August '20

Being Intentional

As a public school teacher, I have always enjoyed teaching the importance of historical figures and have made it a point to ensure my students understand the importance of upcoming holidays we are celebrating. My Brother Martin: A Sister Remembers Growing Up With the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Christine King Farris is a class favorite, that shows Martin (Dr. King) as a young boy and the silly pranks he would play on his neighbors and even piano teacher. We watch the original I Have a Dream speech where my students sit in awe of the crowd of people that fill the expanse on the lawn of the Lincoln Memorial. They listen intently as Dr. King speaks of how “the Negro still is not free”, consequently leaving Dr. King to still have dreams for his country.

My young students reply with confidence that they’re glad that Dr. King made it so that Black people had equal rights and from their limited eyes, see the world filled with equality today. They sit in a reasonable class size with their own personal devices, and have access to fresh fruits and vegetables during lunch. Afterwards they will be able to run around and play in total safety, and return inside to an air-conditioned classroom to learn about the perspective of Picasso or the structures of a live crayfish they get to observe. The community I teach in looks vastly different from the school in Champaign where I completed my practicum and the CPS schools where I’ve volunteered my time. Public education does not look equitable. Because of where they live, it will take extra work for my students to understand the complexity of systemic racism. Children 30 miles away are met with much different adversities in - and possibly for - life. Zip codes determine safety, education, and accessibility to resources for families.

I often wrestle with these questions: What impact am I making on these students when many of their needs are met within their home and any qualified teacher could take my spot? What impact am I making on these students to help shape a better future? How does my own personal journey impact who I am as a teacher?

There are certain things that I cannot change, but I can help foster diversity of thoughts and ideas and create a culture of empathy and action.  

First, let me be clear that it is important for students to know about famous people who changed the course of history, but also introduce students to less familiar, but extremely significant figures. I love the part of my job that requires me to intentionally seek out other Black inventors besides George Washington Carver, find other famous women in addition to Harriet Tubman, and help students see the many “firsts” in US history in acknowledgement of African-Americans.

I can make sure that my class not only celebrates our own individual diversity and that children see themselves represented in the books and stories we read, but also see others whose stories need to be told. In the world of education, we talk about windows and mirrors. Students need to see themselves in the mirror when reading books, characters they can identify with. But students also need to read books where they have a window into someone else’s life. When they walk in a character’s shoes of someone who is different from them, they are able to understand their perspective. When we see from someone’s perspective, this helps develop empathy. A few years ago I completed an informal action research project in my classroom where I gathered many resources, mainly from culturally diverse people I follow on Instagram or Twitter. I intentionally had a greater variety of reading materials available for students within the units I was teaching. My Black students had mirrors, my white students had windows. My girls had mirrors, my boys had windows. All students had windows into different historical events.

In addition to having resources in my room as windows and mirrors, I continue to teach my students to advocate. Through units, projects, and even field trips, my students have been able to teach others and take action to help. Teaching kindness isn’t enough. Developing empathy for others by reading, learning, and discussing others’ circumstances, then leads to a desire to create change. I am committed to creating a culture of justice and showing students to seek the welfare of others in their thoughts and actions. One day, they will be our future leaders.

My life isn’t just about education. Early on, I was taught and believed that God created all people in His own image (Gen. 1:27). Out of His great love, He created us all equal. But when I truly realized that my Black brothers and sisters were not treated equally in systems and institutions, my heart was deeply troubled. Because of this awakening heart change that I can only attribute because of my personal relationship with Jesus Christ, I began a journey of being intentional in my relationships. Although I already attended a multi-ethnic church under the leadership of an African-American pastor and participated in Bible study groups with cultural and ethnic diversity, I realized that the majority of the people I was still surrounded by in many aspects of life were similar to me. People that looked like me, had similar life experiences, and along the same line of thoughts. I began to have a greater desire to truly know people that are different from me (in relation to all aspects, not just race). I wanted to meet other people, get to know them, develop friendships, learn to love other people who had a different perspective. I have been intentionally widening my circle, doing life with, and learning from others that are not like me over the course of time. Over the years, I’ve learned so much from my friends. They have graciously helped me to see my privilege, have asked uncomfortable questions about my thought patterns (or lack of thoughts on things), and have challenged me on many things in many ways. I’ve also seen first-hand explicit and implicit racism alongside a friend. What I had only heard about as stories, I now saw with my own eyes through their experiences with employment, housing, health care, law enforcement, and physical safety in situations. Because of what I’ve learned from the genuine friendships I’ve built, I have my own story to tell. I have a greater understanding of the trials my Black friends have to withstand in our country.

A few years ago I decided to reread The Letter from a Birmingham Jail in its entirety (I suggest you do too). Just like listening to the I Have a Dream speech, this hit like a gutteral punch. It felt like Dr. King could be writing this from a jail cell today. What has changed? I called up someone close to me in tears and asked “What are we to do?”. I was reminded {in short}, that I am to continue loving God and loving others. You could read that statement and think that is too simple or not an answer. But I believe that God’s love for me helps me to love others. If I follow what He has to say about sharing the good news of Jesus Christ and seeking justice the way He commands us to, it is the answer.

What I have been learning and continue to learn is the importance of prayerfully and intentionally loving my neighbor. Truly loving a neighbor who is different from you. What does this mean?

It means that you are “seeking the welfare of your city” (Jeremiah 29:7). Opening your eyes to the circumstances right outside your door, no matter where you live, and fulfilling needs. Also considering the welfare outside your community and seeking the welfare of communities that may have greater needs.

It means that you “Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute” (Proverbs 31:8). Using your voice to speak for those who do not have a voice. Speaking in whatever sphere of influence you are a part --  workplace, organizations, social circles -- engaging in conversations around the different forms of racism, especially complicit racism from the majority. These conversations are particularly important right now for white people to do the work on behalf of our Black brothers and sisters.

It means you “learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Isaiah 1:7). The oppression of people should not be tolerated, nor should we stand by in silence. When we take opportunities to point out and address, take action, and advocate, we are loving our neighbor. Let’s be encouraged to use our time and our means to hold our country (people and authorities) accountable so that systems and policies are evaluated and changes are made for the safety, accessibility, and equality for all. The more personally connected you are to people, the more aware you are of the needs and injustices others experience. Investing yourself in a community, working together to create change, and providing for the needs of others with your own personal resources is an action of love.

What would it look like if we all began building relationships and bridges with people unlike ourselves? What do we learn from others’ stories? What would it look like if we all truly loved our neighbor? What a different world that would be. And I pray for this day to soon become a reality.

If you have any questions or would like to continue this conversation with me personally, I can be reached at cgillespie128@gmail.com.

These are just a few of the resources I use while teaching that are referred to when I was writing this blog.

My Brother Martin: A Sister Remembers Growing Up With the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Christine King Farris

What Color is My World? By Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson's Super-soaking Stream of Inventions by Chris Barton

28 Days - Moments in Black History That Changed the World by Charles R Smith Jr.

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