Not a Slogan, but a Lifestyle

Faced with recent events around the country in Ferguson, on Staten Island, and elsewhere, Stoneleigh-Burnham students are raising their voices in protest and in solidarity. During lunch yesterday, a group of students stood in the center area and suddenly yelled “I can’t breathe!” and then clearly and firmly shared their thoughts on racism and the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases as they held “Black Lives Matter” signs. Several faculty made a point of telling them they were proud, and Shawn Durrett, Dean of Faculty, added a note on the school’s Facebook page.

Last night, Seniors emailed their Little Sisters to ask them to wear black today to signify that black lives matter. Those faculty who happened to have been aware of the event joined in. One senior followed up with an email to the whole school community in which she spoke of the power of that sea of black and the importance of choosing to stand up to racism and inequality.

HandsUp_sm

As it happens, I was at the March in Washington on Saturday, Dec. 13 (the title for this article is a quote from one of the speakers). I woke up at 4:00 the next morning unable to sleep, picked up my phone, and wrote the following reaction to the experience:

The man about ten feet away from me bent his head and laughed as he put up his hand. He was not alone in laughing, and certainly far from alone in putting his hand up. All black men present at the March on Washington had just been asked to raise their hands if they had ever felt nervous when stopped by the police, and in a crowd where it could safely be assumed most everyone present if not every single one of us knew in advance that every single hand would go up, it was possible to laugh at that question.

My wife and I had arrived at the March early in the afternoon, when the podium was being shared by member after member of families whose husbands, fathers, sons had been shot to death, taken too soon. And while I felt some of the same crushing weight I’ve been feeling ever since the accumulation of news about Marissa Alexander, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner, there was also a sense of healing. These families were grief-stricken, and they were equally determined that we could not rest until no one else, ever, had to go through what they did. Many opened by saying “No justice,” and the crowd responded, “No peace.” And maybe it’s just because I’m a pacifist, but to me it came across as a feeling our souls could not be at peace until true justice was achieved for all in this country.

Meanwhile, on my Facebook timeline (as I would discover afterwards), some of my friends and family were posting messages in a sort of counterpoint. Two guns aimed at the viewer with a caption asking which one is the cap gun and which one is real, noting that making the wrong choice could lead to your death. A picture of a police officer captioned “Police Lives Matter.”

The thing is, I don’t think most if any of the people in attendance at that March would argue that police lives don’t matter. Of course there were signs all over that Black Lives Matter. But to say that is not to minimize the value of other lives (any more than saying Police Lives Matter). It is simply to affirm that when black people are many more times likely than white people to be shot during a tense situation, that is wrong. That is not justice as it should be. That is not how our country should and can be. Indeed, several speakers followed “Black lives matter” with “All lives matter,” and that seemed to be what our collective soul was feeling.

One speaker noted our goals have to extend beyond working with police departments to learn about community policing and building relationships. They have to extend beyond reforming our justice system so that people can expect police misconduct, should it occur, will be handled fairly. They have to extend beyond the elimination of racial profiling (all of these goals, it should be noted, held by many police officers as well). They also have to include equal pay, equal job opportunities, equal schooling, and more. Regardless of race.

My Twitter timeline spoke of the immense numbers present in New York and elsewhere, of signs people were holding seeking peace through unity, of arrests and people being beaten up. I couldn’t bring myself to look at the media’s version of the day, fearing it would focus on the negative, on anything that would create and exacerbate tension.

I am writing this at 4:00 in the morning on Sunday, and I know I will have to dive in to media reports later today in case my students bring up events of the weekend, tomorrow or later on. I don’t believe for a second teachers should be telling students what to think, but I do believe we owe it to our students to be able to guide them in thinking critically. And if what I saw and felt can contribute to that, I will not hold back. I won’t pretend for a second it’s the whole story. I won’t pretend for a second that my voice matters more than anyone else’s. I know and recognize this can not and must not be about privileging white voices yet again. But if using my voice helps students see nuance and layers of complexity, I will not hesitate to do so.

