Education plays a key role in achieving racial equity in America. Yet, sometimes it is difficult to find hope in the education policy arena. The system itself is steeped in unconscious racial bias, and even the best intentions sometimes perpetuate existing racial inequality. It is no wonder, then, that activists oftentimes give up on making changes in this space and instead focus their attention on using protests and the media to be heard. As a policy analyst working in the education field in New Orleans, I’ve seen exactly how disenfranchisement works. First of all, the policymaking process is set up so that only the elite—those with stable working hours, digital literacy, Internet access, and high education levels—can participate. Black parents are less likely to have these resources, and so they are also less likely to be able to participate. For example, Orleans Parish School Board meeting notices are often posted only a day in advance on the web. Many of the board’s committee meetings are held during the day, when it is not possible for most people to take off work. Moreover, even as a policy analyst, it is difficult to fully analyze—in a day’s time or a week for Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) meetings—the changes the board is proposing, let alone assess their impact. I often feel disconnected, caught off-guard, and frustrated by all of the coded legal jargon used and the process as a whole. And I’m not your average advocate or resident, I’m an attorney with years of experience in policy. So I can only imagine how someone without a background in law might feel trying to navigate this field. I rarely see community members or even organizational leaders at these policy meetings, and when I do, it’s the same ones, those who have developed an expertise and understand what’s going on.
Meetings For Show
When groups attend—parents wanting to address standardized testing, or immigrants asking for ESL (English as a second language) funding—the experience is neither empowering nor beneficial. Quite the opposite, it often perpetuates unseemly racial dynamics as community members and leaders are often treated with disrespect. There is something very grotesque about watching a White policymaker, who is seated on a platform above everyone else, looking down at papers or gazing at a phone screen while a Black parent speaks passionately about the impact of testing, school closures or suspensions. Sometimes a policymaker will unnecessarily exert his or her power or intellectual prowess by becoming confrontational with a parent or advocate who is clearly not an expert on a point of data, law or logic. Habitually, the White policymaker will interrupt the parent to say, “Thank you. Please conclude your remarks. Your three minutes is up.” Parents and advocates drive anywhere between 30 minutes and two hours to give three minutes of testimony. A
recent study showed that the more poor Blacks and Hispanics support a policy, the
less likely the policy is to be enacted. "People say parents don’t care because they don’t show up at meetings," claims Ashana Bigard, an outspoken advocate in New Orleans. "Well, after Katrina, parents went to three hundred meetings and none of what they said was implemented." Meetings are merely for show, and the decisions already have been made behind closed doors. This has become painfully clear to me while working with partners to try and pass legislation on the state level. Even in instances where the community is asked for feedback, the mechanisms to gather it are so weak that it is questionable whether the effort is genuine. It seems that opportunities for communities of color to actually influence policy are rare. Instead, activists take to the streets. Across the nation, protesters are chanting: “No justice, no peace!” and “Black Lives Matter!” They swarm the streets with signs. They lay down in malls. They block intersections. They tell the world, “We can’t breathe” and ask others to “say her name.” Despite the disenfranchisement in the policy arena, people of color have found a way to be heard. Yet, I can’t help wonder when these street-level protests will make their way to the rooms where policy is decided. When will we bring the energy of a protest to a policy meeting? When will we lay our bodies down at the steps of the statehouse to demand an end to the school-to-prison pipeline? If education is going to be a means of achieving racial equity in America, we are going to have to focus our energy on deconstructing racism within the education policy-making arena.
Florentina Staigers is a social justice attorney with a background in sociology. She is currently advocating for policies that address racial disparities in health and education. She blogs at the Second Line Education Blog.