Sick and tired of being sick and tired

Cultivating a mindset of social justice advocacy for educators for the health and well-being of African American students

By Tonia Causey-Bush | September | October 2020
Recent tragedies surrounding the untimely and violent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery stopped us in our tracks and forced us to face a very disturbing reality. African Americans suffer disproportionate abuse and mistreatment from law enforcement. For those who have debated the veracity of this statement, local, regional and national statistics easily accessible online debunk any questions or skepticism. Listening to and viewing the details surrounding the untimely deaths of the George, Breonna, and Ahmaud and the relatively brief periods between each have scarcely allowed any time for their families, let alone the communities directly impacted, to grieve. What happened next forever changed history with a groundswell of outrage from all generations and crossing just about all racial and ethnic backgrounds for systemic change and reforms as protests for racial justice became the new normal. This collective rage and frustration could no longer be answered with promises for a better tomorrow with statistics reporting police violence as the sixth leading cause of death for African American males. The outcry that racism is a public health crisis for African Americans, which has never been more accurate, has been declared among several community organizations and officials in San Bernardino County, California with one of the largest populations of African Americans in the state (Singh, 2020). A sleeping giant was awakened in the hearts and minds of those who, in the words of the late civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hammer were “sick and tired of being sick and tired,” (Johnson, 1977).  No longer solaced by the privilege of simply turning off or tuning out of television or other media or of witnessing waning outrage, protests and news coverage, or of being afflicted by a false sense that this too shall pass and we can return to normal, the murder of Floyd, in particular, struck a raw and sensitive nerve that spoke to the generations of trauma endured, unhealed, and unrequited among African Americans. This brutal act arrested the ability of many to sit passively by and do nothing and made a compelling case for action in some way. Some took to the streets to participate in protests and used social media to disseminate and share resources while others opened their wallets and made financial contributions to the victims’ families, various organizations that fight for social justice, and towards the bail funds for protesters. And then some wanted to help and either didn’t quite know exactly how to go about it or felt that there was nothing substantive they could do. There is always something that we can do, particularly those of us in education. With well over 6 million students in California’s public schools as reported in the 2018-2019 academic school year, including 76.2 percent who were classified as non-white with 5.4 percent as African American (California Department of Education), we are presented with a unique opportunity to impact the health, safety, and well-being of our state and nation’s most valuable resource. More specifically, we are presented with a moral obligation to act on the behalf of our African American students given that on our current trajectory, they are likely to be victims of the same racism, mistreatment, and trauma if they have not already been the unfortunate recipients of such.  Moreover, the literature is ripe with research on how prolonged exposure to childhood trauma as measured by Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACEs (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2019) such as racism “manifest as toxic stress, yielding an increased allostatic load to the body causing prolonged activation of physiologic stress responses, which over time may yield poor health outcomes and future illnesses” (Ortiz and Sibinga 2017). In other words, persistent exposure to ACEs such as racism with its emotional, mental and physical trauma collectively damages the body’s ability to regulate hormones, resulting in an elevated state of cumulative stress, producing significant wear and tear on the body. The research is also very clear that such a persistently heightened allostatic load and the subsequent illnesses and diseases that can result can and often carry over physiologically into future generations. One can only surmise the collective toll that racism has levied on African Africans over generations with appalling collateral damage.

