What Charlottesville Means to One Charter School for Foster Youth

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These next two weeks at the National Alliance we will feature a compilation of blogs and stories from charter school students, teachers, and leaders from across the country going back to school.

The horrific events that occurred in Charlottesville earlier this month are fresh on the minds of students and teachers heading back to school—and it’s certainly no different at my school, Monument Academy Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. As a staff, we are talking about racism and hate and what we can do to not only discuss these topics with our students, but to be a part of the change.

Recently, our staff read Beverly Daniel Tatum’s book Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria as part of professional development. One quote in particular resonates in the wake of events in Charlottesville. 

“I sometimes visualize the ongoing cycle of racism as a moving walkway at the airport. Active racist behavior is equivalent to walking fast on the conveyor belt. The person engaged in active racist behavior has identified with the ideology of our White supremacist system and is moving with it. Passive racist behavior is equivalent to standing still on the walkway. No overt effort is being made, but the conveyor belt moves the bystanders along to the same destination as those who are actively walking. But unless they are walking actively in the opposite direction at a speed faster than the conveyor belt — unless they are actively anti-racist — they will find themselves carried along with the others.”

Monument Academy is a unique school in this country. We are a weekday boarding public charter school with an explicit mission to work with children and families who have been involved in the foster care system, and provide them with the personalized academics, social-emotional, and life skills to prepare them for postsecondary education, independent living, and a career. 100% of our students are low income children of color.

For those not familiar with D.C.’s history, it is one imprinted with the legacy of the Confederacy. Until Home Rule (the 1973 law granting  residents of the District power over governing their local affairs), it was governed by a Congressional committee and later by a subcommittee. The leadership for several decades was from the South and the city was governed with many racist Jim Crow laws, including covenants that allowed for legal housing segregation, segregated schools, limitations on employment for African Americans to primarily low-skill and lower-paid jobs, and an all-white federal police force that enforced this system. It was not until the Civil Rights Movement—and ultimately Home Rule in the 1970s--that political power shifted (although D.C. still lacks full representation in Congress.) Meanwhile, there was an influx of drugs and violence, followed by “the war on drugs,” and mass incarceration that damaged so many neighborhoods and families. The book The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander captures much of this history. Many of our students are from multi-generational families who have lived through and been affected by this traumatic history. Decades of these detrimental policies have compromised the community we serve, resulting in disproportionate involvement in the foster care system—a system that carries with it a higher risk of being incarcerated.

The other day, several of our staff toured a potential site for our high school. The building occupant was the Federal Department of Prisons. The floors we saw were full of architectural renderings and models of prisons, and clearly staff are working on constructing more of these buildings to house even more prisoners. Part of the model for forecasting prison numbers is calculating the number of students who drop out or are suspended--meaning students like ours. With a renewed federal government commitment to ramping up the “war on drugs” and moving back to harsh policing and sentencing, this is one agency likely to have an increase in spending.

This sobering realization renewed my commitment to walking faster the other way on the conveyor belt, and to working even harder to make Monument Academy successful and spreading this work. These children and families deserve the opportunity to move out of this legacy of systematic racism. I do not want to see those prisons filled. I want to help shrink the Department of Federal Prisons and support our students to realize dreams of college, of a career, and independent living.

I am proud to work with a team of people who understand the urgency and importance of this work and who know that our students can succeed with the right supports. This is not for the faint of heart or soul. I know it is hard and ongoing. But it is possible when everyone is committed, is motivated, works together, and believes in the mission and “taking the hill.”

Together, we are trying to walk faster in the other direction on the conveyor belt.

Emily Bloomfield is the Co-Founder and CEO of Monument Academy in Washington, D.C. 

 An earlier version of this blog post was shared on Medium.

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