My Toxic but Open Relationship With Education Activism

Sep 17, 2021 12:00:00 AM

by Tanesha Peeples

Transparent moment.

There have been at least 50 separate occasions throughout my adult life where I’ve contemplated leaving this rollercoaster of a relationship I have with activism. As a matter of fact, I had my bags packed and ready at the door the whole latter half of this summer.

Trying to fight everything and everybody who is committed to restricting the freedoms of Black people is literally like trying to put fires out in hell while, in the process, sustaining spiritual, mental and sometimes physical third-degree burns with no time to nurse yourself back to health. 

It’s exhausting and it feels hopeless — especially in a time where most of us have seen and felt racism and oppression that comes close to mirroring the struggles of our ancestors in the history some people are trying to suppress. 

And then, to add insult to injury, we live in the real-life “Hunger Games,’ where nothing in the entertainment industry is off limits. Like this new show called “The Activist.”

Originally, the show’s setup was to have “actorvists” (my word for bootleg or fraud activists) “go head-to-head in challenges to promote their causes, with their success measured via online engagement, social metrics, and hosts’ input.” But thank God backlash from the internet prompted CBS to change the format and make it a documentary which, honestly, I don’t have high hopes for either.

And, the show's evaluation of “impact” through online engagement and social metrics (whatever those are) goes to show just how much people think real activism goes down on social media, especially educational activism. This performative and entertainment activism has created a culture of people striving to become celebrities over change-makers, even if that takes exploiting the struggles of marginalized communities and undermining the work of grassroots activists.

Saying all of this to say, I just really hate it here sometimes. 

Nonetheless, divine intervention and purpose always bring me back. Let me tell y’all what did it this time.

Earlier this week, I was talking to one of my colleagues in Oakland who’s an activist and educator. He showed me a throwback video of him teaching a Black boy who, at the time, was in fifth grade. In this video, the boy had written and was reading his first sentence — ever in life — but was labeled gifted and talented when he was in kindergarten.

Between those years, this student had pretty much given up on coming to school — and understandably so — because he was embarrassed by his inability to read. Never formally screened or diagnosed with dyslexia, but advanced from grade to grade illiterate until he met Mr. Kareem Weaver.

I cried real tears after watching that video. 

Then on the subject of dyslexia, we started talking about overall literacy and how it’s an absolute determining factor in going to college/into a career or getting stuck in the school-to-prison pipeline. As a matter of fact, data shows that 3/4 of students that cannot read proficiently by the end of fourth grade will end up in the criminal justice system or on welfare. 

So had Kareem not intervened in that Black boy’s education at the time that he did, there was a strong chance that he would’ve been counted in that 3/4 population.

And of course we eventually ended on the heartbreaking fact that the largest percentage of incarcerated people in America are Black.  

That “come to Jesus” moment was enough for me to unpack my bags and stay in this relationship with activism.  More importantly, it made me realize how I need to go harder in advocacy around literacy. 

I told this story for a few reasons. 

First, the wonky and dysfunctional political arena that is public education has purposely isolated and discouraged families from understanding and exercising their right to equality, access and quality. At the same time, data is so distorted that the narratives told by school districts had a lot of parents thinking things are going just fine. But thankfully, the pandemic exposed that lie.

This nasty cycle continues to allow students to fall through the cracks of ambiguous, contradictory and discriminatory policies and practices, and has parents unable to tell up from down. 

[pullquote]As activists and storytellers, we have to break it down and make it make sense to the communities we’re fighting for.[/pullquote] And not that they’re incapable of connecting the dots through data and policy, but when they hear the story told by Kareem and consider others like the young man in Baltimore who’d made it all the way to his senior year of high school without actually passing a single grade, the picture and path to failure becomes more vivid — the closeness and potential reality of it being their child or others in their community hits home and feeds the urgency to act. This level of transparency is important in gaining empathy, understanding and getting more folks fired up to fight for education. People have to know that they’re entering America’s longest and strongest war. 

I’m not one for airing my dirty laundry, but I’ll never go silent about or sugarcoat my struggles with staying in this relationship with activism. It’s an open one across the board where I, Kareem and other activists don’t mind sharing our truth with people who share the same love and passion for our kids. 

But anyone who doesn’t see the criminality in a child moving through the public school system without the ability to write or read a sentence is complicit in the system’s failure and oppression and cannot be our sister wife. 

The fight for education is often at the bottom of the priorities list with a handful of people hoisting it on our shoulders, trying to push it to the top. We’re tired, our backs are breaking and we want to tap out — but we can’t. 

Going forward, [pullquote]education can’t be an afterthought. It has to be the most important fight[/pullquote] because it sets the stage for literally everything else. Whether your child will go to prison or college, if your child can even make it through college, and most importantly, if they have one of the most vital but basic life skills to survive, which is literacy!

Tanesha Peeples

Tanesha Peeples is driven by one question in her work—“If not me, then who?” As the former Deputy Director of Activist Development for brightbeam, Tanesha merges the worlds of communications and grassroots activism to push for change in the public education system. Her passion for community and relentless mission for justice and liberation drive her in uplifting and amplifying the voices and advocacy of those that are often ignored. Tanesha wholeheartedly believes that education is the foundation for success. Her grand vision is one where everyone—regardless of ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender or ZIP code—can have access to a comfortable quality of life and enjoy the freedoms and liberties promised to all Americans. And that's what she works towards every day.

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