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10 Things Schools Can Do for Black Students

We now have a Medium channel to spread the work of Being Black at School where this piece lives. I'm republishing it here as well as a resource for schools.


10 Things Schools Can Do Today

1. Suspend lessons that may trigger students

If you’re doing a forensic lesson in a high school science class that involves a physical body as part of your teaching then today is a good day to take a beat. Or, if the lesson in history class is about protests that this country has held before (like that Boston Tea Party) and teachers are not making that connection to civic disobedience and the protests for Black Lives Matter then it’s probably time to reassess how we’re using critical thinking and promoting individual thoughts and beliefs in the classroom. Not every lesson is for every day. Teachers may not be comfortable with the discussions that ensue.

2. Use your Emotional Health Triage systems

Many schools are equipped with social workers and psychologists and teams of professionals who work toward emotional health. We employ these in the system when crises happen such as the death of a student, violence in the community, or a state of emergency. These teams need to mobilize NOW as a response to Black students who both empathize and feel deeply about the world around them and the ones who are experiencing crushing depression and anxiety around the state-sanctioned violence they see and hear about.

3. Respond with ACTION

Black students (specifically women) at American University this week have been attacked with bananas and many students are dissatisfied with the response from their school. In order to create safe spaces, schools should respond with conduct charges, investigations, and pro-active statements to their communities about how they will deal with violent acts. Instead, students are pressuring school leaders to do something more than empty town hall meetings. Systems need to respond first and not put the onus on violated students to force it.

4. Create Safe Spaces

Students, today especially, may be in need of a space in which they can express themselves. Provide art materials and journals and safe adults to them when you notice them acting out no matter what their developmental age is. Many young students aren’t prepared to put into words what they’re feeling so provide soft items (like pipe cleaners and squishy balls) for them to use as a calming device.

5. Practice Radical Empathy

Oftentimes, Black students are not allowed the space to emotionally express what’s happening. If you notice them acting out in new ways stop what you’re asking them to do and see if they need to be escorted by a loving adult to one of the safe spaces mentioned above. Suspend judgment and lessons on which they cannot concentrate today. In fact, take their emotional temperature on a regular and consistent basis. All schools can work toward this for Black students that they regularly send to discipline offices instead of caring for emotional needs.

6. Engage Family Participation

A really easy phone call to make to parents raising Black children is to simply ask, “Is your child particularly affected by the events they see in the news of violence?” This is two-fold: one, schools can acknowledge that this is a lived truth and two, they can open a conversation and allow parents of Black children to LEAD in how to care for their children. This is good practice no matter the news cycle. Invite parents raising these children who know them best to participate in the creation of safe spaces. Often, this is all parents want to do in the first place.

7. Study Cultural Competency in a whole staff setting.

Teachers, support staff, and administrators can all work toward this by putting it at the top of every agenda especially when working with populations that aren’t reflected in the adults in a building. Unpack your invisible knapsack. Revisit implicit bias in your pedagogy. Create teams for restorative justice. This work can be done in team settings as well. Use this for your next faculty meeting focus. It’s already too late.

8. Call for help, not police or SROs

Schools are tasked with caring for children with professional adults who have training and knowledge in areas of child development. Police and SROs should not be called in to deal with a difficult child who happens to be Black. You are re-traumatizing a child when you do that with the absence of their parent present. Use social workers, psychologists, administrators, and caring adults who understand the work of anti-racism in systems. Reach out to organizations who do this work if your school is woefully lacking in this. Never ever threaten a Black child by telling them you’re going to call the police on them.

9. Be mindful of White Savior Complex responses in systems

Language and semantics matter every day, but it’s important to be mindful of how schools are responding today for students feeling disenfranchised and ignored. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, we are now a minority-majority education system, with 51% of our students (25.9 million) being of color. As of 2007–2008, 83 percent of teachers in U.S. public schools are white. Recognizing this disparity is crucial to understanding how much work needs to occur in systems that can create inherently racist policies and ignored responses to the emotional health of Black children. Our goal at Being Black at School is to identify this first in order to change it.

