Cute pupil writing at desk in classroom at the elementary school. Student girl doing test in primary school. Children writing notes in classroom. African schoolgirl writing on notebook during the lesson.

“How’s school going?” My mom was a busy woman, but she always set aside time to talk about school. I would usually shrug, frown, and retreat to my room or an after-school activity, but one day, I decided to share.

I talked about how my teachers don’t take me seriously or how another girl started an argument but I was the only one who got in trouble. My hair was “too big” or I was “too loud.” I was dressed coded almost every week and could never wear tank tops without someone telling me to put on a jacket.

That day, I learned what it means to be a Black student and a Black woman—that my experience was not isolated or unique. The education system is sewn together with racial bias through dress code policies, codes of conduct, and other disciplinary policies that too often target Black girls. I came across students with similar concerns and realized it was time to rip the seams. Mental health, intergenerational trauma, and socioeconomic status are all factors that can disrupt one’s academic pursuit; discriminatory school policing should not be yet another hurdle for Black students.

I wanted to ensure Black girls in my community experienced something different; a school environment that encouraged their personal growth. Given the state of many Chicago Public Schools (CPS), this was quite an ambitious goal. How could an 18-year-old address a systemic problem rooted in decades of anti-blackness and adultification of Black girls? Black girls account for 14% of all students suspended at school, despite only representing 8% of all students enrolled. In preschool, Black girls make up 20% of girls enrolled and 53% of girls suspended. Nationally, Black girls are four times more likely to be arrested at school, and five times more likely to be suspended than white girls. Black girls are not more likely to misbehave, they are just more likely to be disciplined. We have seen South African girls protest school hair policies, Black children, as young as kindergarteners, handcuffed by police officers, and Black and brown youth in predominantly low-income neighborhoods are overpoliced.

Last year, the National Women’s Law Center, in partnership with the Ed Trust, released “… and they cared: How to Create Better, Safer, Learning Environments for Girls of Color,” a resource that guided my initiative to increase conversations around the inequalities Black girls face at school. I led a workshop for a group of girls from several CPS high schools through a social entrepreneurship course at my university to increase their awareness of systematic discrepancies by teaching them about their constitutional rights, and how to exercise them. We also reflected on what they envisioned as safety and acceptance in public spaces. As a result, each student sent the guide to at least three people they knew, increasing community access to data and an in-depth look at school policing in Chicago. Providing this information to families, non-POC teachers, and administrators sparked conversations about restorative justice practices as an alternative to punishment.

If we continue to share resources on this issue, the possibilities for change are endless. Here are opportunities to get involved at the local, state, and national levels

  • Local: Parents and community members can advocate for transparency around vague school policies that often leave room for racial bias.
  • State: The Crown Act was created to ensure protection against hair-based discrimination in schools and the workplace. Advocate for your state to adapt the Crown Act by signing and sharing the petition.
  • Federal: Support school climate bills to prevent the criminalization of students and the overuse of exclusionary disciplinary practices like the Ending PUSHOUT Act, which was recently re-introduced by Representatives Ayanna Pressley, Bonnie Watson Coleman, and Ilhan Omar.

I am proud to join NWLC as an intern with the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund and realize that you do not need to be a tenured academic or experienced professional to positively impact your community. Thus far, my experience with NWLC has helped me address education inequality in my community, and I hope to continue my journey as an advocate and endlessly fight for change in the courts, in public policy, and in society.

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