting after the introduction, “she’s as activist as an activist can be!” The word ‘activist’ held a secret heft that I should have realized by virtue of my studies of Civil Rights and the pursuit of freedom as a young, black woman in the United States of America. Post-election 2016 would reveal this weight as a blessing and a burden, an unshakable brand. Each time I let others label my role in advocating for change as ‘activism’ I was pushed further to the margins. Each time equity seemed like a preposterous starting point for a conversation, my statements were discredited. The label did not stop me from building programming in support of civil unrest, creating dialogic spaces in museums and schools, and training educators to feel obligated to teach controversy, but it did begin to create an invisible boundary around my work. In post-election America, activists are trouble makers. In post-uprising Charlotte, activists are rabble-rousers – asking for changes they don’t understand and timelines deemed unreasonable. Given this reality, with every introduction, I was marked.
I was trouble with a scarlet A.
This isn’t actually a new concept. Activists are usually unpopular in their time and place by virtue of their pursuit of change. And change is tough, or hard, or [fill in any word that indicates it is not going to happen]. Change requires ideas and ACTION. Change requires data and PRACTICE. Change requires relationship and TRUTH.
Truth telling and truth accepting by all parties involved.
Today marks a day of action and service in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. Today is the birthday of a man who was ranked wildly unpopular in a 1966 Gallup Poll AFTER he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his organizing work in 1964. Today is the celebration of an activist, so in the spirit of those that come before me I will continue to demand new standards of excellence, equity and equality – grounded in the necessity to create justice for our young people.
To be clear, I see so many of us doing SOMETHING – a collective moment of unity and action in our action. Some are motivated to march, some to knit, some to wear safety pins, and some to dedicate their entire lives to changing systems. We all must choose our own way to push our nation and world towards justice and I hope that we will each consider what that means for us in our daily lives. It may mean questioning why you support MLK day parades, but never joined in a Black Lives Matter march for justice. Your reflection may require that you think about why race makes you roll your eyes, but gender spurs you into a flurry of knitting. You may have to consider if you eat up all the air-time at meetings explaining how “active” you are, without inviting the perspectives of those impacted by trauma to inform policy or programs. You may have to consider if your stump speech for the culture is really just for your ego. For my part, I promise to be a better listener, to build relationships as foundations for systems level change, and to not flinch when you call me radical for asking for basic respect in our shared work spaces, schools, and civic centers.
As I reflect on Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy, his unpopularity in pursuit of freedom, I know that I have to wear some labels and bear their weight proudly. In 2018 call me by my name and if you like, you can introduce me as an activist.