In his sermon on courage delivered on March 8, 1965 in Selma, Alabama Dr. Martin Luther King proclaimed, “A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true.”
As the nation prepares to commemorate Martin Luther King Day, Americans are often encouraged to observe this day not simply as a day off from work or school, but also as a day of service to others through appropriate civic and community projects. How can New Jersey educators respond to Dr. King’s sermon on courage?
African American males and females are at risk for many kinds of school failure, including poor test scores, high dropout rates, and high suspension rates. While there has been a great deal of attention on the problems of African American males, African American females as well as other females of color are often ignored. The Center for American Progress reports that by 2050 females of color will comprise approximately 53% of the U.S. population.
According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, African American females, who make up 8% of K–12 students nationwide, are overrepresented among students who face discipline that excludes or outlaws them. Fourteen percent of African American females, more than any other subgroup of students, have received one or more out-of-school suspensions.
Education is a priceless tool because it can, and historically has been, used to liberate and make a difference. As educators, we sit in powerful positions because of the daily influence we have over so many minds. And for African American girls, teaching often bolsters a history where too many women continue to be invisible, microscopic, and silenced. African American women have long been a silent strength in this country, and we as educators must do a better job in teaching leadership skills to African American females and other females of color.
Limited opportunities to lead
Opportunities for leadership are limited for females of color, even today. Educators’ perceptions of African American young women often involve racial and gender stereotypes, and this often cripples their potential for success. Therefore, it is crucial that New Jersey schools provide females of color access to programs that promote their self-worth, self-esteem, and provide them with meaningful leadership opportunities.
In the NJ Core Curriculum Content Standards Employability Skills Career and Technical Education, it states “Demonstrate teamwork and leadership skills that include student participation in real world applications of career and technical education skills.” Are New Jersey schools giving females of color leadership skills that they need for real world applications? Have they been given the tools that they need to be successful?
What can school leaders do to teach leadership to females of color? First, understand that the changing of a school culture is a long-term process that involves buy-in from all key stakeholders, including students, parents, school staff, the school board, taxpayers, and the business community. All stakeholders need to be engaged in developing and sustaining a path for females of color to achieve success.
Second, school and district staff, community leaders and members, advocates and policymakers should take action to advance the success of females of color, complementing the important ongoing work to include in the curriculum the teaching of leadership skills for this often ignored population.
Third, extensive training needs to be provided to all members of the school community about feminist leadership and how it is critical — and, vitally, to add a curriculum that centers on African American women as historical actors, not passive participants in history.
The program and curriculum changes that are needed will not be quick nor easy and will require the kind of courage that Dr. King called for in his famous sermon in Selma. Are New Jersey educators courageous enough to begin this effort to teach females of color leadership skills?