10. Empower Black Students

Give them space for leadership. I have not given up hope that this generation is prepared for things which my own generation was not. Young activists are out there. Students care about their education and also of their well-being and they are out here doing the work. While you’re at it, empower your Black colleagues today as well. Don’t rely on them to do the emotional lifting and do not demand anything from them. Ask Black teachers, administrators, and students what THEY need today and then get to work.



HIV/AIDS Awareness Day

This post is made possible by support from the Let’s Stop HIV Together campaign. All opinions are my own.


I went to high school during a time when AIDS and HIV were just becoming something that we were talking about. It was a scary time and the fears that teens felt at the time hit my generation pretty hard.

When The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt was making the rounds of the United States I was in college and had come home to Chicago to visit my family. It was a quilt started in 1987 by a group led by Cleve Jones in San Francisco with 3-by-6-foot memorial panels commemorating the life, with words and pictures, on a quilt of someone who had died from complications from AIDS. Sewn lovingly by family members and friends of the deceased, it was my first introduction to art as activism. My mother had tickets to go and we went, taking my young toddler daughter with us, at the McCormick Center near Lake Michigan. It’s a place I’d been to a hundred times for various events but this one had all the moveable walls down and the quilts were arranged on the floor with space to walk among them. There were volunteers there walking around quietly and carrying tissues.



Prior to walking in that space I had given my daughter several warnings about appropriate behavior. There would be no screaming or loud talking and we were going to use inside voices, no running and definitely no stepping on the quilts or lying down and taking a nap. She was far too young to understand the gravity of the situation or even of HIV and AIDS at the time, but she knew there was a tone and respectful nature when we walked in that space. I didn’t have to remind her at all.

I remember a special moment I had with a stranger in that space. She was a volunteer who walked around with a box of tissues and I had stopped in front of a quilt that really struck me. The descriptions of this young man who died in his 20s really grabbed me in that moment. Learning about his life and how much he was loved made me start to cry and stare at the quilt for much longer than I should have. The volunteer stopped and offered a tissue and asked, very sweetly, "Anyone in particular?" 

Do you know those moments when you wish you'd say exactly what you're thinking but are afraid it will come out wrong and you do it anyway? I had that with her.

I looked around at all the quilts and made a sweeping motion with my hand and replied, "Everyone in particular."

She nodded and put a hand on my shoulder and we stood crying for a good while together.

At that time, in 1990, I had yet to know of someone personally who would be affected by the disease and it would take less than a few years for that to happen. Every one of them has been young and one of my cousins would live for another 20 years with HIV before succumbing to it. Though, at the time, it didn’t have a name in the 1970s when he got sick. Losing other family members to this has been devastating and yet we’re not where we should be which brings me to this place of helping spread the word along with the CDC for the Let’s Stop HIV Together campaign.


I get on a lot of bandwagons for political and personal reasons but this one is extremely personal to me and I’m happy to share any information to promote awareness and help for a very specific crowd. Today is National HIV/AIDS and Aging Awareness Day which is targeted at the 50+ crowd. You can get involved here if you'd like to do something. 

Here are some fast facts for you since I know people look for the bullet points (as if you’re asking yourself, What exactly does Kelly want us to know?):


  • People aged 55 and older accounted for 26% of all Americans living with diagnosed or undiagnosed HIV infection in 2013.
  • People aged 50 and older have the same HIV risk factors as younger people, but may be less aware of their HIV risk factors.
  • Older Americans are more likely to be diagnosed with HIV infection later in the course of their disease.



The one I want to focus on is that last one: if diagnosed with HIV later in the course of the disease it becomes more problematic health-wise. I can’t help, right now, to think of all those commercials for erectile dysfunction that focus on older couples but then fail to mention anything about safe sex. Sure, you're thinking, I'm older and don't have to worry about getting pregnant.

