On Friday, Oak Park and River Forest High School canceled extracurricular activities for the next two weeks, until winter break, due to a rise in COVID cases at the school. A number of students and parents in the community are frustrated about this cancellation, and some of them staged a protest this past weekend outside the school. About 100 people showed up and there was television coverage from the Chicago CBS station.
In online discussions about the protest, a comment by local activist Cynthia Brito Millan caught my attention. She wrote: “Where was this energy when Black and Latinx youth organizers protested failing grades because of the pandemic?” The truth embedded in this question really hit me. In the spring semester of last school year, 29% of Black students, 17% of Latinx students, and 7% of white students earned at least 1 F in a class. This was a grading crisis, spurred by the pandemic. It was one that occurred across the country.
Brito Millan mentors ROYAL, a group of Black and Latinx student activists who made the case in spring 2021 that the pandemic was affecting all students, but was impacting students of color the most — and students of color were also dealing with a second pandemic of racial violence and upheaval. They asked the high school not to fail any students due to the burdens of these dual pandemics. Some other districts around the country chose this option. The students put on a protest of their own back in May and several dozen people were there. It was notable that the 100 students and parents at the recent extracurricular rally were mostly white, while the two dozen people at the grading rally were mostly students of color. Why the difference?
We all bring the highest level of energy to issues we believe directly affect us and our own families. And the white students and parents at the extracurricular protest, and those voicing their feelings online, clearly feel that the suspension of activities will affect them and their families.
But what if we white parents decided to devote at least some portion of that same energy to other people’s children, especially to Black and Latinx students? I’m not asking white parents not to care about their own kids. I’m not even proposing that people should take a particular position on extracurriculars or on grading. But I am proposing that in a society where resources — money, health care, grades — are distributed unevenly by race, white parents bear some responsibility for considering other children. Otherwise, we just continue to perpetuate the disparities that exist as each person looks out for their own.
So, fellow white parents, let’s continue to protect and nurture our own children. But let’s also look beyond self-interest and listen to the voices of Black and Latinx youth and the issues that affect them and that they care about. Let’s devote some of our influence and energy to the issues that they raise. That is one way we can build a more just society — by standing with one another, across differences of race, gender or class.
By all means, listen to your own kids, and show up to the protest, speak for their issues online, and advocate for them. But remember that other kids need that advocacy too. What small step can you take to provide it?
Jim Schwartz is an Oak Park resident, an educator, and a blogger at Entwining.org.