(WORDINBLACK.COM) – Students across America shared their grief and fury on Zoom with Sonia Lewis, a former lead with Sacramento’s Black Lives Matter who had left traditional public-school classrooms where she had taught Social Studies for 20 years.
“We sat in silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, and it was very hard,” said Ms. Lewis. “You saw their tears, you saw their emotions … 16-year-old Jazz said, ‘Sonia, I’m a mess, I have so much rage, I can understand if someone wanted to kill police, I can understand if we had an uprising in this country.’ The fear and rage in her voice brought me to tears.”
Ms. Lewis, mother to six, said talking with young people about this time in history can be difficult.
“It’s a hard conversation to have — there is no script, no right or wrong way to teach this moment in history, all teachers and parents can do is create safe places where students can work through their feelings and know they’re not alone.”
Last March, Ms. Lewis, 49, launched “Teach-in Time for Revolutionary Minds,” a voluntary nationwide forum where children could Zoom into a safe virtual space to share feelings and raise questions.
Ms. Lewis realized she couldn’t wait for schools to reopen to address the tidal wave of challenges Black families are facing: a lethal pandemic that has robbed them of their classrooms, jobs and even their lives; a president who has fanned the flames of division and hatred; and deadly violence at the hands of law enforcement.
A new civil rights movement shouts their names: Stephon Clark, 22, shot to death by police in his grandmother’s backyard in Meadowview, south Sacramento on March 18, 2018. Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old EMT, shot eight times in her Louisville, Kentucky apartment during a police raid gone bad on March 13, 2020. Floyd on May 25 tearfully begging for his life, gasping “I can’t breathe…”
Former President Donald Trump gave people license to hate, branding Latinos “drug dealers, criminals and rapists,” and undocumented immigrants “animals” to be locked up in cages at the border. He labelled African nations “shit-hole countries,” and mocked people with disabilities.
“He’s called Black protesters ‘thugs’ and white supremacists and bigots ‘good people’,” said Dr. Lenora Tate, a Sacramento clinical psychologist who works with Black children struggling with mental health challenges.
Compounding the trauma of racism was Trump’s dismissal of COVID-19, which has taken a disproportionate toll on people of color. Black Americans are 37 percent more likely to die of COVID than white Americans, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For Asians, it’s 53 percent, indigenous Americans, 26 percent and Hispanics, 16 percent more likely to die from COVID than whites.
Ms. Lewis couldn’t stand watching students of color, including her own children, overcome by fear, isolation, anger and depression.
Borrowing a friend’s Zoom account, she offered 90-minute classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays for kids 5 to 12 and Wednesdays and Fridays for middle and high schoolers 13 to 18.
The class — encompassing all aspects of Black history and experience — quickly generated a nationwide buzz and attracted 67 dedicated girls and boys who logged in across America at 11 a.m. Pacific Time.
Along with four of her own children in Elk Grove, students from the Bay Area, Los Angeles, Arizona, Texas, Chicago, New York, North Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi and other states logged in twice a week for five months, Ms. Lewis said.
The classes, which rely on suggested donations of $10 per session, start with the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and combine stories of people of color throughout history with music, poetry, yoga, current events and mental health checks. “We address the social and emotional needs of our students, we have mindful music breaks;, do art,” Ms. Lewis said.
The class covers what Ms. Lewis calls, “the Big Five” – Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Thurgood Marshall and Ruby Bridges, who in 1960 became the first Black child to integrate a white school in the South as a 6-year-old kindergartener.
Students also learn about soul singers Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and Aretha Franklin — famous for “Respect,” “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” “A Change is Gonna Come,” “Think” and other songs of empowerment— “and how important her voice was to the Civil Rights Movement.”
Students write poetry and study the Black Renaissance in Harlem in the 1920s and Tulsa’s Black Wall Street which thrived in the early 1900s until hundreds of Blacks were massacred and the district burned down in 1921. Ms. Lewis also teaches them about the Black California town of Allensworth in Tulare County. founded by a former slave, Colonel Allen Allensworth in 1908. It prospered until about 1930 when the water from local irrigation districts ran out.
