“ ‘Good intention’ is a hall pass through history…” — Ta-Nehisi Coates
Amanda Leigh Lichtenstein is a writer, editor, and educator from Chicago, IL, USA. Her essays on arts, culture, and education appear in Global Voices, AramcoWorld, Selamta, Teachers & Writers, Teaching Artist Journal, Art in the Public Interest, and Teaching Tolerance of the Southern Poverty Law Center, among others. Amanda currently edits for Global Voices Online and splits her time between Chicago and Stone Town, Zanzibar. Follow her on Twitter @travelfarnow. ________________________________________________
In 2014, after living outside of the United States for several years, I came back to my hometown of Chicago and landed a job in education, returning to my roots as an educator and activist. It was a hot summer day in early August when I got the offer, and I said yes without skipping a beat. I felt at home again at the nexus of justice, arts and education.
I had worked as a teaching artist in this contested, segregate city throughout much of the early 2000’s, and witnessed the detriment of gentrification, school closings, and gun violence, often hitting hardest communities of color on the far west and south sides, but also pockets of the north and northwest sides. When I returned, the city was noticeably charged. People were mad — about a corrupt mayor, exorbitant parking rates, a weak economy, subpar schools, and the relentless harassment and violence against people of color at the hands of the police.
Chicago, known and respected for its grit and gristle, was a city roiling with despair. The summer before, as tensions in the city escalated, Illinois became the last state in the country to pass the Firearm Conceal and Carry Law allowing more people to walk around with hidden guns on their bodies. In response, anti-gun stickers started popping up at the entrances to schools to restaurants in the city, creating an air of alarm and paranoia. It left many of us wondering how it had come to this, in our city and in our nation.
In 2015, police around the country fatally shot 986 people, killing black people at “three times the rate of whites when adjusted for the populations where these shootings occurred. And although black men represent 6 percent of the U.S. population, they made up nearly 40 percent of those who were killed while unarmed.”
My work as an educator had never been so clearly circumscribed or defined by the conditions of inequity.
By November of 2015, as the city chilled and hardened for the winter, the Laquan Mcdonald murder case and cover up blew open and rattled everyone in the city who cares about justice, youth, racism and living in a police state. Video footage revealed a 17-year-old African-American boy shot 16 times by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke on 41st and Pulaski in October of 2014, just blocks from where I was teaching a few days a week at the nearby high school.
Case after case of black and brown citizens shot and killed by police across the country had sparked outrage and activism. Mandates for on-duty police to wear body cameras simply confirmed the horror of what most people of color (POC) had known all along and what non-POC were finally waking up to: our nation’s legacy of police brutality traced all the way back to slavery and slave patrols.
Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Bettie Jones, Freddie Gray, Yvette Smith, Miriam Carey, Tony Robinson, Shelly Frey, Rekia Boyd, Walter Scott, Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Clementa Pinckney, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Keith Scott, Terence Crutcher, Philando Castille, Alton Sterling…#SayTheirNames
Yet here was a case so egregious not only because McDonald was a teen who didn’t deserve to die at the hands of police but because his case was also grossly mishandled by the city of Chicago and the Chicago police department to deny culpability. The city council voted 47-0 on a $5 million settlement with McDonald’s family in exchange for their silence. So much denial and shame on every front.
Laquan McDonald’s senseless murder triggered massive protests. Chicago Public Schools (CPS) sent out a letter to families stating that the video would not be shown in schools and encouraged students to ‘continue the conversation at home.’ CPS also offered a highly criticized ‘toolkit’ that failed to mention the reasons why this case sparked massive protests or the fact that McDonald’s case was one of many police killings and assaults on African-Americans documented and protested between 2014-2015 alone.
In a collective statement, University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) educators explained, “While the details of this case are unique, the events surrounding it are not isolated. A culmination of similar historical moments nationwide (many not captured on videotape) has led up to this moment in Chicago.”
Over a snowy Thanksgiving weekend, I remained glued to my screen for updated news and information. Homebound with back pain, I couldn’t march, but I organized, signed and shared a petition calling on arts educators to stand up for Black lives and to speak out against endemic violence and a history of police brutality destroying our schools and communities. I reached out to mostly white colleagues who shared a sense of disgust, helplessness, anxiety and embarrassment over our utter lack of clarity about what to do next.
Would our organizations’ missions be enough to carry the weight of the injustice of these times?
Days after McDonald’s case broke open and triggered major protests, I attended a lecture by UIC professor David Stovall, an expert on social justice, race and inequality, addressing a roomful of majority white arts educators full of good intentions and impressive records of community arts and education. There were also a few people of color in the room and several excellent facilitators attempting to work in small groups to help us find language for this historical moment. Stovall delivered a heavy dose of reality for us to ponder and take back to our work as educators in a city plummeting into what felt (and still does feel) like a state of crisis.
Stovall spoke truth to power but it was his commentary on the ‘social justice imperative’ that struck a chord with me. He warned that no education organization’s mission was ‘enough’ without a clear ‘social justice imperative’ to match the tone and tenor of these times. To do meaningful education work in Chicago — and around the country — would mean having to ‘challenge folks to think about their positionality in the current historical moment — to think critically about structural racism and white supremacy.”
Stovall encouraged us to think about the ways in which education organizations express their commitment to social justice as demonstrated by their willingness to make the necessary internal changes to meet the needs of the people and communities with whom we work.
Without a ‘deep dive’ inward, organizations “remain stuck in ‘do-gooder’ mode and continue to distribute annual reports to board members and potential funders to perpetuate tired, warped narratives.”
Coming home to a Chicago wrecked by injustice on every level challenged me as an educator to look beyond any given mission and into the depths of organizational culture: the shared norms, reproduced through behaviors and artifacts, that manifest not just in one person but rather in policies, meeting structures, human resources, onboarding, social events, curriculum and other tangible products. Organizational culture often evolves uncritically and unconsciously, with limited reflection.
What emerges are mutually reinforced assumed values, beliefs, and norms defined over time by everyone who contributes to the organization’s story. Without intentional, critical reflection, majority-white led organizations end up running laps between denial and apology, exhausted by the inner spin of white fragility.
When I look back at my 20+ years of experience as an educator and writer, I realize that the most powerful moments happen when we have the courage to let in the noise and chaos of social change; when we see critical social movements like “Black Lives Matter” as intricately and fundamentally tied to our work; when we acknowledge and respond to systematic oppression; when we collectively challenge the myth of neutrality; when we see ourselves at all times as stewards of justice; encourage each other as colleagues and peers to speak out; ask difficult questions; admit when we are wrong, blind-sided, biased, bigoted, and afraid of change.
Doing so means we get better at accountability not just to our missions but to ourselves as human beings. In response to the hateful and fatal tragedy in Charlottesville, editors of NonProfit Quarterly recently put out a call to action to nonprofits to fight harder to end white supremacy.
Our organizations often mirror the distortions of larger society. Not only must we publicly disavow white supremacy; we must offer a counter narrative, and model leadership that supports racial justice and economic justice—in society at large and in our organizations. We have no time to waste.
When we fall short, when we feel we are not doing enough, when we stray because humans beings are imperfect and fallible, it also means we have the ‘social justice imperative’ as our compass to orient us in the direction of our shared humanity.