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Editor’s Note: The following essay was adapted from a speech that Michael Ndubisi, a senior at North Salinas High School, delivered on Oct. 24 during the “All in for Equity” conference organized by the Monterey County Office of Education. The conference was attended mostly by education professionals of Monterey County and beyond.
By Michael Ndubisi
We all know these words from the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. That among these include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But not many people know what comes right after that. “That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men. Deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” I sit here today, wondering how a country founded upon such high ideals can fall so far short of it every day.
A writer once wrote that the great struggle of the American epic has not been aspiring to create “a government of the people, by the people, and for the people” but to determine who exactly “the people” are. We are here today because folks like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Jacob Blake, and Daniel Prude (just to name a few) were not included in “the people,” and countless other unnamed black people across our country are not counted as “the people” every day.
We know this because not only are they deprived of their so-called inalienable rights to live, to be free, and to pursue happiness, but the people doing the depriving are the governments instituted among us to protect those rights. And, no, they’re not doing it covertly. In broad daylight, and before the eyes of a watchful nation, they chase us, shoot us, and kneel on our necks. Yet we continue to support them. We the people pay for the sirens that pull us over, the handcuffs that restrain us, the officers’ pensions that kill us, and the badges that seemingly give them the right to do it, but we also pay for something that can counteract these evils: public education.
And as the nation continues to demand justice not just for one or two individuals who have lost their lives to an unjust system, but for the millions upon millions of mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, close friends and extended family members, whose names we cannot chant, whose stories our world has already forgotten, whose lives did not matter then but must matter now, here, and to us, we are faced with a choice. A choice between continuity and change, and we must choose change.
"The most important lesson an educator can teach a student is the importance of civic engagement and how to turn their righteous anger into civic action."
I’ve been asked to share my personal experience with these issues as it relates to education so that we can once and for all close this dark chapter of our history. And while I could speak at great length about my personal experiences of prejudice from students and teachers, like the prevention of important social conversations that need to be had, but aren’t, because they’re “too divisive,” the segregation of schools not unlike that of the 1960s in neighborhoods I have lived it, the lack of diverse educational material, and the stifling of black students because of preconceived notions of what a Black student ought to be.
I could share stories like the time I was called a nigger by a student while in class during the middle of our lesson on slavery, the segregation I saw every day on my old high school’s quad during lunch, and how I came to learn one part of the quad was informally known as “Little Africa” because that’s where the Black students hung out, I could talk about the disgustingly low standards set up for me or the insulting half compliments I received simply because of the color of my skin, or I could describe to you what it is like to almost be just another statistic, just another hashtag or just another victim to things like the school to prison pipeline, the achievement gap, and the many other systemic forms of racism in our country. But instead, I’d like to share the ways we can begin to create a better world, one in which these issues not only don’t exist but are unconscionable. That process begins with you and in our classrooms.
The most important lesson an educator can teach a student is the importance of civic engagement and how to turn their righteous anger into civic action. Cementing the idea that while we are a small part of our much larger world, we have a special responsibility for making it a more just and equitable one. Sharing that lesson as far and wide as possible with as many young people as possible has been the goal of the Junior State of America/Coalition for the last year and a half.
Our mission is one and the same as the mission of educators: empowering young people to become leaders to create that more just and equitable world that we all want to live in. We both understand that empowerment is central to the race question in America. For centuries, power has been stripped from one group and amassed by another and we’re still dealing with the repercussions of that today. If we want to create a modern and post-racial society, we must address the marginalization of Black people and begin the difficult task of reforming the system by empowering our young Black scholars.
When I first moved to Monterey County, I immediately recognized the biggest issue facing our community: a lack of empowerment. As I began to meet people, mostly young people of color, and listen to their stories, many confided in me that they genuinely believed that they could not achieve as much or go as far as others simply because they were from our community. Their plans for their futures rarely seemed to differ from one another: hurry up, grow up, and get out. It broke my heart to hear that because I believe, as I know you do, in creating a world where they can accomplish anything they put their minds to. It became clear to me that empowerment was the top priority for our organization and it remains the top priority today as we deal with these pressing issues.
There is a saying in the activist world that “the young people will win.” It means that the issues we fight, advocate, organize, and mobilize for are the ones that will win the day. But looking at the current state of our community, our country, and our world has made me seriously question that idea. Because how can young people win if so many of us aren’t even in the game? How can young people win if we don’t believe in ourselves, or in our ability to create change? How can young people win if we aren’t given the tools and support necessary to win those victories not only for ourselves but for future generations? I know we sometimes act like we know the answers to everything, but those are questions that only you can answer.
"As long as I have a voice in this community, it's going to be for that cause which creates a new generation of civically engaged leaders who not only understand the social problems of today but have the ability to work in changing them."
I believe those answers lie in empowering our students through our schools. A few weeks ago, the students I mentioned earlier, the ones who did not believe that they could be activists or organizers working to make a substantial difference in the world around them, did just that because they have been empowered to. They organized our community’s first-ever police dialogue between officers in our police department and members of our community. In light of the re-energized conversation surrounding policing in the United States, they decided to organize this dialogue to improve the connection and bridge the deep gap between police officers and members of our community because it needed to be done. They see the exact same things we see happening in the world today, and they, like all of us, wanted to act. They recognized that we are living in the largest civil rights movement in world history, but they understand that this time, there are no leaders like Martin Luther King, no Malcolm X, no Rosa Parks or John Lewis and that they must be the leaders of this fight.
The extraordinary part of this campaign isn’t that these young people feel the way that they do — that is not unique. Many people around the world want to make the difference that these students are making, but can’t because our students have been empowered. They have been given the means and the opportunity to do these things, and that, my friends, has made all the difference.
That opportunity should not be granted exclusively to them but should be guaranteed to all students in every part of our country. And as long as I have a voice in this community, it’s going to be for that cause which creates a new generation of civically engaged leaders who not only understand the social problems of today but have the ability to work in changing them. That is the only hope for a brighter future and a better world. In closing, I’d like to say that Dr. King was right, the moral arc of the universe is long, and it does bend towards justice, but we must remember that we have to do the pulling. Together we can bind up the wounds of our deeply divided nation and create, for the first time, that more perfect union which so many of our ancestors fought and died for. A country where all lives really do matter and we don’t just say that.
This great burden falls upon all of you. And I hope everything you’ve learned and heard today has helped you see that you’re so much more than just educators. You’re empowerers, movers, shakers, doers, leaders, and most importantly, the last best hope for our country. Because it is not very often that the world calls on entire professions to save and unite it in a time of such distress and division, but it calls on you, and educators everywhere, today. This is our moment so we must meet it, and this is our mission so we must complete it.
Michael Ndubisi is a senior at North Salinas High School. As the President of Junior State of America (JSA-JSC) Michael has mobilized young scholars who are interested in what is going on in the world around them and likes to work in making a real difference in the community. On September 29, 2020, JSA-JSC hosted a dialogue with the Salinas Police Department with the goal of improving the relationship between local youth and the Salinas Police Department.
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