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President's Viewpoint


Lily Eskelsen Garcia

Stand Up for Change


Trayvon Martin. Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Tamir Rice. Each one a son. Each an unarmed African-American male whose life was cut tragically short by people who have not yet been held criminally liable for their actions.

Last December, a New York/Staten Island grand jury failed to indict the police officer responsible for the killing of 43-year-old Eric Garner. Given the horrific video captured during the incident, the decision remains disturbing and difficult to understand. The senseless execution that left two New York police officers dead in retaliation against the Garner decision is equally horrific.

Together, the deaths create myriad reactions: The officers’ murders crafted a brutal understanding of the life-threatening danger of police work, while the Garner case helped to further erode many Americans’ faith in the entire criminal justice system.

These deaths affected many of us in profoundly different ways, but I believe every educator must agree with this: It is up to us to help our students grapple with the messages they are receiving in the aftermath of these twin tragedies.

These incidents have taught our students stark lessons about race, trust, authority, our criminal justice system and the horror that is vigilante justice. As those responsible for educating young minds, we must recommit ourselves to making every classroom a place where students can safely air frustrations, ask tough questions, and learn about the great historical movements that paved the way for change across our nation. And as our young people witness history in the making, and begin making history themselves, it is also incumbent upon us as educators to provide the context for what they are experiencing.

We must acknowledge our students’ legitimate anger and confusion, and address their questions about why they should believe the criminal justice system ideals they learn in our classrooms, when graphic examples appear to prove these ideals contrast with reality, and appear to be unattainable for African-American males. For many, the cases involving the deaths of unarmed African American males have created an overarching sentiment that their lives do not carry the same value as the lives of others. It is an unsettling double standard—one that educators must address.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., taught us to peacefully and persistently demand justice. And now we must teach our students that in a world still striving for the ideal of justice for all, that change cannot come through more violence or vengeance; we as educators must help inspire a nation by teaching nonviolence.

Standing upon our organization’s rich and historic position on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement—and many previous movements for justice—we call on each NEA member to stand with our students, their families, and our communities and demand change and understanding.

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