There were seven of us. There were only seven students of color at my private, Christian high school. Most students were photocopies of each other. They had attended the same elementary schools and filed into the same contemporary Presbyterian churches every Sunday. They all had similar interests and values. They drove into the school every morning in their Wranglers, motorcycles, and sports cars, all while blasting Lecrae, the popular Christian rapper who had become a sensation among the students over the summer. The guys wore Birkenstocks, cargo shorts, and the school’s tee regardless of the weather. The culture of the school was rigid — you either belonged or you didn’t, and the school’s teachers and administrators fed into this culture. They, too, attended the same churches and shared many of the same values as the students. They maintained the feelings of otherness that many students of color felt.

It was during my junior year of high school that school leaders realized there was a problem. There was a conflict between students of color and white classmates at the school, and the administration was struggling to find a solution. I remember being abruptly called into a whole school assembly on a random Wednesday afternoon. An African American woman stood before us and opened her presentation exuberantly stating, “You are not white! You are not black! We are all the human race!” I remember the confusion flooding everyone’s faces. While I understood the purpose of her decree, she was missing the point. My blackness is a significant part of my identity. I move through the world with the thoughts of a Black man and am viewed by others as a Black male.

I wondered, how does this help prepare us for the real world? Ignoring my blackness is ignoring who I am.

Establishing a Unique Culture

Ten years later, in 2018, I found myself teaching a hip-hop music class at an international school in Nigeria. The diverse student population there was a welcome change from my own educational experience in the United States.

Listening to hip-hop music with a room full of teenagers is insightful. The class focused on both the music elements and the storytelling found within the music. Each student took turns bringing in recordings and lyrics to the music they enjoyed. I wanted students to understand what the artists were sharing in the music and to have the vocabulary to describe music they enjoyed. We also regularly discussed the complexity of race relations, systematic racism, and its influence, even in Nigeria. These conversations were sometimes tough, but the students were eager to dive into honest discussions and learn from each other. 

After a few weeks, a unique culture had been established in our classroom. Students came ready to learn and talk about important topics that regularly impacted them. Many of the students of color felt empowered to share their stories with others and for their audience to learn from them. Many of the white students in the class began to understand the othering many of the students of color were experiencing. During our tough conversations, students regularly brought up concerns that they had with the school, issues such as the use of an American-centric curriculum that was not relatable to many of the students, the complex dynamics between students of various nationalities, and the lack of celebration and pride of the unique culture that every student brought to the school.

Toward the end of the semester, one student stood up during class and proclaimed, “We have to do something about this. How can we make change?” The students wanted their identities to be celebrated beyond the two designated culture days and for their identities to authentically influence every area of the school. They began to share ideas with each other, including boycotting school celebrations such as International Day, writing letters to administrators to request meetings to express their concerns with the school, and starting a Black Student Alliance where any student in the school could advocate for students of color in the school and work with the administration to begin the work of making change at the school. A different student turned to me and asked what I thought. I didn’t know how to respond.

Working Within the System

Later that night I was reflecting back to 2008, my first year of college, and the excitement around the first presidential election of Barack Obama. In one of the debates, President Obama addressed a question from the audience about making a rapid change in the government using presidential veto power. I don’t remember the exact question, but I do remember Obama’s response. He said that there is a reason the government has checks and balances and that for real change to occur, we have to work with the system and within the given law. This is why it’s essential to vote for representatives who share the same background and have the same beliefs, values, and cultures as those they are representing.

Perhaps this was the answer my students needed. Maybe they needed to use the school’s built-in systems to make a change. The following morning, during one of the last classes of the semester, I was eager to share Obama’s words with my students. I understood that while music has the power to move people, we have to work within the school system to make real change. I encouraged students to consider ways they could put themselves in positions where their voices would be heard and to use the desire to make changes to their school at the forefront of their mind, particularly when they face something challenging and may be discouraged. 

The semester ended, and I was despondent to see the students go. But when elections for student council and student clubs later took place, many students from my class ended up running and winning positions at the school. They then used their power in these positions to create a student DEI task force; rename the school’s house system (which are the teams that students were divided into for the purpose of school spirit and activities, and that reflect African leaders); and create forums where students and teachers could share their experiences being of color at the school, and how those experiences influenced their feelings of belonging.

The Most Crucial Job in the World

Educators have the most crucial job in the world. We prepare our students to not only be productive citizens but also to take up the mantle of changing the systems of inequity in the world. I hope that through sharing my own experiences and lessons, my students feel empowered to work through the rigid systems in the United States and take on leadership positions where they have the power to make change. 

As I transition into a school leadership role, I look forward to continuing to empower my students to make real changes at school. Our students are the next generation of politicians, doctors, lawyers, and many other roles that will impact the future. The purposeful conversations and actions circulating within global education are thrilling, and I am eager to see how the next generation of strong and smart young adults will tackle both local and global inequalities.