Fatima Morrell: TIME Innovative Teachers 2022

fter 10 people were killed in a shooting at a Buffalo, N.Y., supermarket on May 14 by a gunman who espoused white-supremacist views and targeted Black shoppers, Buffalo public schools associate superintendent Fatima Morrell’s work took on even more urgency.

“For all our children, we have to unpack white supremacy, as hard as that is to talk about,” says Morrell, he associate superintendent for culturally and linguistically responsive initiatives in the district. “It is important that every single child receives an anti-racist curriculum in the Buffalo public schools, and I’m going to continue to push that.”

In 2020, believing that every child should learn to value different cultures and hear an unvarnished version of U.S. history, Morrell spearheaded the creation of the district’s Emancipation Curriculum, which aims to promote equity in schools, spark conversations about the legacy of racism in the U.S., and offer students diverse perspectives and more lessons about the historic ​​contributions of Black, Latino and indigenous communities. The curriculum includes a range of lessons for each grade level, teaching students about Mexican-American labor leader César Chávez, the history of Juneteenth, and the role of Native American boarding schools in suppressing indigenous culture.

During the last year, conservative groups and lawmakers have taken aim at Morrell’s curriculum and others like it and have sought to restrict how race is discussed in school—efforts that free-speech advocates see as an attempt to whitewash history and prevent educators from teaching students about concepts like systemic racism.

Morrell talked to TIME about how she came up with the curriculum, and her ongoing work.

The 2020-21 school year was the first time you implemented the Emancipation Curriculum. This curriculum was created by you.

To begin with, we had done some equity and diversity work in our curriculum. It all changed when George Floyd passed away. We set out to make a curriculum about systemic oppression, racism and Black Lives Matter.

We couldn’t ignore it. To not only center joy in students’ lives, but also to foster empathy, cultural understanding, and equity in teaching, we wanted to establish some fundamental strategies.

We know that our students weren’t getting information about who they truly are, their greatness, to begin with. The Buffalo Public Schools teachers average 77% White. In contrast, students in Buffalo public schools are around 77% black. [80%]Of color. Our goal was to ensure that teachers could include Black history and culture in their teaching. People will say, ‘We need to have more Black teachers in front of the students teaching.’ And it’s like, OK, I like that concept. But we’ve got great teachers right now who are white, and they can teach well if they are given the tools, resources and professional learning that they need, and if we create a philosophy with them about how you can educate Black and brown children.

Are there any topics students have learned through this program that they didn’t know about?

Even from the earliest ages of pre-kindergarten, they’re learning things like the importance of indigenous people’s culture. This was something that wasn’t prioritized in our district prior to the Emancipation Curriculum.

We know that we don’t talk a lot about African culture in our schools. We added this, even at the youngest age.The Spider WeaverThis book focuses on Ghana’s history and African textile traditions.

When you think about edifying children’s voices, one of the things that we like to show is, it was young people, like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, [who were leaders]The 1960s civil rights movement. Young people should be able to use their voice for advocacy and change. You don’t need to be combative, you don’t need to be violent, because your mind is your weapon, and you can use your mind and your voice for social change. That’s what they’re trying to do. Prior to this, we didn’t talk about student voice. That is the kind of thing that the Emancipation Curriculum brought forward.

Are there people in other schools who have asked you questions about your curriculum and offered advice on how to put it into practice?

I do get calls. I can’t take them all. Folks say, ‘Can I use this?’ And it’s free, it’s public. However, I give them the following advice. Train your teachers. Don’t just dive in. Before you dive in to the lessons, check out where your school board and your superintendent are located.

We’re in a different time now, so you need to make sure you have the support of your board members and your superintendent. You can then move forward by starting to unravel this.

But I always say to districts, just because they say no, don’t stop. Because that’s part of the problem—many people don’t want to be problematized by systemic racism. And your conversations around systemic racism or elevating Black and brown cultures, they’re scary. So I tell them: Don’t stop, but find your allies. What are the people who can help you get this done?

Imagine what might happen if every student had access to this curriculum?

You would have more peaceful societies if every student had internet access. There would be more brotherhood, sisterhood, and respect across all racial groups. There would be more compassion and empathy. It would make students feel more confident and edified that they know how to express themselves. They’re confident because they know their history and know where they came from. People who are open to all views would be a good example of this.

Learning everything we can about European history and culture makes us more aware of it. We need to have the history and culture of African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinx and indigenous communities — have their cultures also centered. You will then value this as well.

Is it possible that some teachers are being restricted in how they discuss racism or white supremacy? This may make it more difficult for them to talk with their students about the Buffalo shooting.

We must stop political grandstanding. Critical race theory isn’t taught in any way. History is history. Historical facts and truths are historical facts and truths. This is the history of our nation. People of color are still subject to atrocities. These crimes have their roots in slavery.

Our young people, especially our white children, need to be educated around this, so that they don’t end up being like this young man who committed this horrific act. These children need education.

Another thing that’s extremely dangerous is telling us what we can read and not read. We’re being censored in the classrooms, in schools, around what we can let our kids know. That’s not a democratic principle. It’s not freedom.

Is the Buffalo shooting a reminder of the importance of an anti-racist education like the Emancipation Curriculum?

This is the truth. We must now do a reset for every child, regardless of their race. We can’t shy away from the facts of the case. We must all discuss white supremacy with our children.

It is important to have an Emancipation Curriculum. Humanizing people of colour in the world’s eyes is vital. This is because there is a common thread to all the killings and attacks on Black and brown children and men.

These attacks are happening over and over, so we need to reprogramme our youth and teach them love and humanity. We need to talk about what we have in common, that we’re all special, that we ought to be treated fairly, and make sure our students know that at the youngest ages possible.

This interview has been edited to be more concise.

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