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A Reflection and Call to Action from Howard University’s Dean for the School of Education

Dawn WilliamsThis post is part of AACTE’s Black History Month 2022 Blog series.

As we are nearing the end of another Black History Month, this year somehow feels different. On one hand the increased representation of diversity in marketing and corporate settings is promising. On the other hand, the resurgence of attacks on the use of school curriculum that represents diverse lived experiences is troubling. We find ourselves fighting a history of structural racism while also trying to safeguard our health against a global pandemic. However, what has not changed is our steadfast commitment to “balance the scales for the disenfranchised and promote an America that is devoid of inequalities.” 

Evoking the spirit of Sankofa, I provide this testimony as evidence of focus and resilience that directed my personal and professional path as an educator and academic leader. Sankofa is an African word from the Akan tribe in Ghana meaning it is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind” or “remembering our past, to protect our future.”

My father did not speak of his educational experiences coming of age in the segregated South. It wasn’t until my undergraduate years that I learned the story of how my family was impacted by the school closings in resistance to the Brown vs. Board of Education decision of 1954. In 1959, Prince Edward County’s public schools of Virginia were locked and chained in resistance to desegregation; and for the next five years there was no public school system. African American and poor white students had no means of formal education in this county. This history fueled my passion to become an educator. 

The late Chadwick Boseman, a son of Howard University, previously delivered a powerful commencement address recounting and describing his early career experiences in which he was reminded of his training at a pivotal time and had to decide to use it or ignore it. The industry expectation was for him to ignore it. Ignoring it can appear to be the easier path and likely to equate to further advancement in his career. He decided to exemplify truth in service, Howard University’s motto. For him, that meant not participating in the advancement of the narrative, representation, or perspective that glorified what appeared to be stereotypical roles of African American males rooted in a deficit lens. Instead, he chose to create and personify roles that glorified prominent educators, activists, and pioneers. This is a poignant example of the significant role that we play in developing teachers.

You may ask yourself, what can I do to combat racism? We need for you to exercise political courage. Many times, we have the data, and we know what is right, but we must also develop the political courage to do what is right! There is power in your voice. But there is also noticeable power in your silence.  Educators are in the position to empower students through instruction, pedagogy, and deliberate actions to present a curriculum that is culturally affirming. 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stated “… a riot is the language of the unheard.” The voices that have been silenced through macroaggressions and systemic disenfranchisement are rising out of exhaustion. To quote famed author Alice Walker, “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” Silence communicates as deeply as anything else.

I am calling on teachers and leaders to amplify your voice in critical discussions that lead to incorporating antiracist teaching. Make the conscious move and choose to be antiracist in your philosophies, programs, practices, and yes, your policies.

Join AACTE in celebrating Black History Month by sharing your favorite resources for teaching Black history at the Ed Prep or PK-12 level. AACTE will compile this shared knowledge as a toolkit for teaching Black history every month of the year. Please take a moment to share your resources.

Dawn Williams is dean, School of Education, Howard University.

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