The death of George Floyd and those of other African Americans as well as the inequities some of their students face weigh heavily on the minds of many educators. To show their support for their students and community the East Hartford Education Association Ethnic Minority Affairs Commission is organizing a peaceful rally and march this Saturday in East Hartford in partnership with CEA and Young-Educated-Determined to Succeed, Inc.
Monique Butler, who teaches fourth grade at East Hartford’s Norris Elementary School, is one of the educators who has been hard at work with colleagues and community members organizing the rally called BLACKOUT, which stands for Black Lives Actually Can’t Keep being Oppressed Until Tomorrow. The rally will take place Saturday, June 20, from noon to 3 p.m.
Butler says, “The overall message I’m sending is that we all stand together. I am working with East Hartford police to have a safe route, to practice social distancing, and to ensure our kids are seen and heard.” The organizers are also asking all participants to wear masks.
State Representatives Jason Rojas and Jeff Curry will be joining the march along with educators, students, families, and community leaders.
Butler says that when East Hartford Schools switched to distance learning in March the inequities it brought with it were evident almost immediately.
“Many of our students lacked access to technology and the Internet at home, and many of their parents are essential workers,” she explains. “For the first few weeks, we were passing out copies of work for students when their parents came for school-provided lunches. We had to figure out how to get technology out to these families and how to access students’ completed assignments when they don’t have scanners at home.” While these challenges are largely nonexistent in wealthier suburbs, they are major roadblocks to distance learning in Connecticut’s higher-poverty areas.
“I have 23 students,” says Butler, “and while initially 10 families were involved in their children’s distance learning, as the spring went on, that number went down to five,” she says. “Many parents lack the time or capacity. Some work third shift. For parents of children with special needs, the challenges are even greater.”
One solution, says Butler, is initiating conversations with legislators and, relatedly, getting out the vote in our local districts and holding our elected officials accountable.
“It’s going to be a lot of work, but we need to figure it out,” she says. “We need to have those courageous conversations that lead to answers.”
Some of those conversations, she says, must center on what it’s like to be a black or brown child, what it means to be a teacher or other adult in the life of a black or brown student, and what it means to serve a community that is predominantly black or brown. “Having these conversations can feel uncomfortable,” Butler acknowledges, “but they can lead to understanding and cultural competence. The district where I teach is predominantly black and brown, but the majority of our teachers are white.”
Butler stresses that the work does not end when the rally is over. “We are talking about what’s next—how to change policies that create inequality and disparities. We are planning follow-up forums with community members, parents, students, law enforcement, and legislators, because these courageous conversations must continue. This will help kids see what they can do.”