At a time when protests against police are springing up across the country, a forum tonight at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts will focus on how communities respond to racial unrest. Two students from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education will present their case study on August’s shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
The case study explores how the unrest that followed the shooting of the 18-year-old black man by a white police officer was a symptom of underlying racial discrimination and what role an education system can play in resolving such problems, according to study author Tracey Benson.
“Yes we need to solve police brutality and unarmed people being shot; however there is a larger, more contextual underpinning of racial discrimination that has gone on for awhile that produces these kinds of symptoms,” Benson said. “As educators we are talking more about how to take a proactive stance towards learning about the underpinnings of racial oppression and how do we, through schools, have conversations about this so that over time we can educate the populous so that things like this don’t happen or happen much less frequently.”
The three school districts in the Ferguson area closed schools for different periods of time during the unrest that followed the shooting with some deciding to reroute buses and conduct intervention training, according to study co-creator Veronica Benavides. Having led 10 groups through the case study already, Benavides says she’s found it can be the first time people in the audience have talked about race within the education system beyond disparities like the achievement gap.
“The conversation is really important and it’s not happening as often as it needs to happen,” Benavides said. “Just having taught it a handful of times gives me even more of a sense of urgency of wanting to get this case out into the hands of professors, education schools, public policy schools and other places where I think it would really benefit students, teachers and administrators to be having this conversation.”
Benson, who served as principal of Pittsfield High School from 2010 to 2013, says structural racism is not unique to the Ferguson community.
“Our country has a history of oppression and we haven’t really spent a lot of time examining that and how to remedy the vestiges of the legalized oppression that we had less than 100 years ago,” Benson said. “This is not to say that these vestiges of structural racism are purposeful – they’re a residue that we’ve have had since times of legalized segregation and even desegregation after Brown v. Board [of Education of Topeka]. So we’ve had these vestiges that still continue to play out. Unless we purposefully look to solve for these issues, this underpinning of racial unrest even though it might not be people marching in the street it will be ever present until we deal with the structures that keep our society this way.”
Benavides helped create Movement Makers, an organization focused on increasing academic performance through culturally relevant teachings, a system that was tested in New York City.
“Looking at stories and history that reflected their identity in order to instill a sense of agency and advocacy into these students,” Benavides explained. “It was a year-long course and we were able to see significant gains in student perception of self, attendance and academic performance.”
The two-hour event features a presentation and working through the case study followed by further discussion. Benson says the group-think method provides fresh ideas toward addressing race in schools.
“It’s unfortunate that this event happened, but how do we use this as the opportunity to discuss how to proactively prevent issues like this,” Benson said. “Generally it’s been very well received and it’s provided us with a conversation we should have more often in terms of the proactive measures rather than the reactive measures.”
The event starts at 6:30 at MCLA’s science center in North Adams. Benson and Benavides will hold a similar talk at Williams College May 4th.