Yeah, but diseases don't really have an age range so take some precautions, friends. If I can sit through the dozens of erectile dysfunction commercials when I'm just trying to watch some football then I think it's okay that we make sure we talk about safe sex at every age. ALL THE COOL KIDS ARE DOING IT.

Here's a few other places to follow today that will use the hashtags #StopHIVTogether and #StopHIVStigma:



Thailand with The Exodus Road

"Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. I suppose it's an early form of participation in what goes on." - Eudora Welty

Back in June I traveled with other storytellers to Thailand. Prior to getting up to speed on Southeast Asia and a part of the world that's never been a part of my world, I didn't know anything about sex trafficking there or the slave industry. To say it shocked me is an understatement. Naturally, I did my part to find out information about Thailand and we had a briefing day from local Thai residents who shared with us culture and customs and traditions. 


For instance, I hadn't realized how rude it is there to point with your finger towards someone with your palm facing down. When they hail taxis there it is with all fingers extended and a slight wave towards yourself.

Try it. If you're an American, that feels weird, doesn't it?

But, it's important to have some competence in a culture if you're going to visit so these were the kinds of things that fascinated me. 

I have to have full disclosure about something here: I am ordinary person. Sure, I can tell a good story and I have an animated face while doing it. I'm Midwestern, middle aged, and even mixed-race. IT DOESN'T GET MORE ORDINARY OR MIDDLE OF THE ROAD THAN THAT.

If I hadn't become a classroom teacher in my 20s I would have wanted to be an actor who got to try on costumes and personalities, but even my dramatic flair made for good instruction. Most teachers will tell you that. When I went into administration 12 years after my first teaching job I found it still came in handy. Most of all, I mastered my poker face so as not to appear shocked at the things I witnessed in schools. Basically, my being ordinary came in handy because the activisim streak in me is also strong.

I have never lost that naive belief that an ordinary person like me could make a big difference.


As you would expect, what hit me the hardest in my very tender soul was the first night we went to visit a brothel to see the very thing The Exodus Road was fighting. We got some basic pointers and my poker face came in handy when I saw the half-nude young girls dancing and hoping to make more money for the night. 


Make no mistake: these were young girls. Some of them looked so very close in age to the middle school students I had just seen a week prior to getting on a flight and heading halfway across the globe.

You should be doing algebra in a classroom. You should not be doing this.

 I couldn't stop thinking that.


It was their voices that hit me. Young, tender, kind. Their voices, in telling me their stories, will forever haunt me. That's a privileged statement to make for sure. If that's the worst I have to experience with this trip it's still better than what many of them live with daily.

But it was also the voices of the fishermen, grown men who had been drugged and kidnapped and taken out to the middle of the ocean to work for pittance while they toiled away under horrendous conditions. 

I'm an American and a westerner with values that reflect that and as much as I wanted to tell their stories I wanted them to have the automony to tell them. 

I'm also a woman and one of the most jarring parts of the visit was meeting the men they call "lady boys" who dress as women. It can be a dangerous job if they negotiate for sex with a man and they don't know they're actually men. While walking through an area full of brothels the lady boys would bang together noisemakers to get attention and sometimes would reach out and grab my breasts or smack my ass. It occurred to me that even all this way from home I, a woman, felt like these men took my automony from me and assumed they had access to my body.

That right there is a global problem but it still didn't outshine the difficult lives of the women and girls in brothels or the men taken to fish for large companies not of their own will.

Here's why I'm sharing this now: The Exodus Road can continue to do this work with donations as little as $35. That's what it would cost for them to go out and do their work in a night. You can also become a Freedom Partner with them to help rescue the young girls trafficked.

Please visit the stories shared by my storytelling partners Heather, Roxanna, Erika, and Doug.

And consider being ordinary with me to accomplish something The Exodus Road is doing that is extraordinary. 

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