In February, students across the country celebrated Black History Month. The time of year always makes me think of the kids I taught in Washington, D.C. Every year, I used the occasion as an opportunity to teach my students that our history as Blacks in this country is about much more than slavery and the Civil Rights Movement — ways we are traditionally portrayed in textbooks — and it’s anything but a closed chapter. I wanted them to hear the counter-stories of our people, those traditionally silenced by the dominant narrative. I knew these often-overlooked stories were crucial for my students who were primarily African American.

These young people were all too familiar with the ways the struggles of the past manifested in their own present. Sadly, my kids interpreted negative stereotypes of their race as crystal balls for what their futures held. I often heard them talk in defeated tones about the things they would never do, not because they weren’t capable or didn’t want to, but because of what they heard about themselves from the outside and how they internalized these messages.

Today, we have no time to waste. This school year marks the first year in which the majority of public school students are minorities. Our generation has a responsibility to work to ensure that each and every one of them is moving through a system that affirms their identities, shows them they’re valued and provides them with access to the opportunities they have been denied for far too long.

While the “whites only” signs of the 1960s have come down, the reality of separate and unequal endures. Alongside glaring gaps in educational, employment and economic opportunity, people of color in this nation face a variety of subtler, but no less damaging, assumptions. A successful Black lawyer hears whispers of affirmative action. A young Black boy on a corner is seen as “lurking,” while his white peers “hang out.” A Black college student is asked to give “the Black perspective” to a seminar full of white students who are never asked to speak on behalf of their entire race.

I joined Teach For America thanks to the opportunity I had to participate in the class taught by Buzz Alexander, which focused on Freirean pedagogy and “Theatre of the Oppressed.” I worked in a male prison in Jackson, Michigan, where I helped inmates share their stories through theater. The work was powerful and every moment I spent there felt deeply valuable. But every time I left there, the reality of our unequal society sunk in a little deeper. I wanted to do something to help kids avoid this future. I wanted to empower kids to truly be the master of their fate and the captain of their soul.

As a Black man, I also wanted my kids to be able to see themselves in me. I wanted them to understand that I came from a community much like theirs, faced similar fears and had to overcome similar stereotypes. Every morning, I stepped into my classroom to show my kids that I was no different than they were. I had just been mentored to break down the negative mindset society had instilled in me and channeled it in a productive way.

We have a long way to go as a country before we truly achieve justice for all students regardless of race. To fix the systemic oppression that has created the gross inequality will take the hard, dedicated work of countless leaders and change-makers — many who have experienced it first-hand, others who bear witness to it from farther away. We must work toward these long-term changes as well as the immediate, urgent opportunities to change the way our students view themselves and their futures.

As teachers, we can play a central role in this. Every day, we can remind our kids that their thoughts, ideas, identities and opinions are important. We can share our own stories so that when our kids look to the front of the room, they see a little bit of themselves reflected back. We can remind them that they matter, that they always have and that they always will.

DeMarcus Jenkins is a 2006 alumnus of the University and Teach For America-D.C.

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