‘Mr. A, will I ever be a hashtag?’

My young students are demanding change. We protested together for Black lives. 

SIgns bear the name of three black people killed recently throughout the United States during protests on May 27, 2020, in Midtown Memphis. (Joe Rondone / The Commercial Appeal)
First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

As a Black man in America, I’ve long been aware of inequalities in our society and institutions. But the full force of my civic duties hit me only recently. 

Ayo Akinmoladun (Courtesy photo)

I have spent the past seven years as a Memphis educator, student, and community activist, and I am currently Dean of Instruction at Cornerstone Prep Lester elementary school. I am also working toward my doctorate in education at Johns Hopkins University. However, on the day I completed my spring semester, there was no time to celebrate. That evening, as I was eating dinner with my wife and 2-year-old son, I first saw the hashtag #JusticeforGeorge.

George Floyd’s killing by police — closely following the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans — reminded me of what I already knew: That could have been my father or my brothers, my students or my son. It could have been someone I love.

My awareness of Black individuals being killed, oppressed, and forgotten transformed into a passion for social justice. My classroom has long been filled with rigorous academics and I’ve worked hard to foster an environment of caring, collaboration, and student ownership. But recently I have refined the way I advocate for students and families — giving more thought to students’ access to summer programs and to the career resources afforded to their parents.

Poverty should not determine destiny, but often it does for students growing up in low-income communities. My colleagues and I have worked hard to give students opportunities to thrive despite trying circumstances: visits to college campuses, for example, and conversations with local and state elected officials. In my previous role as a fifth grade classroom teacher at Aspire Hanley Elementary School in Memphis, my students even created their own Black Lives Matter protest as part of our school’s Black history program. 

In the classroom, we talked a lot about racism and inequality. I remember a great discussion that we had about why so many Black people become instant #hashtags on Twitter. “How many Black Americans become Twitter hashtags each year?” they would ask me. “How many hashtags are students like us? Mr. A, will I ever be a hashtag?” 

In 2014, we talked a lot about #TamirRice, after a police officer killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice in a Cleveland park. The following year, my students protested the police killings of Eric Garner, Bettie Jones, and India Kager. Inside our cafeteria, the fifth-graders led chants of “No justice, no peace,” and of Garner’s final words: “I can’t breathe.” They sang “Glory,” which brought many to tears.

The day after George Floyd’s killing, I stayed up late thinking about how my students and I could contribute to his legacy and make a difference in Memphis. During a pandemic, one should not have to risk their lives to protest systemic inequalities. But with racism in American at a breaking point, many young Memphians needed to protest more than ever.

The next day, with the help of other local educators and elected officials, I organized a silent protest to remember the life of George Floyd, and the other Black kings and queens who have lost their lives to police brutality. Memphis students, their parents, their teachers, and other community members gathered — six feet apart from one another — in solidarity across from the Memphis police station. The protestors held signs with such messages as “Justice for George Floyd,” and “Am I Next?” 

I wanted to give these individuals the space to vent, reflect, process, and heal.

But we were met by white supremacists protesting our presence and yelling “All Lives Matter,” a popular refrain of those who oppose the Black Lives Matter movement. Protesters, including my former students, heard racial slurs and were barricaded by the police. 

During the protest I had my first in-person conversation with a white supremacist, and it triggered a wave of instant anger like none before. A white supremacist told me to “show up on the sidewalk close to me and take a jog” — an apparent reference to Arbery, who was shot to death while jogging. This vicious racism will continue if we do not dismantle the inequalities that affect Black people every day.

More than ever, students are struggling with trauma, both from the coronavirus pandemic, which has disproportionately affected communities of color, and from so many racist police brutality incidents that have proved deadly before their eyes. 

We must now link arms to end the racism that has plagued our educational system for far too long. My goal is to disrupt the institutional inequalities and change the trajectory for Black students. As we prepare for the fall, we must plan how to keep our students safe in the classroom and how to give them the space to talk about their experiences with COVID-19 and antiracism protests. If we adults are having a hard time processing this historic moment, imagine what children are going through.

As a future principal, I want to partner with local community organizations to equip my students with the skills to advocate for change in and beyond their communities. I also want to keep my students and staff informed about current events and give them opportunities to explore such historic sites and cultural institutions as the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the National Civil Rights Museum. As a school leader, I promise to create a space for my faculty to have challenging conversations about race, implicit bias, and explicit bias; I promise always to be a voice for the change my students deserve; and I promise to elevate my students’ voices in the process.

Black lives will always matter.

Ayo Akinmoladun is the Dean of Instruction at Cornerstone Lester Prep Elementary and the soon-to-be principal in training at Mastery Schools. Ayo is also a first year EdD doctoral student at Johns Hopkins University. He is a community activist.

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