As the final speakers were coming to the podium, a black woman near us turned to my wife and asked if we were from around here. My wife shook her head and said, “No.” A few moments later, a blonde white woman stepped up and asked if she could help, and gave directions to 7th and Independence. The black woman gave the blonde women a hug and thanked her for coming, and then did the same for my wife, and me.

Somebody on Twitter wrote that evening that for them, the day was about a movement finding its soul, and my own experience mirrored that.

Black lives matter.
All lives matter.
No justice, no peace.

Not yet.

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Leading the Way

This year’s People of Color Conference (whose hashtag is #PoCC14), sponsored by the National Association of Independent Schools, comes at a critical juncture in our country’s history. I woke up on the morning of December 5 to read a tweet from @racialicious telling about what a good time they were having. Reading through their timeline, I discovered many powerful thoughts and ideas posted the previous day, and vowed to follow their live tweeting of the keynote address, to be given by Dr. Derald Wing Sue. Dr. Sue is a noted expert on multicultural counseling, and has written and edited several books including Microaggressions and Marginality: Manifestation, Dynamics, and Impact.

As it happens, I have used Dr. Sue’s work in my own teaching. Two years ago, when I was teaching Life Skills 8, the students and I spent some time talking about prejudice of different types, how it operates in day-to-day life, and what can be done about it. We watched the video “Microaggressions in Everyday Life.” They learned that microaggressions typically happen when a well-intentioned person lacks knowledge of how specific expressions or behaviors might be experienced by a historically marginalized person. For example, if a girl likes math, telling her enthusiastically, “Wow, that’s great!” might actually be experienced by her as a microaggression, communicating the idea that it is surprising when a girl likes math. No offense was meant, but offense might still have been taken. Another approach might simply be to ask her what she likes best about it, which would still acknowledge and support her love of math without adding the element of surprise. Our class had some great discussions on the topic.

In reporting on Dr. Sue’s address to the #PoCC14, @racialicious wrote in part:

  • DWS: Master Narrative (White ppl talking); democratic society, post-racial, racism is thing of past, not responsible for past sins. #PoCC14
  • DWS: Master Narrative– Truth and justice will prevail, equal access is hallmark of society. #PoCC14
  • DWS: The Counter Narrative (POC narrative): Meritocracy is a myth, system rigged against POCs, white privilege exists, #PoCC14
  • DWS: The Counter Narrative: we are taught that some groups are lesser beings, no one is immune from inheriting biases from society #PoCC14
  • Master narrative is rehearsed in society, and taught in schools. Counter narrative is not. #PoCC14
  • DWS: The Master Narrative a) reassures whites they are good, b) prevents them from being conscious of biased conditioning. #PoCC14
  • DWS: c) Maintains their innocence and naivete, d) perpetuates the racial status quo. #PoCC14

All of this provides the context for microaggressions, which can lead students to question themselves under the daily assault (@racialicious).

So what should schools be doing? One obvious strategy is to present both the master and counter narratives. Whether we use that terminology or not, and of course maintaining respect for the full spectrum of political beliefs, we can certainly study and talk of varying visions of and for our country and how we self-define. We can also teach about microaggressions, how to respond to them, and how to respond if one has committed a microaggression and has it pointed out. In the videotape my students watched, Dr. Sue recommended people maintain constant vigilance, hold an awareness that different people may have different experiences of the same reality, not be defensive, remain open to discussion, and be an ally.

I have just begun reading If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson to my Humanities 7 class. As a multiracial high school couple falls more and more deeply into love, Ellie (who is white) learns more and more about how Miah (who is black) experiences the world and what that means for her view of our culture. I can not believe that students are not going to bring up the examples of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, though of course if they don’t, I can add questions into the mix that will at least get them thinking about the issues underlying those and countless other cases, in the process exploring their own thoughts on the master and counter narratives.

Chris Rock has observed that his daughters are “encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced.” If I compare my students (of all races) to my friends and me (of all races) at their age, they are certainly more aware and more accepting of diversity, if – to be fair – no less well intentioned. We are definitely making steady progress as a culture. Slow, but steady.

But slow.

The thing is, as Dr. Sue said, the master narrative can be used to justify inaction on the part of white people (@racialicious). Time and time again, we have raised our collective voices in national outrage at what is commonly perceived as injustice (many people across the political spectrum were stunned at the grand jury’s decision in the Eric Garner case), but time and time again, things eventually quiet down with no real change taking place.

That quite simply must not continue to happen.

Hopefully, my students will be among those leading the way. It would not surprise me one bit if they did.

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“This Very Interesting Article on Buzzfeed”

“I have found this very interesting article on Buzzfeed that I thought you may be interested in.” McKim, one of my former students, now a junior, was writing ten faculty members to share a link to “Austin Thinks It Can Save Poor Kids By Separating Boys And Girls” by Katie J. M. Baker. After summarizing what it was about, she went on to write, “At one point in the article, an organization states that ‘Single-sex schools are illegal.’ Which sounds preposterous. On the other hand, the all boys section of this school district is teaching the boys to always walk behind a lady during formal events because she is wearing heels, and if she falls a boy should be there to catch her. Although, at the same time the all girls school is teaching the girls to use their voice and not be afraid to be leaders.” I finished her email and clicked on the link, quickly glancing through the piece and then writing her back: “Thanks, McKim! I skimmed the article and will come back to it in more detail soon. There are a lot of layers to it, and I want to look deeply at it and see how they handle all the complicated intersections of race and gender and class as they pertain to education. It seems fascinating.”

The schools, Gus Garcia Young Men’s Leadership Academy and Bertha Sadler Means Young Women’s Leadership Academy, do indeed appear to include a fascinating mix of best practices that occasionally succumb to unfortunate stereotyping, all underscored with good intentions, exactly as McKim had told us. And there is no question that the learning environment is much improved from the dreadful schools that preceded these. “Dozens of students said they were happy with the switch. (…) ‘Last year, the teachers didn’t care about us,’ said an eighth-grader named Daryl. “They just cared about their paycheck.’” (Baker) And a former district Trustee, Cheryl Bradley, was definitely on the right track when she affirmed: “It’s not about boys learning this way and girls learning this way. What we did is we change the learning environment. Because it just wasn’t working the way it was. We cannot continue to do the same thing and fail at it and not try to do something new to be successful.” (quoted in Baker)

Yet practices such as the advice to boys that McKim cited, or advice given by one of the so-called experts that “teachers should allow girls to take their shoes off to decrease stress.” (Baker), suggest that the schools do not always reach in practice the ideals that they set. This applies to educating children of colour as well, as “Officials at the schools, composed of 97.4% and 94.1% Latino and black schoolchildren, respectively, learned that black boys in particular are more likely to be ‘aggressive’ and ‘not as neat.’” (Baker) And when we read that “Girls read on cozy couches in the library and bounce on green exercise balls during math class,” (Baker) it’s hard not to wonder, “But wouldn’t that work for boys too?”

Of course, single-gender public schools aren’t illegal per se, merely some of the policies they might carry out. According to Ms. Baker, “the Department of Education issued new clarifying guidelines for K–12 schools. Those that choose to offer single-sex classes must be clear about their goals (“improving academic achievement” counts), ensure that enrollment is completely voluntary, and conduct periodic evaluations every two years, among other mandates. Clearest of all: Schools must “avoid relying on gender stereotypes.” The ACLU built on that theme, stating that “generalizations about boys’ and girls’ interests and learning styles cannot be used to justify the use of different teaching methods for male and female students.” (quoted in Baker)

In presenting research, the article mentions, among others, a study undertaken by Dr. Janet Hyde at the University of Wisconsin, a 2011 article in Science magazine, and work by both Dr. Lise Eliot and Dr. Leonard Sax. These were all familiar to me, and I wrote McKim about some of my concerns, asking rhetorically why the landmark 2009 study led by Dr. Linda Sax which affirmed several positive effects of girls education is not more often mentioned. Among my earlier blog entries, “Why [a rigid binary view of] Gender Matters,” and “Sleeves Rolled Up” summarize my feelings well, and “Making History” was my immediate (if indirect) response to the Science article.

“‘What’s happening in the public school system looks nothing like single-sex education at private schools and colleges,’ said Galen Sherwin, senior staff attorney at the ACLU Women’s Rights Project.” (Baker) While that might be an overgeneralization, I know that what I see going on around me in this school bears little resemblance to descriptions of what is happening in some of the public schools against which the ACLU has brought lawsuits. I might continually examine what we are doing, as we all should – but in the end, that leads to an ever-stronger commitment to our mission. As I once wrote, “So – what does it mean to teach girls today? I told my friend that at this point in time, I no longer “teach girls” but rather teach the unique and individual students I have in front of me. But I do so in a girl-positive environment created within a school whose mission is built on feminist ideals.” (“Why I Support the ACLU’s Suit Against Single-Sex Schools”)

McKim concluded, “As a student at a single-sex school I found this article very interesting because I was able to see how some organizations viewed public single sex schools, what they thought the guidelines on how it should work was, and how this school district in Texas organized their schools.” I would agree, and add that the article reconfirmed for me how important it is to keep an open mind, listen, consider all perspectives, and ultimately recognize that there probably is no one single model of education that’s right for every single student.

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Filed under Feminism, Gender, On Education, The Girls School Advantage, Uncategorized

A Very Good Place to Start: On Teaching for Respect

“Excuse me, ma’am?” I turned to see a woman approaching me as I sat working at Rao’s coffee shop. “Yes?” I said. “Can you please give me directions to (we’ll say it was La Veracruzana)?” I did, and she thanked me, acknowledged my “You’re welcome,” and turned and left. Clearly, she was either open or oblivious to the contrast between whatever it was about my appearance (hair? clothing? something else?) that had caused her to “ma’am” me and my baritone voice. Myself, at this point in my life, I respond naturally to either “ma’am” or “sir,” reasoning that in either case, someone is addressing me respectfully.

Respect is the key word here. It’s what underlies most successful human interactions, and what is most often missing when dysfunction takes over. It’s a firm underlying principle in each of my classes. I expect respect not only for each other (which they almost invariably show anyway) but also for fictional characters, reasoning that if we are generally talking about them as if they were real, we might as well carry it to the logical extreme.

Of course, respect for people who are transgender or otherwise gender transgressive is not an automatic given in this world. Indeed, as of 2012, transgender people were 28% more likely than cisgender people to experience physical attacks, and the situation was even more dire for trans women of colour, who make up a wildly disproportionate and depressing 87% of the cases where those attacks escalate to murder. (Bolles) Many white people who are members of or allied with the transgender community recognize and deplore this fact.

International Transgender Day of Remembrance takes place on Nov. 20 and once again, I attended the Northampton service. In welcoming us, Yohah Ralph acknowledged the difficulty and weight of the accumulated tragedy of over 220 transgender people having been killed this year, some of whom were never identified, some of whose families never knew or cared. He asked that, to keep the atmosphere from weighing us down too much, each participant in the service speak about their dream for the future. Most said their dream was for everyone, regardless of gender, to be able to live freely and without fear as their authentic selves.

That shouldn’t be asking too much.

The Stonewall Center of the University of Massachusetts was a co-sponsoring organization of this year’s TDOR, and the Director, Genny Beemyn, said that their own dream was that we wouldn’t be gathering together next year. They acknowledged that was virtually certain not to be, nor was it likely to be for many decades to come.

You may have picked up on the use of the pronoun “they,” and that is indeed Genny’s preferred pronoun. In Humanities 7 class one day, the question of whether “they” could be singular came up. Some students were firmly advocating that it had to be plural, while one other was quietly if hesitantly demurring. Thinking that she might possibly know a trans person (here in the Valley, the odds are definitely higher than in many parts of the country) who preferred the pronoun “they,” I stepped in to support her, stating that while “they” had traditionally been plural (this to acknowledge the good intentions of students arguing that point), people of different genders were in fact increasingly choosing to use it as a singular pronoun. She smiled back at me as several other students paused to give me a curious look. I nodded to affirm my statement, everyone relaxed, and we all moved on.

If we are truly to work toward a world that embraces people of all genders, it will be built through the gradual accumulation of respectful calls for respect, respectfully received. Hopefully, my students will help lead the way as they grow into adulthood and find their place in the world. It would not surprise me for a second if they do.

