It Takes a Village to Support Students

It Takes a Village to Support Students

Video Courtesy of TEDx Talks


Some years ago, as he was concluding his sermon, my pastor asked us in the audience to take that Sunday’s message out into the world and “do life together.”

My pastor’s call was a reminder that we do not walk this human journey in isolation. We do so as members of communities created around our faiths, our hometowns, our families — and our schools.

The most powerful of those communities are created through daily actions that show care and develop connection. Not all blood relatives are family, and not all students and educators are, either, though it’s something I hear teachers say all the time.

It seems to me that whether teachers and students are family depends on the extent to which they’re “doing life together.”

I’ve thought a lot about this as a former teacher in Camden City. When I was teaching there, my students saw me in Camden City. I got my hair cut in Camden, I went to church in Camden, I ate at restaurants in Camden, and I worked with high school students in Camden during the summers. It didn’t hurt that I was from Camden, too. A student may have seen me at the barbershop in East Camden or pulling up at my grandmother’s house in Whitman Park.

While it’s true that my students saw other teachers at the mall or the movie theater, those spots are in the suburbs. It’s not the same as being on the home turf of your students.

That’s not to say that strong bonds between educators and students don’t happen within the walls of a school. Nor do strong bonds develop just because a student sees a teacher patronizing an eatery or attending a church service in the municipality where they live. I am not naïve.

But deeper connections happen between educators and students when they do life together. For teachers who teach Black and Latinx students in low-income communities, doing life together means making a connection with the community where you teach students. Doing life together means more than just going to work to teach Black and Latinx children.

This kind of connection is often misunderstood. Early in my teaching career, some teachers sought my advice on how to strengthen their relationships with students. Others were clearly jealous of my relationships with students. I got the sense that they thought my relationships were stronger than theirs because I am Black, and they are not.

What they didn’t understand was my Blackness didn’t earn me blind loyalty from Black students. My Black skin at the front of a classroom may have elicited good feelings from students on the first day of school, but those feelings would have dissipated if I could not teach, if I was unfamiliar with my content, and if I did not treat students with respect.

I could teach. I was familiar with my content. I treated students with respect. And I also was doing life with them, in Camden. That’s something any teacher can do.

What that looks like is home visits to share good news about students. It looks like attending a city council meeting to advocate on behalf of your students on an issue affecting them and their families. It is also supporting Black- and Latinx-owned restaurants, bookstores, pharmacies, bakeries, and corner bodegas. It’s volunteering in the community where you work. It’s bringing your family to the community you work to see fireworks on the Fourth of July or to watch the lighting of the municipal Christmas tree.

Doing life together isn’t meant to be taxing on the mind, body, and spirit. But it does sometimes require you to step outside your comfort zone and become vulnerable.

For White teachers who work with students from cities like Camden, it requires that you sometimes choose to become a minority in a world where a similar experience is all too familiar to your students and their families. That experience is a lesson in and of itself. And that’s what doing life is all about — learning to live together as brothers and sisters, rather than perish together as fools.

Rann Miller is the director of the 21st Century Community Learning Center, an after-school program in New Jersey. He also served as a school administrator in Camden and taught high school social studies for six years. He publishes an education blog called the Urban Education Mixtape. You can follow him on Twitter @UrbanEdDJ.

The hero of the film ‘Just Mercy’ could be you

The hero of the film ‘Just Mercy’ could be you


Back in the 1990s, before cellphones and email and the internet were a thing, when George H.W. Bush was in his final year as president, I headed to college. I had moved from East Tennessee to Philadelphia to go to Eastern University, a little Christian college known for holding together faith and social justice.

As I settled in and began studies, I kept hearing about a guy named Bryan Stevenson, an Eastern alumnus, class of 1981, who was doing some pretty amazing things with his life.

Bryan was a bit of a legend at the university, and his story had already been told and retold to me by our mutual friend and professor, Tony Campolo, a well-known preacher who has a reputation for “remembering big.”

But it turns out Bryan’s life is as big as the story Tony remembered. Bryan turned it into a book, and now a film, titled “Just Mercy,” which opened on Christmas and stars Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx and Brie Larson.

Bryan went from our alma mater in Philly to attend Harvard Law School, where he graduated with honors. Immensely gifted and with a Harvard degree, he could have gotten a job with pretty much any firm he wanted, and name his salary.

Instead, Bryan headed to Alabama, where the residue of slavery is so clearly visible in a criminal justice system that enshrines racism. He moved into a one-room apartment in Montgomery “with nothing but a soccer ball” (according to our friend with the tendency to remember big) and started defending people on death row.

Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, attends a special screening of “True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality,” at the SVA Theatre on June 24, 2019, in New York. (Photo by Greg Allen/Invision/AP)

A century ago, as Bryan knew well, Alabama was one of the states with the most lynchings, and to this day it’s one of the states with the most executions. It is no coincidence that the states that held on to slavery the longest continue to hold on to the death penalty, in a direct correlation between racism of the past and racism of the present. That’s where Bryan felt led, even called.

Particularly urgent for Bryan were the cases of those who were wrongfully convicted, often because of the color of their skin.

He was not only looking out for the prisoners, but for the system that they had been caught up in. One of the first quotes I ever heard from Bryan was this one: “We have a justice system that treats you better if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent.” He sought to ensure that “equal justice under the law” was not just an aspirational slogan inscribed on the Supreme Court, but became a reality.

In 1989 he founded the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, which has now helped save the lives of over 125 men on death row and in 2018 opened the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice, known as the National Lynching Memorial.

His TED Talk got the longest standing ovation in the history of TED Talks and has been viewed over 6 million times. South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu called Bryan “America’s Nelson Mandela.” Time magazine recognized him as one of 100 most influential people. There were even whispers that someday Bryan might be a justice on the Supreme Court.

Stunned by the simplicity and humility of his life, one reporter said to Bryan, “Why would you be this kind of lawyer?” Bryan’s winsome response: “Why would I not be this kind of lawyer?”

The more I learned about Bryan, the more his decisions made sense. He had grown up in segregated public schools and steeped in the historic black church, where liberation and justice flow like baptismal waters. (At Eastern, he had directed the gospel choir.) Early in his career, as he arrived to defend a young white man at trial, he was scolded by the judge who said only “counsel” were allowed in the courtroom.

For many, Bryan Stevenson is a superhero akin to the Avengers fittingly played onscreen by the actor who played Erik Killmonger in “Black Panther.” Jordan has said he was intimidated when he first met Bryan.

Eventually, I got to meet Bryan, and for the past 10 years it has been an honor to call him a friend. He inspired me to write “Executing Grace,” my book on the death penalty, and helped me to craft it. Bryan has been a mentor not only in justice, but also in hope. Indeed, nearly every time Bryan speaks, he talks about “protecting our hope,” a precious, timely message. In his words, “Hopelessness is the enemy of justice.”

“Protecting our hope” means never losing hope that love is more powerful than hatred, life more powerful than death, mercy more powerful than condemnation. As Bryan says, “We are all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

A “Just Mercy” movie poster. Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

“Just Mercy” is not a film about a man. It is about a movement to heal the wounds of racism and hatred. More than knowing his name, Bryan wants people to know the names of the 4,000 African Americans lynched as victims of racial terror and too often forgotten — people like Mary Turner, who was eight months pregnant when she was hung upside down by a white mob, set on fire and even cut open so her baby could be stomped to death.

He wants people to know the name of George Junius Stinney, who died in the electric chair at the age of 14, convicted by an all-white jury that deliberated for 10 minutes after a trial that lasted less than two hours with no witnesses called and no defense presented, no physical evidence — and whose sentence was vacated 70 years after his execution.

Bryan wants people to know the name of his friend Anthony Ray Hinton, who survived over 30 years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit, one of over 160 wrongfully convicted survivors of death row. Bryan wants us to know their names, not his.

He wants America to know the names of the casualties of racial terror throughout American history, and those who are next in line to be those casualties, as 1 in every 3 black boys born today can expect to go to prison.

During the filming of “Just Mercy,” I was invited on set to watch a scene being shot in an abandoned prison in Georgia. At one point a bitter white corrections officer throws a prisoner against a wall. Undaunted, the man smiles with a defiant hope, eyes set on heaven, and begins singing an old hymn: “I’m pressing on the upward way, new heights I’m gaining every day, still praying as I’m onward bound, Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.”

Later, I got to meet a bunch of the actors, including the man who played the correctional officer. He smiled when I mentioned how good he was at being bad. As we ate, I saw an image of the world Bryan is building: prison guards and death row inmates talking and laughing over lunch. It was a world in which each of us is more than the worst things we’ve done. Where if we have the courage, we can see past the costumes we wear and get to know each other as children of God, and we can recognize and celebrate the dignity of every person.

Please watch “Just Mercy”  with this in mind. Don’t just munch your popcorn and go home talking about what a hero Bryan is. Doing so dismisses what Bryan is really about because it lets you off the hook. Walk away from “Just Mercy” dreaming and scheming about the hero you want to be.

(Shane Claiborne is the author of “Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It’s Killing Us.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

This story has been corrected. An earlier version incorrectly said that Michael B. Jordan played Black Panther in the 2018 movie.