In recent years, the many highly publicized acts of violence against Black people of all ages have drawn attention to the disparate conditions facing this group on all fronts. Yet, a particularly treacherous place for Black people is in school. Luckily, one activist is doing her part to change that reality for Black students across the country.
I recently had the chance to connect with Kelly Wickham Hurst to learn about her new organization dedicated to making schools more equitable, safer, and fair for Black students, Being Black at School
. Hurst, the Founder and Executive Director of BBAS, spent “23 years in the public education system as a teacher, literacy coach, guidance dean, and assistant principal” before leaving to start BBAS.
Pictured: Kelly Wickham Hurst
Black Youth Project: Please tell our readers what Being Black at School is and why it is so important at this particular moment.
Kelly Wickham Hurst: It’s interesting because I thought it was important prior to the election and, since then, it’s become urgent in a way I didn’t anticipate. BBAS looks at American education from a historical perspective where Black schools closed and those students were ushered into white institutions that have not served them well as a population. Demographics show that while classrooms are getting more diverse the teaching population is 82% white so if educators are in positions like that absent cultural competency we’ll continue to see disproportionate discipline and access to academics. We work on policy, professional development for staff, and support for parents and Black students.
BYP: In today’s political climate, what does it really mean to “be Black at school”? How is it different than times preceding it?
KWH: In continuing the first question, I’ll take this a step further to detail what it’s like to be Black at school: students today, post election, are hurting in unimaginable ways and the bullying and violence against Black students as well as Latino, Muslim, and gay students is at an all time high.
Schools are tasked with responding to this but much of what I’ve seen has been to consider “both sides” which is a continuation of the assimilation to whiteness and requesting that marginalized students center a system that does not center them. Prior to the election Black students were already getting the lion’s share of discipline even as they are not the majority in the system. Prior to the election Black students were denied access to higher level courses and taught by too many teachers who view their “colorblind” beliefs to be a part of their pedagogy. We’re only going to see it get worse and it’s time to mobilize formally on that.
BYP: Your organization’s mission and focus hinges on the use of “data-driven, grassroots” based change. In your opinion. why is it so important to combine both data and grassroots work?
KWH: First of all, grassroots gets a bad name and it’s here where change happens. When we locally organize families raising Black children we do so with the intent on centering their narratives which have been ignored. Do you think superintendents in all school districts aren’t aware of systemic racism? No, they’re not all ignorant of it. So we need to ring the alarm on that and it happens at the grassroots level.
We can’t do that work without the data and we’ve had that all along. We do great things in our system when it comes to looking at data for helping students read better and with complex text and the support it takes to get them there. It’s just that when presented with the data on Black students and discipline we’ve been apathetic about implementing anything to address it.
BYP: Given the outcomes of the most recent election, many young people are feeling exasperated with the political system, especially the federal government. However, your organization sets state-based policy initiatives as imperative to ensuring equity for Black students. How can those two narratives work in tandem? Can they at all?
KWH: They co-exist in order to work together. Our young people, especially Black students who see and experience the racist system in which they are asked to function, are more aware than ever that it’s a system and we’re seeing a lot of pushback from them that is incredible to witness. The lack of equity in the system is also seen and felt by the white students who witness it while sitting in class next to Black students (or any other who are marginalized) and it affects them in a detrimental manner as well.
Do we really think our white students aren’t harmed when they see Black students physically dragged from a classroom or when they see their friends hurt? Instead of looking at these on a case-by-case basis we’re broadening the scope and issuing state-based policies that address this on a larger scale. If we want all students to do better then the focus needs to be specific on a group that has been historically harmed by their very existence in the system.
BYP: BBAS is a resource for schools, administrators, and parents who seek safer schools for Black children. How can other people get involved and support the organization’s mission?
KWH: What we’re building right now, I was reminded by a friend, is how the Civil Rights Movement grounded themselves: they focused on transportation issues and lunch counters and, while seemingly small, those indignities impacted the larger system. Parents raising Black children are our first priority because it’s urgent for them and through organizing we want the healing that’s embedded in our mission. We’re supported like a grassroots movement right now so people can get involved by being informed of our goals through our newsletter, donating financially, and our next move is to pilot programs in large cities with other organizations that we’re partnering with currently.
BYP: Is there anything else you would like our readers to know about BBAS?
KWH: This is just the beginning and we’ve applied for non-profit status. It was conscious-raising for us to see how many people and organizations saw the value in the work. We’re already overwhelmed with the task and our eye is on the prize of a national platform grown from grassroots. We want people to get in on the ground floor of this work everything we’ve done has shown us we’re on the right path and can move towards interrupting and dismantling this system. Be ready. This is what the revolution looks like for education activists.
Learn more about Being Black at School: