Today marks the 64th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling stating that separate schools are not equal schools. It is not a time for celebration. Despite six decades of desegregation policy (and six decades of resistance to it), our public schools are tremendously segregated by race and class. We know about the heartbreaking inequities and the devastating impacts of segregation. We have seen the grim charts, zones and maps that show our racially isolated schools. We lament the monster policies and boundary demarcations and red-lines that corral white/privileged children into some schools and children of color into others. Policies, we read, are to blame.
The need to “fix policy” to create sustainable and meaningful integration is real – and there is no excuse not to. The research is pretty clear; racially diverse classrooms benefit all kids. If you feel a sense of outrage about school segregation but feel overwhelmed at the thought of the grueling work required to change policy, you are not alone.
But planting the problem of our segregated schools in the lap of policy provides distance and cover for us every-day white and/or privileged parents. Blaming the structures for this problem negates our role in their creation. Maybe we aren’t throwing bottles at the Little Rock Nine or gerrymandering our district boundaries to ‘protect our real estate values’, we nonetheless tolerate and support a caste public education system perpetuating that legacy.
En masse, white parents have never committed to nor prioritized integration. We have been unreliable constituents for democracy. We have allowed “parenting” and “justice” to remain entirely separate conversations.
But between laundry and work and dinner and bathing and violin lessons, what can one parent do?
Fortunately we can do more than simply wring our hands and wait for the zoning czars and school district officials to get plucky. Here are six ways that you can disrupt school segregation.
- Research and Reflect. Be aware of the ways that segregation plays out in your districts – and neighboring districts as well. Read the research and reporting on segregation. As you are thinking about your own child, envision the world you are creating for her adulthood. As you are thinking about your community, consider how your choices contribute to its shape.
- Speak Up. Share your thinking with your friends. Work in every way to publicly question the “good/bad” school narratives that promote segregation (yeah, we see you realtor-site-school-ratings folks). Parents choose schools in large part based on what other parents in their networks are saying; be a voice here.
- Set Foot. Before you write off that school with low test scores, the one that you’ve heard is “bad,” the one that serves mostly global-majority kids, go see for yourself. Take. A. Look. You might just be surprised. You will certainly see a building filled with kids, boisterous and messy and beautiful kids.
- Step In. Enroll your kids in an integrated/integrating school. Send them to a school that serves a majority of kids who come from a different racial, socioeconomic and/or linguistic background than yours. And yes, you can even be ‘the only one’ white/privileged family. This isn’t possible everywhere, especially when we live segregated communities. But if you have the pleasure of living in a diverse area or the ability to drive your kid past the privilege-segregated neighborhood school to the under-enrolled Title 1 school on the other side of the highway, exercise it.
- Step Up (Not On). If you enroll your child in an integrated/ing school and your intentions are good, be thoughtful about your impact. Know that your child, your presence and your privilege aren’t magical. Your child is there to attend school, you are not there to “fix” a “broken” school. If you’re the itchin’ to pitch-in, cut-construction-paper-autumn-leaves type, put yourself in service to the community – it was there before you. Listen, be humble.
- Step Out. Tell your school board members and district officials that you value integration and that you vote. Then tell them again. Ask what they doing about it. Make all this public on your social media. Ask them which schools their kids attend. Vote.
By all means, if you have time and energy and fancy yourself a butt-kicking kind of parent, advocate and organize. Run for school board, coordinate a grassroots campaign in your district, marshall every resource to push for courageous policy. But if you’re not able or willing to dig in this deep – these six steps, the everyday choices we make in how we speak and how we show up, have tremendous impact.
A passionately progressive school board member once told me that as much as he would *like* to work on integration, it was too large an issue, too divisive, and would hamper his ability to put forth any equity measures. “I can’t do anything about integration in this climate,” he said, “because I don’t have a constituency of parents who will support it.”
Policymakers need vocal voters with skin in the game.
Let’s be clear. In taking some/all of these six steps, you will not save the school with your white/privileged presence. You will not heroically cure racism by the end of second grade; ours is a deep hole, millennia in the making. However, you can interrupt segregation by challenging the “good/bad school” narratives that perpetuate it. You can interrupt segregation by refusing to participate in it. You can interrupt segregation by creating a voice and vote for equity and integration. Every time we muddy the waters of white supremacy, we disrupt its power.
As we observe the Brown v. Board anniversary, we need not feel resigned to awaiting superhero policy. There is a lot that one parent can do.