Celebrate the “firsts” with students and build monuments with the “nexts”

Photo credit: Pixabay

By Chaunté Garrett

This historic U.S. presidential election and the historic appointments are more than moments.

What we are witnessing right now is a monument. Monuments teach us about historical moments, contributions, and people. They stand so that the legacy may never be forgotten. They serve to remind us of the opportunities that are possible.

The swearing-in of Vice President Kamala Harris may be the most prominent first of this monument. But there are many others who will be “firsts” if their appointments are confirmed by the Senate or other relevant body:

  • First Black Deputy Secretary of the Treasury, Adewale “Wally” Adeyemo
  • First Black Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin
  • First Latino to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, Xavier Becerra
  • First out LGBTQ Cabinet Secretary approved by the Senate, Pete Buttigieg
  • First Hispanic American White House Social Secretary, Carlos Elizondo
  • First Native American Cabinet Secretary, Deb Haaland
  • First woman to lead the U.S. intelligence community, Avril Haines
  • First woman Deputy Defense Secretary, Kathleen Hicks
  • First Latino and immigrant as Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas
  • First Black man to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, Michael Regan
  • First woman of color to chair the Council of Economic Advisers, Cecilia Rouse
  • First woman of color as U.S. Trade Representative, Katherine Tai
  • First woman of color and first South Asian American as Director of the Office of Management and Budget, Neera Tanden
  • First woman as Treasury Secretary, Janet Yellen

In this moment, we as educators need to build this monument for all of our students—both those who are experiencing “firsts” for their cultures and communities and also those who are not. For marginalized communities, firsts are the hopes manifest, opportunity realized, and permission to dream with pursuit. For non-marginalized communities, these firsts demonstrate the value and contributions of the marginalized, present opportunities to learn and understand the stories behind the pursuit, empower them to embrace and see the value of welcoming new perspectives and stories into their context, and most importantly, experience the joy of celebrating achievement before learning to hate and discriminate against those who are pushed to the margins.

Black people shed blood for every right realized in our country, and every right we obtain, every success we have, is a celebration, even as we continue to fight for more rights. In “The Last Will and Testament,” Civil Rights activist Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune left these words as she saw her life coming to an end, yet the prejudice and injustice remaining:

I LEAVE YOU HOPE. The Negro’s growth will be great in the years to come. Yesterday, our ancestors endured the degradation of slavery, yet they retained their dignity. Today, we direct our economic and political strength toward winning a more abundant and secure life. Tomorrow, a new Negro, unhindered by race taboos and shackles, will benefit from more than 330 years of ceaseless striving and struggle. Theirs will be a better world.  This I believe with all my heart.

We celebrate each time a marginalized community breaks a barrier, creating that “better world” that Dr. Bethune wrote about. We celebrate to finally have gained access to spaces we were previously prohibited from inhabiting. Having one member of our community claim a seat at the table offers hope that more will secure a seat as well. Our students can see that these very important and powerful positions such as the Vice Presidency or the head of the Environmental Protection Agency are not just opportunities reserved for people who do not look like them, or believe like them, or even love like them. They see that they, too, can be rewarded and receive opportunity for their efforts.

In these moments, I think of my mom. She was told she was not “college material” and was advised not to pursue a college education. And yet she went on to be the first member of our family to attend college, to earn an advanced degree, and to become the first Black female principal in a historic high school in a rural community. Her pursuit and landing as a “first” created opportunity for her younger brother and sister. It allowed me and my cousins to dare to dream and pursue our own goals. It even gave hope to the entire rural community in which she was raised. Each day I serve as an education leader, I think with pride about the Black boys in my school who might dream of taking the lessons learned within our community, and leading the Environmental Protection Agency like their neighbor from down the highway, Michael Regan. When they see these accomplishments, they start to dream, knowing it can come true.

Students identifying with marginalized communities often hear narratives and see examples of people in their own communities being treated like they are less than human. We need to change that. Honoring this monument makes them feel seen, creates a sense of belonging, and communicates how much they matter and how much these accomplishments matter within the fabric of our country.

At the root of hate is ignorance. The late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, “Intelligence plus character—that is the true goal of education.” Celebrating these firsts creates space and opportunity to empower all students with knowledge to undo the current condition of our world.

We have invested countless hours in workshops, reading books, and consulting our friends and families to find the words and right ways to help students process the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbury, Rayshard Brooks, and countless other Black people who’ve lost their lives needlessly. I urge you to not let THIS moment pass without acknowledging it. Let’s invest that same heart and energy in letting our Black, brown, and all students identifying with marginalized communities know they can be so much more than hashtags in this country’s long overdrawn obsession with power. Let’s make sure our students know they can be beacons of hope and builders of a truly great America for everyone.

As Kamala Harris stated in her acceptance speech for the vice presidency, “I may be the first, but I certainly will not be the last.” These are the moments to build monuments.

Chaunté Garrett is superintendent at Rocky Mount Preparatory School in North Carolina. She is an instructional leader with building- and district- level experience in transforming schools, leading students to high achievement levels, and supporting the whole child. Follow her on Twitter @drncgarrett.