Charter Schools

#MyBlackHistory: What Do Black Panthers Have to Do With a Charter School Principal? Let Me Tell You

To commemorate Black History Month, Education Post is featuring stories from parents, students and educators that connect past to present in the continued fight for better schools for Black communities using #MyBlackHistory.
  When people describe folks’ offspring, many will share, “the apple doesn’t fall far from its tree.” I have never subscribed to that adage. I tell our youth differently, “We don’t just fall anywhere. We stand on the highest branches of our elders.” So, naturally, when I reflect on my work as a 24-year-educator, I can’t help but to think about my first teachers: my parents. Hamid and Aisha, my parents, met and married while in the Black Panther Party (BPP) in West Philadelphia. At the time, the Black Panthers were thought to be one of the most dangerous groups in America, with J. Edgar Hoover going so far as to claim, “The Panthers are the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” But Hamid and Aisha knew Hoover to be wrong. Like my father said then and now, “Anytime anyone is talking about self-determination, the end to police killings of unarmed Black men and women, justice, decent, equitably funded and meaningful education, ending the exploitation and gentrification of our communities, employment, affordable and safe housing, and affordable medical care, and holding the politicians and policymakers accountable, they are labeled and targeted by the media, as well as by the government.” So despite Hoover’s claim, they made a commitment to help dismantle white supremacy and agitate change for the liberation and education of the Black community. They, and other Panthers, worked tirelessly out of 19th and Columbia, 36th and Wallace Street, and other places, making education and the protection of Black youth their priority.

What the Media Won’t Tell You About the Black Panthers

The  foundational aspect of education in the Party’s early activities is often forgotten about but the struggle to end the racist, poor education of Black children was central. Within the Black Panther Party’s Ten Point Platform education was a focal point with the Party calling for “a decent education for our people.” Their core belief in the need for educational justice, something that was far beyond what was being taught in the school system, led them to first develop a free-breakfast program, which attracted my mother because as she saw it, “They understood the importance of developing the entire child.” Later on, they were able to establish  liberation schools that focused on teaching children about their history, how to be critical thinkers and ways to improve the community. My own grade school,  Nidhamu Sasa, had its roots in this philosophy as well. [pullquote position="left"]Education was fundamental to the Black Panther Party, and it remains true for social justice activists today. Being the son of parents who were members of the Party, the natural progression of the fight for the positive values and relevance for education is obviously in my DNA. Like my parents, I joined activists who endeavor to stress the importance of education and justice. As a former teacher and now public charter school principal in Philadelphia, I have students who are learning about community, identity, Black History, self-discipline, economics, resistance and social justice. The idea of love for our students is powerful. Not a passive love. An intense love that demands that I do everything I can to right the wrongs of society that Black children have borne since Europeans’ arrival in America. A type of love that wants to ensure that my students can clearly recognize and avoid the many traps laid by white supremacy. A love that supports students in fighting for others as they liberate themselves. The type of love that wants them to achieve bigger and bolder goals than I could've ever imagined for myself.

The Oppression Looks Different But It Persists

This fight for education has historical importance beyond the Panthers and myself. The oppression of Black communities may look different, but it persists. Our ancestors’ schools were poorly funded and even burned down when they dared to read or teach. Today, our schools and communities aren’t always burned through fire, they’re burned and devastated through racist policies, deliberate underfunding and the lack of accountability needed to provide a “decent education.” What my Black Panther Party parents stood for then, I stand for now...schools are launching pads for equity or injustice. Adults choose which. Equitable and predictable educational funding, a holistic educational experience, healthy food and environment, high levels of literacy, community involvement, and, yes, undoubtedly, school choice. In other words, the all-too-elusive “decent education” that Black folks have been pursuing for generations is what, across the same span of time, the affluent take for granted. The path towards this decent education and liberation of our communities starts with educational justice. We know we will need to demand and agitate for it relentlessly, because one thing has been made resoundingly clear: marginalized communities will not simply be provided a decent and equitable education. So, Black Panther Cubs and our social justice allies alike, let’s  continue the fight of our heroes.
Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki is the Founder and CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development. The Center exists to ensure there will be equity in the recruiting, training, hiring, and retention of quality educators that reflect the cultural backgrounds and share common socio-political interests of the students they serve. The Center is developing a ...

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