Philadelphia teachers’ Black Lives Matter week stirs inspiration amid controversy

Members of Philadelphia Caucus of Working Educators organized the Black Lives Matter Week of Action in response to thousands of teachers in Seattle holding a similar week last fall. (Credit: Caucus of Working Educators)

Members of Philadelphia Caucus of Working Educators organized the Black Lives Matter Week of Action in response to thousands of teachers in Seattle holding a similar week last fall. (Credit: Caucus of Working Educators)

For Charlie McGeehan, it was a move inspired by a group of teachers on the other side of the country.

“In Seattle, 2,000 teachers from across the district wore Black Lives Matter shirts and raised that as a topic of conversation in their schools and engaged their students with on one day in October and we were inspired by that action,” McGeehan said. Last fall, teachers across the Seattle area wore the shirts and used it to start a dialogue and McGeehan quickly got to work in trying to arrange something similar in Philadelphia.

“After that happened in October, we started conversations among the Racial Justice Committee over how we could do a similar action in Philadelphia,” he said. McGeehan teaches humanities at the U School in North Philadelphia and helped organize the Black Lives Matter Week of Action.

It’s a collaboration between the Caucus of Working Educators — which is a part of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers — and the Teacher Action Group and has been endorsed by Philadelphia chapter of Black Lives Matter. Participating teachers have been wearing Black Lives Matter t-shirts and buttons while holding discussions and lessons on social and racial justice.

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McGeehan sees it as an important dialogue to have in a school district where 72 percent of students are either Black or Latino.

“I’ve decided that I’m going to raise Black Lives Matter as a topic of conversation this week,” he said.  “I took a number of kids out to see Fences on a trip in relation to Black Lives Matter week.

“I’m planning to have them get out what they already know about Black Lives Matter and what questions do they have and seeing if we can spend this week in advisory having that conversation and exploring some of those questions that they have about Black Lives Matter,” he added.

The week of action will conclude with a panel discussion on Sunday evening and will feature Eagles’ defensive back Malcolm Jenkins, who famously took part in the National Anthem protests earlier this season that were spurred by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

“If you ever want to change your environment or a system, you first have to be educated on how that system works,” Jenkins said. The foundation that bears his name has a stated goal of helping kids in underserved communities.

“That’s why I am on the journey that I am now learning the inner workings of systems that have been set up to disadvantage minorities, especially black people,” he said. “That’s why I am vigilant in my efforts to support and empower people of color.”

Not everyone has been supportive of Black Lives Matter week. The announcement drew angry responses and even some threats online and even other teachers pushed back.

District spokesman Lee Whack said in a statement last week while that Black Lives Matter Week is not officially a part of its curriculum, they will not dissuade teachers from participating.

“However, the district encourages teachers to responsibly engage students around pertinent issues to develop critical thinking skills and a respect for the exchange of ideas,” Whack said. “The district regularly encourages schools to look to current-event topics for appropriate teaching content that is also aligned with grade-appropriate standards.”

Philadelphia’s Fraternal Order of Police has criticized Black Lives Matter as encouraging anti-police behavior. Organizers and members of the group heavily dispute that.

“I think people are easy to view the false narrative coming from the media and Conservative talk radio,” Asa Khalif, the head of Black Lives Matter’s Pennsylvania chapter, said. “I have never been, though I’ve been attacked as being anti-police, I have never public or privately said that I was anti-police. I’ve always said that I was anti-police brutality.”

He was thrilled that the teachers reached out to the organization to organize the week of lessons. Khalif, who has been an activist since he was a teenager, says the backlash ignores the plight of kids growing up in the majority-minority city.

“When you have black and brown children – especially coming out of the inner city – where the poverty and the violence and the miseducation and the dehumanizing and the abuse from the police, it’s something that is a focal point in everyday life for black and brown children,” Khalif said. “Why be against something that will empower children?”

McGeehan says students who don’t normally engage in classroom conversations, were jumping in to talk about social justice. Khalif noted that as proof that talking about Black Lives matter resonates with the kids.

“It’s something that they can identify with,” he said. “They’re seeing it not from a negative perspective but they’re seeing it as something that positive that they can embrace.”

McGeehan bristles at the idea that a week like this is pushing an agenda on unsuspecting students. He sees it as a vitally necessary conversation. Overall, he’s not much worried about internet commenters.

“I don’t think that saying Black Lives Matter and raising Black Lives Matter as a topic of conversation with my students who are predominantly Black and Brown – but with any students in general – is pushing my views on them,” he said. “I think it is standing with them and supporting my students.”

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