Today I’m starting a new occasional series to document a community project that I’m working on. In recent months, I’ve become convinced that citizens have more power than we think we do, more power than we’re told we have. The media keeps us focused on the horse race of national elections. In the meantime, we’re not meant to notice that it’s our school boards and city councils that make the decisions that impact us most. I hope that my personal experience empowers others to find allies, organize actions, and push for change.
Since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, less than 20 miles from where I’m sitting, I’ve been looking for my answer to the question “What can I do?” The answer showed up in the report of the Ferguson Commission, Forward Through Ferguson. Among the 189 calls to action was this one: Eliminate the option for out- of-school suspensions and expulsions for students in pre-kindergarten through 3rd grade.
Many people who I mention this to respond with, “They suspend third graders?” Nearly all of the school districts in the St. Louis region do, indeed, suspend children that young. Worse, those suspensions are many times more likely to be inflicted on black students than white ones. Our local public radio station pulled data and did an investigative report on the topic, complete with a database of statistics by school district.
In my next installment, I’ll describe how I got to this point. For this one, I want to describe where I am at this moment.
A co-leader of WE CAN ASSIST. The West County Community Action Network (WE CAN) is a young organization, rooted in a weekly Black Lives Matter vigil that’s been going on for 22 months. We only gave the organization a name and some structure for other activities in the last year. ASSIST (A Solid Stay-in-School Team) is the sub-group of WE CAN that is working toward reducing the disproportionate suspensions of black and brown students in our West County schools. Our subgroup has a couple dozen people and we’re growing — more people engage every time we act.
School board supporter. One way that WE CAN ASSIST approaches this work is to read statements before different West County school boards asking how we can help them eliminate suspensions for their youngest students and make other changes to address disproportionate suspensions. My role has been to help draft the statements and to print them nicely because school boards like a hard copy of any statement that is presented to them. I’ve also attended the meetings where one of our members, a resident or alum of that district, reads the statement. Our speakers report that this action is a real high. We’ve found that bringing a large group of friends makes an impact. Also, staying for the entire meeting (which isn’t nearly as boring as I though it would be) means that we can make contact with school board members and school administrators, having conversations that inform our next steps.
A partner with larger organizations for a big event. WE CAN ASSIST is a tiny player in an event that Metropolitan Congregations United (MCU) is pulling together with Ready by 21, Focus St. Louis, Forward Through Ferguson, and probably other organizations that I don’t even know about. We’re working toward a large community-wide event, currently branded “Regional School Assembly: Keeping Our Kids in the Classroom,” hashtag #KeepUsInClassrooms. We plan to bring together officials from all 30 school districts in our area with families and citizens. Together, we’ll commit to the work of reducing the disproportionate suspensions of black and brown students in the entire region, starting with the youngest students. This event is part of a weekend of events surrounding MCU’s efforts to Break the School to Prison Pipeline.
This is exciting and heady work. What would it take for you to do something like this where you live? What questions do you have about how to get started in tackling problems like this?