One girl intends to become a millionaire like Maggie Lena Walker, a Virginia entrepreneur, teacher and newspaper publisher who became the first African American woman to charter a bank and serve as bank president in 1902. Others, inspired by Thurgood Marshall, plan to become lawyers.
“We often focus on a ‘person of the day’ and study slavery so these babies know this country was built with free labor,” Ms. Lewis said. “The one thing America has failed to teach honestly is slavery. We want our students to have the guts and the gumption to challenge the education they are being taught – ‘Excuse me teacher, a Black person just suffered … and we need to talk about that’.”
Just as learning more about America’s Black and Brown history can be empowering, being able to share your feelings about what’s happening across America today can be cathartic and healing when students realize they’re not alone.
Students of all races and ethnicities can benefit, Ms. Lewis said. “I have a 7-year-old Jewish girl out of the Bay Area in our class who said, ‘Ms. Sonia, I have a question about Trump, he didn’t apologize for George Floyd’s death. He should say something … it makes me sad that we have a president who wouldn’t say George Floyd didn’t deserve to die. You know Ms. Sonia, if we get rid of Trump as president we will end up with Pence and he’s even worse’.”
The girl, whose mother’s a rabbi in El Cerrito, said, “I’m telling my friends this is where they need to send their children.” She was among six non-Black students, including several of Middle Eastern background.
Ms. Lewis believes it’s never too early to address the trauma caused by the killing of an unarmed Black person at the hands of police, or the emotional devastation caused by COVID.
Each elementary school class devotes 15 minutes to students sharing their feelings. “These kids are ready and we can no longer shelter them under this idea they can’t understand concepts that adults shy away from. They recognize the man was literally and figuratively killing a person of color.”
When Taylor and Floyd were killed last summer, “there were lots of tears in our middle and high school group,” Ms. Lewis said. “We always did a quick ‘write what you’re feeling’. Students could write prose, poetry, a list of words or draw pictures. Others wrote to the police chief and president.
“They would share and this would spark conversation.”
To relieve stress, Ms. Lewis brought in teachers who led the class through mindful yoga and meditation, along with grief and mental health counselors who taught students how to identify their go-to people and how to let them know if they were not feeling OK. Students could indicate whether they had a happy or sad face.
When students were feeling particularly sad, depressed, isolated or alone, the class would take a moment, then talk about it.
Both classes were taught “there’s a certain way you have to act when police are in your presence, so you are able to come out alive.”
Middle and high schoolers were taught to tell officers, “I know my rights — you don’t have the right to search me and do certain things to me,” Ms. Lewis said. “They were very vocal about this concept of defunding the police, and why police should live in the communities they serve and be responsible stewards of their communities … if cops didn’t look like them, they shouldn’t be allowed to enter their communities.”
When elementary students had questions around “why do cops do those things to Black people, we had to break down race and poverty,” Ms. Lewis said. “We talked about immigration with our Latinex students. We stand up for each other.
“Young people know the difference between right and wrong, it was more solution driven,” Ms. Lewis said. “I told them to go and have these conversations with their family members. I invited parents into that space, so they can see and hear the responses of our young people.”
The classes held an art competition for the best protest signs about their skin color or, in the case of the Jewish, Middle Eastern and Latinex students, about how you can be a better ally. Her 10-year-old son and his Latinex friends said they challenged other kids who used the N-word while engaged in multiplayer games such as Fortnite.
Her 15-year-old son Ahmaad said he doesn’t want to live in a world where he doesn’t know if he’s going to make it home. Ciara said she’s been attending Stockton City Council meetings to protest police violence against people of color.
The majority of Lewis’ students are female. One young man from North Carolina declared, “Black boys and Black men have to do better. We can’t leave it to Black women to stand up and fight this fight for us.”
This 16-year-old hit a nerve, Ms. Lewis said. “Not a lot of Black men willing to put their lives on the line, they know there’s a huge target on their back so they don’t want to step up to the plate, 90 percent of the activists in BLM are Black women.”
The students and their families would see each other at protest marches in downtown Sacramento, “which Jazz said helped heal her because she was part of something larger than herself working to bring change,” Ms. Lewis said.
