The Day before the 20th

January 20, 2017

It is Thursday, January 19th, 2017, and I am sitting in a large, warm, aesthetically comforting office at a school that I have been sitting in every school day since Tuesday.

On Monday, the same day the country celebrated the birth of one of the most prolific social justice revolutionaries of the last (and probably this) century, a 13-year-old boy from this school died unexpectedly and suddenly from what is believed to have been an asthma attack. The entire school community was thrown into deep shock.

The caring adults in the school have asked that I pay special attention to the boy's immediate circle of friends. Their gathering spot is in the office of the school's restorative justice coordinators, which seems fittingly appropriate. We've nicknamed it "The Repast Room" (minus the pound cake and punch), which, today, also seems fittingly appropriate.

As Inauguration Day looms large in our collective consciousness, and some of us reflect upon, wonder, ponder, curse, cry, and flail wildly at where we now find ourselves, we also need to keep ourselves grounded in the reality that children in this country die from preventable diseases. And while asthma is not necessarily a preventable disease, some of the causes attributed to its prevalence are racism, poverty, lack of affordable housing, and lack of access to quality healthcare.

In this country, your life is deeply affected by the color of your skin, your neighborhood, and your income — or lack thereof. I'm not sure how we make America great again if these problems aren't met with workable and sustainable solutions. I'm not sure how we make America great again if the candidates for key government offices seem hard pressed to proffer credible expertise and experience and articulate clear visions for addressing our problems.

I am certain, however, that the best way to ensure that our students are well-equipped to squarely face the adversities they will confront over the next four years is to provide them with the tools necessary to resist, to repair, and to restore. 

The brilliance of Dr. King was not merely his extraordinary ability to use the teachings of a globally-informed theology to exhort us to become our best selves; it was his insistence that, as Americans bound by documents dedicated to democratic principles, it is our moral duty to hold ourselves and the people we elect to the highest levels of accountability, to uphold the ideas of freedom and justice for all.

Our students are not walking into unknown territory. History is filled with the transformative success of student efforts, from the sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina and campus anti- Vietnam war protests to anti-apartheid marches in Soweto, to the lone figure standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square. Our students' familiarity and comfort with technology allows them to immediately connect and tap into coalitions and mobilization efforts all across the world and right across the street. They can hashtag #UPSTANDER and download Kendrick Lamar to hear how art can be transformed into activism.

One powerful way for adults to help students at this school process their loss is to promote awareness of the inequities that are causing such heartbreak in their lives and neighborhoods. Students in this middle school can see their teachers and other adult staff members providing them the space to talk through their feelings, to be sad, to be angry, to be confused. The entire school community has been generous with their compassion, their empathy, their willingness to provide soft spaces for the hard truth that a friend, a student, a community member is no longer here. 

As long as we continue to encourage our students to speak their truth, to lean on community when their own legs may be weak, to be allies, to be compassion warriors, we will restore this America in ways that far exceed any level of imagined greatness.


Dionne Grayman is a Morningside Center staff developer.