By Aziah Siid | Word In Black
(WIB) – As local school boards and state lawmakers unleash attacks on teachers, pass legislation suppressing Black history, and promote extremist ideology, America’s schools have become battlegrounds in the fight for democracy’s future.
But labor unions like the 1.7-million-strong American Federation of Teachers aren’t taking it lying down. The organization is on the front lines, defending educators’ right to do their jobs free of harassment. They’re pushing school districts to treat teachers, and the truth, with basic respect. And they’re working overtime to create environments where all students can thrive.
There’s no better place for the AFT to engage the nation’s Black leadership on what’s happening in public schools than the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference. The conference brings together members of Congress, experts, activists, and thought leaders to address “today’s issues from an African American perspective.”
The theme of this year’s gathering, taking place from September 20 – 24, 2023, is “Securing Our Democracy. Protecting Our Freedoms” — which is why Dr. Fedrick Ingram, Secretary-Treasurer of the AFT, participated in a panel on the “Courage to Teach.”
The discussion examined the current challeges facing Black educators, what they need to do their jobs — and be safe while doing them — and how to attract more Black folks to the teaching profession.
Word In Black caught up with Dr. Ingram before the panel to hear his thoughts on what political leaders, the Black community, and educators can do to stop the ongoing assault on civil rights and teaching the truth in schools.
WORD IN BLACK: Given that education is a states rights issue, what is the CBC’s plan to apply pressure to state and local boards of education and districts to create environments that are grounded in truth?
DR. FEDRICK INGRAM: I don’t speak on behalf of the CBC, but what I can tell you is that the American Federation of Teachers, we are constantly and persistently talking to politicians trying to enact public policy that says all educators in all public schools should teach honest, comprehensive, and total history as it relates to American history.
Black history, along with other histories, is American history, and we should all be pushing toward having teachers include these lesson plans. We should all be inclusive of everything that has happened in this country. In terms of public policy, what we’re trying to do is make sure that our teachers have freedom to teach, they have autonomy to do what they believe is necessary for our kids to do that, and we want these commissioners of education around the states — superintendents, principals — to adapt curriculum that is far and wide and stretches the breadth of a total history — of African American History.
We’re talking to lawmakers, we’re talking to supervisors, educators, and district administrators to ensure that these school districts include African American history, to ensure that they give the teachers the freedom to teach. This should not be an option for people to maybe learn about something about African American history. This should be part of education, mandatory participation, because it’s American history.
WIB: What else would you suggest when it comes to creating these freedoms? How does that look? You mentioned lesson plans and making African American history not optional. What other ways does that freedom show up in the public education system?
INGRAM: We need parent and community support. We need parents to go to school boards, we need them to go to their schools and sit down and have a conversation with the principals and assistant principals and teachers, and ensure that their child is getting what they, the parent, perceive they need in their total education.
Part of their total education is African American history because, if you are Black, the way you achieve Black excellence, the way you achieve academic excellence, is to see yourself in these spaces and places to know that you as a person — as a young Black son or young Black daughter — can achieve certain things. You can learn about Michelle Obama, you can learn about Fannie Lou Hamer, you can learn about Frederick Douglass.
Those kinds of things are really, really important — that we have parents who are knowledgeable, who are on the ground and will speak to the power. You speak that truth to power to your school boards, your school. And you also talk to your local politicians, because it is a state’s rights. You need to know who your state representative is, you need to know who your state senators are, you need to email and contact your governors because those are the advocacy positions.
We need to put the pressure on these folks. If parents are out there and believe that they just can’t do this by themselves, there are parent advocacy groups that can help. There are certain social groups, there are fraternities and sororities, there are HBCUs, there are many different avenues that people can take to link up and amplify their voice.
WIB: What do you want to see students doing, especially high school students who we are seeing a certain level of power and voice coming from the generations that have popped up during 2020-2021? What do you want to see more of them doing, especially that they have these platforms that I didn’t have in high school?
INGRAM: Keep on keepin’ on. That’s the saying, because what we know about this generation, they care more about social values and social issues than we’ve seen in decades, and they are more accepting of a lot of things that are right on the value side. They want to see people accepted regardless of who you love, how you look, and where you come from. They want to see people educated, they want to see a list of these have more in their lives. They want to see these opportunities broaden their horizons. We need to support these young people. What we know in American history is that anytime we’ve made a change for the better, it has always come through the advocacy and push and persistence of young people.
I think back to the Freedom Riders in 1964-65. These young people who were in colleges and high schools, like John Lewis, who risked their lives to actually make change. I think about the North Carolina sit-ins where North Carolina A&T students said, you know what, enough is enough, I’m gonna go sit in this Woolworths, and I’m going to order food, and I’m going to have these things happen to me so that they don’t happen to anybody else. And you can go on and on and on. All of these movements have been fueled by our young people.
