We Need You to Keep Pressing Toward Justice amid Policies and Practices Designed to Maintain Inequity 

by H. Richard Milner IV

Education, educators, and the truth about the ugly roots and maintenance of all types of inequity are under attack in the United States. I increasingly hear from families, community members, policymakers, students, and educators sharing their discouragement, uneasiness, and fear about policies and practices designed to maintain inequity. From a Tennessee school board that banned Maus, the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, to states implementing policies against classroom discussion about the legacy of racism in America, it’s a hard time for teachers to explain history and contemporary challenges while balancing demands from stakeholders who increasingly police what they believe students should learn. 
Opportunity Centered educators are committed to building relational, curricular, instructional, and assessment practices that recognize and amplify student assets. Such educators unapologetically disrupt individual, institutional and intersecting dimensions of racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and other forms of oppression at all levels—classroom, school, district, state, and national. In the name of developing a collective identity, how could any American argue against core values designed to actualize and practice democracy? Clearly, the work of education for opportunity is under serious attack, and we need educators to keep pressing even during these unsettling times. 
We can certainly build sound critiques and deep analyses of policies and practices meant to maintain inequity, but many educators find themselves at a crossroads. What do these educators do when their local school boards forbid them to teach the truth? How do educators negotiate school leadership pressures designed to surveil them and question their professional judgment? What do educators do when parents and families expect and push them to reify stereotypes and to focus only on narrow, uncritical curriculum and instructional practices? These are real questions about how educators might navigate and push forward during these times. Answers to these questions from educators committed to opportunity are not arbitrary or rhetorical. As a community of scholars, we must address these questions, as more teachers are walking away from the profession every day. And these questions must move beyond scholarly critique to be actively addressed if young people are going to have a fighting chance at educational and societal opportunity. 
Here, I offer five recommendations that I believe are necessary for educators during these times of navigating and negotiating attacks against opportunity:  

  1. Remember your why: remembering why you are in the profession can be a source of inspiration and persistence. 
  1. Build your own datapoints: educators have rich and robust repositories of “data” they collect about the influence and power of their work to advance opportunity. They should share the enormous impact of their work with local and broader communities. 
  1. Amplify student voice: work with and rely on young people to express their thoughts about attacks against opportunity—and I argue attacks against democracy. 
  1. Work closely with families and communities: they know their children and schools well. Build collective efforts designed to decide what is necessary for opportunity and equity within schools and communities. 
  1. Build resource repositories: work across communities (with educators, community members, policymakers, and, especially, with young people) to build tools that promote equity and opportunity. 

When I was in graduate school, my grandmother (who was not formally educated and lived to be 92 years old) would often ask me about the work I was doing. Excited to share, I would often talk about the demanding challenges I faced in my work. I talked about nonsensical policies that seemed to perpetuate and maintain the status quo. I would tell her about the funding challenges faced by particular communities. I would share my frustration that high school students were working part-time jobs to support their families and still expected to “produce” the same outputs as those who did not have to work. I talked about how inequitable, unfair, unjust, and alarming situations were (and are) in society and education. And after I finished sharing my analyses and critiques with her, my grandmother would simply say, “Keep pressing!” 
I suspect these words may feel undernuanced or perhaps even unthinkable during these times. Certainly, this work is not easy and will likely only get more challenging over the coming years. But I implore you to remember that our young people, families, communities, policymakers, and fellow colleagues need and deserve opportunity centered educators and practices more than ever before. So, let’s keep pressing

About the Author

H. Richard Milner IV is Cornelius Vanderbilt Distinguished Professor of Education at Vanderbilt University. His books include Start Where You Are, But Don’t StayThere, Second Edition (2022), These Kids Are Out of Control (2018), and Rac(e)ing to Class (2015). He can be reached at rich.milner@vanderbilt.edu.