This collective rage and frustration could no longer be answered with promises for a better tomorrow with statistics reporting police violence as the sixth leading cause of death for African American males.
It is our duty as educators to create opportunities, systems and structures that actively demonstrate to African American students that their lives, health, and well-being matter. When African American children continue to bear witness to the racially charged violence at the hands of law enforcement upon other African Americans, it reinforces the message there is a blatant and systemic disregard for their lives in addition to the heightening their emotional trauma as a result from constantly seeing those who look like them, friends and family killed. How can we counteract this trauma in our respective roles as educators? While we can join the cause and call for reform and an overhaul to policing and its impact on African American communities, who better to lead the charge and create transformational change that will impact the mental and physical health, safety, and overall well-being of African American children at the most cursory levels within: 
  • Classrooms, as teachers create safe spaces for African American students to feel that they have agency; nurture relationships using culturally responsive instructional strategies that affirm background knowledge and make learning experiences and academic content both relevant and rigorous; create an engaging learning environment that provides African American students with the structure and high expectations of learning; sponsor campus clubs such as Black Student Unions or find ways to highlight African American students regularly and outside of February; work to build trust by being attentive to their needs; get to know African American students as unique individuals while showing sincere care, concern, love and respect; and at all times demonstrating fairness in all matters of classroom dynamics. 
  • Schools, as administrators and staff cultivate a climate and culture with a safe and healthy environment for African American students to thrive by immediately addressing all instances of racism on campus and following up with transparent investigation processes; not further victimizing or dismissing students who complain about racism and ensure that there are sufficient support personnel available for African American students to access including climate and culture coaches and mindfulness programs to improve coping and resiliency; highlight the specific needs of African American students based on disaggregated data; compare the rate of exclusionary discipline consequences among African American students to other racial and ethnic groups to check for disproportionalities; build up an African American Parent Advisory Councils on campus with regular meetings and use this to leverage community resources, nonprofit organizations, and extracurricular resources that speak to the needs of African American students including rites of passage programs, mentorship opportunities, clubs, HBCU college fairs at the high school level, and African American organizations who can offer support such as fraternities and sororities.
  • Districts, as boards and superintendents create resolutions and policies that articulate the district’s intolerance of racism and the racial profiling of African American students; assign staff or create departments that explicitly address issues of equity and African American student achievement; implement ethnic studies courses that address racial inequities, speak to the histories and experiences of historically disenfranchised populations such as African Americans, and ensure that African American students see their stories as part history; adjust graduation requirements to include an ethnic studies requirement; highlight the specific needs of African American students based on data and participate in local and regional task forces to ensure the needs of African American students are a priority; implement multi-tiered systems of support in place to support the academic, behavioral, and social-emotional needs of African American students and direct funding sources such as Title IV to provide district-directed mental health services and social emotional-learning programs to support African American students; and make professional development around implicit bias and cultural responsiveness mandatory training for all district employees.
The aforementioned actions are only as powerful as the mindset and perspective from which they are implemented, as this is a precondition to changing behavior, and as authentic transformation begins within our hearts and minds. This is difficult work that is not for those who aren’t dedicated and will require a lifetime commitment. Below are some suggestions to begin the internal work needed to become a social justice advocate for African American students amid this public health crisis in your respective roles: 1. Acknowledge where you are and what you don’t know. Educate yourself on the history and the experiences of African Americans including the tragic and complicated story of enslavement. Understand that while African Americans have a rich history here in the U.S. including themes of triumph over tragedy, that there is a wider African historical experience that needs to be acknowledged and studied before the transport of Africans to the U.S.  2. Don’t make assumptions that you understand the experiences of African Americans as opposed to empathizing and being open and vulnerable to learning, listening, and even experiencing some levels of discomfort in learning about the impact of generational trauma and of the many ways African Americans have been brutalized mentally, spiritually, and physically. Remove or suspend judgment in engaging in difficult or emotionally charged conversations. 3. Learn the definitions of widely used terms such as cultural appropriation, historical disenfranchisement, marginalization, prejudice, privilege and white supremacy so that you can become a responsible steward of the language used and feel empowered help to correct others who use it inappropriately.  4. Remove the phrase “I don’t see color” from your lexicon and embrace all the attributes and elements that African American students bring with them. Find creative ways to positively highlight these attributes and give agency to the unique and rich cultural heritage associated with being African American by bringing this into the mainstream as you examine and redefine your positionality and power. 5. Use your platform and span of influence to advocate on behalf of African American students to shift your immediate environment. If you hear microaggressions or mistruths being spoken, hold people accountable and correct these without too much time going by. If done in public, for example at a staff meeting or within a large gathering, use your better judgment as to how best to address these and be sure to follow up privately if possible.  6. Now more than ever be clear about your why. Stay authentic to the cause which is to work towards cultivating a mindset of social justice advocacy for the health and well-being of African American students and be mindful of what is subconsciously influencing you. Commit to your actions by contributing towards solution-building efforts including but not limited to joining or supporting local organizations at the forefront of in fighting for social justice and systemic change or creating an organization chartered around a similar mission. 7. Be ready to embrace a new normal and adopt a growth mindset in this process. While most educators tend to be well-intentioned and hold a genuine desire for African American students to learn, they are not immune to holding varying levels of biases as schools are microcosms of the outside world. However, it is not enough to be well-intentioned; it is necessary to be consciously aware of biases and openly examine how these impact African American students.  8. Consider that you may or may not see the fruits of your labor. This kind of work requires a lifetime of commitment and is often thankless. Accepting and making peace with this at the onset will go a long way towards slowing the mental toll it will cost.

It is our duty as educators to create opportunities, systems and structures that actively demonstrate to African American students that their lives, health, and well-being matter.
In the future when asked what you did amid the public health crises of African Americans, how will you be able to respond? When Fannie Lou Hamer, a sharecropper by trade, decided to speak out against racial violence and fight for voting rights for African Americans, one could only imagine if she knew the price she would have to pay as she would endure beatings at the hands of law enforcement in 1960s Mississippi. Being sick and tired of being sick and tired was enough to empower her towards action. She willingly made the sacrifice to become a fierce advocate in the fight for equal rights for African Americans as she and her family were subsequently evicted from their home because of her continued activism. Nearly 60 years later we find ourselves like Hamer sick, tired and compelled to act because the risk of not acting is greater than what we stand to lose. Our actions will determine if this is a moment in history for educators or if we will pick up the mantle where we stand and create a movement and a legacy that will benefit the health and wellness of African American students for generations to come. Like Fannie Lou Hamer, this work will require some level of sacrifice and a willingness to work out of our comfort zone. It is a matter of life or death. Resources California Department of Education, Fingertip Facts on Education in California – CalEdFacts,  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2019). Preventing Adverse ChildhoodExperiences: Leveraging the Best Available Evidence. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Johnson, Thomas A., “Fannie Lou Hamer Dies; Left Farm To Lead Struggle for Civil Rights,” March 15, 1977, New York Times, Ortiz, Robin & Sibinga, Erica. (2017). The Role of Mindfulness in Reducing the Adverse Effects of Childhood Stress and Trauma. Children. 4. 16. 10.3390/children4030016.  Singh, Maanvi, ’Long overdue’: lawmakers declare racism a public health emergency,” June 12, 2020, The Guardian, 
Tonia R. Causey-Bush is the Director of Teaching and Learning at Fontana Unified School District

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Association of California School Administrators