When these young people turn 18-years-old, they’ve got to become super voters.DR. FEDRICK INGRAM
We need to encourage that, we need to encourage that civic activism. And we also need to always emphasize the power to vote, because you can advocate, you can speak loud, you can demonstrate, but if you don’t change the voting cycle, if you don’t get people who are in power, who can actually pull those levers of power or push people to do the right thing, then we don’t want all of that to be for naught.
You got to get into the voting booth. When these young people turn 18-years-old, they’ve got to become super voters. We don’t tell people how to vote, we just teach them about the value system of life, that everybody should have a fair shot in life.
WIB: What suggestions do you have for pulling in those people? How do we get the people who aren’t moms or don’t have children to understand that this is a fight of theirs as well?
INGRAM: I believe in meeting people where they are. I am obviously African American, been one all my life. I know a little something about having cousins and nephews and folks who don’t have a formal education. When I talk about education, I’m not talking about going to school, I’m not talking about going to college. One of the smartest people I’ve ever known was my grandmother. She had a third-grade education, but she is the smartest person who I’ve ever met in my entire life.
We’ve got to meet people where they are. If you’re in the barbershop, getting a haircut, talking to your barber, and the guys are talking about sports, then you insert some of this policy stuff where they can understand it.
When I talk about education, I’m not talking about going to school, I’m not talking about going to college.DR. FEDRICK INGRAM
People understand that they can pay their rent, people understand that there are kids who are not getting a good education, people understand that the price of eggs and milk are going up every day. We have to link that to why these things are happening. It is not rocket science.
What we want to do is make sure that we have talking points for people who are everyday people. These are people who are just trying to pay the bills, who try to go to work every day, who don’t watch MSNBC, who don’t watch CNN, maybe not even read Word In Black — shame on them, right?
What we want to do is focus on issues that matter to people. We’ve got to talk to people where they are. We can’t be a pie in the sky and think that everybody has a college education, because we are still the exception and not the rule. There are still far too many first-generation college students coming from the African American diaspora.
Whether you have a high school education, or college education, or no education, as an American, you can still vote, you can still advocate, and we know that people still care about their kids, their schools, and what’s happening in their community.
WIB: We have been fighting for the rights of students and teachers for as long as we can remember. But, in years and months to come, how are you going to measure the results? What are the results you’re looking for?
INGRAM: When we look back in history, we came here in ships, where we were stripped of our names, stripped of our culture, stripped of our families, and made to think that we are less than, made to think that we could not be educated. There was a time where people like you and me, because of the skin color we have and what we represent — it was illegal to teach us, it was illegal to teach our ancestors.
And then we migrated to: we’re going to steal education, we’re going to steal books, we’re going to learn this language, we’re going to formulate churches, and we’re going to get with those well-intentioned white folks who are going to help us through this.
Then there was a time where these people can learn, these people can do, and they can have schools, but we’re going to have their schools over there on the other side of town, and we’re going to give them second-hand books. We’re going to tell them that they are less than. Then we have Brown v. Board of Education.
I’m speeding through all of this — there have been advances. And there has been progress. Some have been big leaps. Some of them have been tiny little micro steps, but every single step of the way, it is up to us our generation to move the needle where we are right, and this is our part of the race. This is our part of the marathon.
iIf we measure progress, it’s one family and one student at a time. There’s the saying we use in the African American community, “each one teach one,” and that it “takes a village to raise children.” IThat village may be in your house with your own kids. It may be your grandkids, it may be your nieces or nephews, and may be the kid across the street.
We’ve given away millions of books.DR. FEDRICK INGRAM
We need to ensure that every kid has a value system, is worth something, and we can do what we can to make sure that we grab that kid before the streets get them — grab that kid before others who don’t like the way they look good get them. We need to make sure that we instill education in as many young people as we can, and I’m talking about really young.
We need people to read to our young people. In the AFT, we are giving away books all over this country. We’ve given away millions of books at this point, and we will continue to do so.
I’m going to Boston this Saturday, and we’re going to give away another 40,000 books to communities in Boston. We have a banned bookmobile that we’re going to start up soon, where we’re giving books away to communities from as far away as Florida, all the way through Pennsylvania. We’re taking this all over the country where people are trying to ban books.
We believe in libraries, and we believe that all families should have a classroom set of books for their home, so that they can share between the mom and the dad and between brothers and sisters. And you know, when the cousins come over, they not only have the advent of social media, but they also have the tried and true way of learning, which is reading a book.
We want a new generation of Black teachers to come into our classrooms. We want to make sure that people respect the profession of education, because there was a time when if Miss Jones was in the grocery store, and the third grade students saw Miss Jones, it was almost like seeing God. We’ve got to bring that joy back into the profession. We’ve got to bring that joy back into what we know. That’s going to help our students.
This conversation was lightly edited for length and clarity.