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Recently I reconnected with a cousin of mine, a beautiful young man who lost his post-graduation job opportunity in accounting due to the pandemic. Hardworking, smart and full of aspirations, he received good grades in college and worked part time throughout, at various jobs.
He should have had a bright future career in front of him. But he was stuck. He did not have a decent résumé. He did not have basic job-hunting skills. He had sought and received little help from his college. This all stunned me given his grades, motivation and aspiration to become a chief financial officer in a major corporation. Why wasn’t he given access to career counseling and basic job-hunting and résumé skills? Why hadn’t he figured it out in this age of the internet? I wanted someone to blame.
What happened to my cousin, as a Black American, isn’t unusual. The Black Lives Matter protests throughout our nation this summer have highlighted that we live in a land that too often devalues Black Americans and deprives them of the resources they need to succeed. As the too-soon-departed Chadwick Boseman reminded us when accepting a Screen Actors Guild award in 2019, American society often tells those like him and his Black colleagues, “There is not a place for you.”
I saw this dynamic at play years ago when I began volunteering with Black middle school students. They were obviously bright and often had good grades. Yet I discovered that many of them could barely read. The experience motivated me to make visible and challenge the structures of racism that are built into education. I wanted to illuminate for educators the opportunities to better support students of color.
Part of what keeps systems of inequity in place in education is playing the blame game.
Among the things I have learned is that part of what keeps systems of inequity in place in education is playing the blame game. We often want to point fingers at young people like my cousin and his parents for being “so far behind.” Or we quote statistics: on the low levels of resources invested in schools that serve Black students; on the school-to-prison pipeline that undereducates, overpunishes and oversuspends Black students, pushing them out of schools and into prisons at high rates.
The statistics do matter. But as educators, our best strategy for change is to look at the young people in front of us. We must understand them as people with unlimited potential and, just as importantly, understand that our job is to help them reach that potential, against all odds. Yes, challenging systemic racism in schools is complex, and we can be tempted to look for someone to blame. Yet our work as educators must focus on how to best support students — now. And we must do that with empathy and compassion. In addition to academic supports, here are a few things educators can do to eliminate some systemic barriers and prepare Black students to succeed in the real world of work:
- Build required classes for students that provide, and show the importance of, life skills training, including how to build a résumé, search for a job, interview and network. These can include peer-to-peer support to address counselor shortages.
- Build mentor programs for Black and other students of color to engage with professionals, especially ones who look like them, in a variety of for-profit and nonprofit fields in business, government, the sciences and the arts.
- Build opportunities for community healing to help students navigate the effects of structural racism, especially when there are a lot of racial issues in the news, as well as provide tools for self-care and building resiliency to help them navigate the challenges of racism they face daily.
When Chadwick Boseman spoke for the award-winning cast of “Black Panther,” he said it was “a pleasure to be celebrated.” He and his colleagues had won for acting out an imaginary future in which Black people thrived. But the movie’s success was very real: It became the highest-grossing superhero movie in the United States.
Imagine the possibilities for Black students in a future where they have the opportunity to thrive, both for them and for the success of our nation as a whole.
Each of us has something to say about what happens next, but educators have the critical job of preparing their students for that new world, including showing them the concrete steps they must take to get there. As for my cousin, he is on his way. He now has a new résumé, some new job-hunting skills, applications out to entry-level positions in his field and regular check-ins with a couple of mentors, one a successful Black man who recently retired as the CFO of a major corporation, the position my cousin hopes to reach himself someday.
Arlene Ford is the founder of the Equity Inquiry Project Inc., where she consults with educational institutions, nonprofits and for-profit organizations and their leaders to build capacity around equity and inclusion. She currently teaches a graduate course on equity to education leaders at Southern Methodist University.
This story about job-hunting skills to Black students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.
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