#TheEmptyDesk In Our Classrooms [On Social Media and Educational Activism]

Jose Vilson Education, Jose, Race

A year ago, protestors all across the country elevated the souls of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and so many others who’d been brutally murdered at the hands of their respective local law enforcement officials. I was struck by the vociferous activism of this generation of people of color, spurned only a decade before by comedian-turned-culture pundit Bill Cosby. The tide that once ebbed downward had risen again with an added dimension of social media:

Hopping onto social media, specifically Twitter, as a platform for storytelling created multiple pathways for anyone who wanted a slice of what was happening on the ground to get outraged, inspired, and organized. Here are a couple of mine:

While the protests in Ferguson, Staten Island, Sanford, and so many other towns turned up the volume on the abuses of the folks that ostensibly protect us, I found myself aghast at the idea that my fellow educators, some of whom considered themselves social justice inclined, wouldn’t say a word. Again. As many readers came to my blog saying how much they loved my writing and recently published book last year, I saw the breadth of the race talk coming from activated people of color.

Because, unlike the majority of the education folks we spoke to, these activated folks of color realized that the children getting killed could have been our students.Race talk in education spaces is a bane for too many of our educators. Administrators look at you askance. Activist groups pretend to not know you. Organizations meant to highlight great teachers disown you and tell you to tamper it down lest funding becomes sparse. Friends who used to walk with you when you were protesting Bill Gates and Eli Broad spread vicious rumors about you and screenshot your life to their passively racist colleagues. Even leaders who otherwise give you props bristle at the nature of your anti-racism. The chairs in the teachers lounge that once were full around you now have plenty of space.

But then you realize that there are people willing to physically risk their lives for our most disadvantaged youth, and the vitriol means next to nothing in comparison. We must elevate.

We can talk this and that about class size, Common Core, and overtesting, but without a fundamental shift in how we see children of color in our classrooms, this country will continue to perpetuate inequity as it sees fit. It’s the Animal Farm where equity means that some are more equal than others. This makes activism even more critical. The center of our struggles isn’t “I’ll wait until this affects me for me to do something about it.” The center should be “This affects the people with the least power to do something about it, so let me do something about it.”

It’s not enough to simply talk about injustice without naming it as a course for relevance or pretending to care about these issues, either. As teachers, we must speak against it and to it in precise terms. Otherwise, it’s a waste.

Interestingly enough, the day that the first set of protests started flaring up in Ferguson, St. Louis, I was taking my first day off of 2014 on a beach somewhere. Anyone who knows me knows I rarely take days off, just days where I get occupied with other things. But on the second day of my vacation, I found an Internet connection and started to join the growing chorus, modeling what education activism would look like in times like these. Instead of apologizing or wondering what to do, I told the stories I knew connected to the moment. The 10 thousand or so followers reading my musings would have to hold their breaths and come along on the trip with me because these stories mattered. (The hundreds of others explaining away the tragedies in my notifications were merely side effects in this sort of activism. They too will learn.)

We had about a month left until the beginning of the school year in New York City, and I couldn’t wait to see my new set of fresh faces. I was also cognizant that so many of my colleagues across the nation would have an empty desk the next school year that was reserved for a prospective student. Carrying on is not permissible in this day and age.