That resonates with Lewis, the daughter of a former Oakland Black Panther and a Richmond California police officer who lost his job because he wouldn’t inform on his wife. In second grade, Ms. Lewis refused to say the “Pledge of Allegiance” to protest discrimination against Americans based on race. She graduated from Spelman College with degrees in History and Psychology, got her Master’s in Education at San Francisco State, taught Social Studies and went on to manage a small magnet program on Criminal Justice where she said she saw first-hand where police fall short in their dealing with communities of color.
Following the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Sandra Bland, Lewis took a lead role in Black Lives Matter and in 2009 started ASCRIBE Educational Consulting to help prepare future generations to advocate and fight for equity, representation, justice, and reparations.
Traditional classrooms are also working to address these watershed moments. Barbara Jackson, a second-grade teacher at Union House Elementary School in Meadowview, where Stephon Clarke was killed, said that while many kids don’t know who Clarke is, Clarke’s younger sister was in her class.
Another student’s dad was a police officer, which sparked a class discussion, Ms. Jackson said. After Trump’s victory in 2016, “one undocumented student said ‘my mom says we’ll have to hide under the bed,’ and kids were scared.”
Her class knew about George Floyd, but Jackson said it’s much harder to facilitate an open discussion with second graders on-line with parents listening than in a live classroom. “They’re very aware of COVID but I’ve heard very little about them being sad,” Ms. Jackson said.
LaTonia Walton, a sixth-grade teacher at Union House, said she relies on Scholastic News, a weekly on-line publication with in-depth articles, videos and questions “that open things up for discussion.”
Her students have discussed racial bias, particularly against Black males, and are taught, “When you do come into contact with a police officer, be thoughtful, don’t be hostile, be polite and answer the question … you don’t need to take whatever anger you have out on the police.”
Ms.Walton, who grew up in South Central L.A., has told her 15-year-old nephew, “Don’t go to the store with your Hoodie on, pull your pants up.”
A growing number of school districts are exploring how to fully teach this moment, said California’s new Secretary of State Dr. Shirley Weber, a veteran educator and state legislator who authored California’s Stephon Clarke law restricting unnecessary use of force by police. “1619 — the title of a Pulitzer Prize-winning set of New York Times articles dealing with the history of slavery in America — is extremely important and needs to be blended into the whole discussion on civil rights, equal opportunity, social justice and police brutality,” Dr. Weber said. “How does the country interface with African Americans from slavery to lynchings that people watched as social events with their wives and children in the 1900s, and remarked ‘we had a great BBQ because we lynched and burned a Black man’. Then we saw George Floyd lynched for almost nine minutes with no remorse.”
Dr.Weber said civil rights laws and the election of a Black president are “like chopping off the top of the bush and then the roots grew back again, instead of taking out hatred at the root. We have to begin the process in the K-12 system by telling the whole story because we can’t rescue ourselves without it.”
Ms. Lewis re-launched her “Teach-in Time for Revolutionary Minds” class in January with a strong focus on financial empowerment through investing in Black businesses. She has led workshops at Elite Public Academy, a charter school in Vallejo, and taught more than 100 kids for six weeks in the Roberts Family Development Center’s Freedom School summer program in Sacramento’s Del Paso Heights.
“This is a time so very different than any other I’ve seen in this country,” Ms. Lewis said. “George Floyd, the combination of Trump and COVID have exposed us to the underbelly of racism that’s been tucked under the rug for centuries and people can no longer turn a blind eye.”
Ms. Lewis can be reached at ASCRIBE Success and ASCRIBE Educational Consulting on Facebook and Instagram and at Sonialewis37@yahoo.com.
By Stephen Magagnini | OBSERVER Correspondent
The OBSERVER has joined nine of the nation’s leading Black publishers to come together to reimagine the Black press in America. Our first official initiative is the launch of Word in Black, a news collaborative unlike anything we have seen in the industry. The mission could not be more important: Word in Black frames the narrative and fosters solutions for racial inequities in America. The group will publish stories on important issues such as voter suppression, inequities in education and healthcare, reimagining public safety and more. The following story is part of the collaborative. For more information, visit www.wordinblack.com