After all, living life as your authentic self is at the core of our mission, and respect is at the heart of each element of our honor code.

That is a very good place to start.

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Filed under Gender, In the Classroom, The Faculty Perspective, Uncategorized

Ending Well, part 2

On the last of classes in the middle school, I made the following post to Facebook:

Scene: my Humanities 7 classroom, last class of the day and term (a double block lasting 1’55”). Thanksgiving vacation starts today at 3:00.

Students: We wanna do something fun. Can we do something fun?
Me: Everything we do in Humanities is fun.
Students: But…
Me: Here are the “must happens” of the day we talked about at the end of our last class: an opportunity for students to present, finishing up unit planning, discussing the book Gingersnap, and finishing up self-assessments. The “may happens” will come after the “must happens,” and are essentially “your ideas here.”
Four students: Can I present?

  • Four presentations follow, each strong on facts, thematically clear, with obvious deep personal connections to the topics. Supportive applause after each.
  • Discussion on ideas for a film-making unit. Ten kids still want to make a movie from the book Wonder. Two still don’t but are willing to work out their own idea. Ten kids offer to help the small group by playing any necessary additional roles. Two kids offer to help film the large group. They beg me to let them start planning. I acquiesce.
  • Soon, the small group excitedly calls me over to tell me their seed idea and that they are ready to start fleshing it out, while the large group has decided to hold auditions to see who gets to play which part. They beg me to let them keep going. I acquiesce.
  • Time flies like the wind. They will have to finish their self-assessments on their own (Google Forms). Gingersnap can wait until after break.
  • “Hey, everyone can have a donut!” one of them yells. They run to the boxes, and then down the stairs. The room is quiet.

This is my world. This is why I love middle schoolers.

A number of friends liked my post. One of them, Rebecca Lawson, went so far as to ask me if John Lounsbury was a Facebook friend of mine, telling me “He would LOVE this! Definitely no laminated lesson plans here!! GREAT!.” John Lounsbury, whom I have in fact met (and who once invited me to a symposium on the future of the middle school movement), is one of the godfathers of the middle school model. Well into his 90’s, he continues to advocate in his modest but clear fashion for practices that seem like basic common sense as you listen to him but prove, on closer examination, to be deeply innovative. To think he would love what my students were doing is one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever gotten.

What a great way to end the term!

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Filed under In the Classroom, On Education, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, Uncategorized, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

Ending well

written Wednesday evening, Nov. 19, 2014, the night before the last day of Fall Trimester classes in the middle school.

“Let’s make it a really fun and special week for them,” Andrea said as we all nodded. We were in a Middle School team meeting, trying to plan out a week of special schedules for our students while the Upper School students were planning for and taking final exams. Monday and Tuesday, we would be following the same schedule as the Upper School while they were meeting to review, but Wednesday and Thursday were all our own.

Of course, part of this time would be given over to classes – we believe in making good use of our time together right up to the last minute – so it was easy to decide Wednesday morning would be normal, and Thursday needed to include the three class periods that don’t meet on a Wednesday morning. This would also give an air of seriousness to those last two days, and moreover provide some degree of comfort through the familiar routine. Yet, changing things up where possible would definitely add an air of celebration.

So we decided to offer students a menu of fun activities Wednesday afternoon, settling on a bowling trip, a movie, open gym, and printmaking. Andrea, Karen, Ally, and Ben stepped up respectively to help facilitate those activities. Counterintuitive though it may seem, we thought it would make sense to also set aside some time that afternoon for students to clean up their rooms so they would be ready to check out with houseparents when vacation officially began.

Andrea, Ben, and Karen also stepped up to make Thursday special, Andrea by setting up a field trip to the Smith College Botanic Garden with the 7th graders, Ben by coming up with the idea of joining an art component in with Andrea’s science activities, and Karen by agreeing to take the 8th graders for the morning to do some fun activities related to their DC trip. Is it any wonder I love working with the middle school team?!

So after lunch today, I hustled over to the middle school corridors to help supervise room cleaning. I found almost a party atmosphere – I suppose an impending vacation helps create that mood whatever you are doing – as some students worked diligently to organize their rooms, others proudly showed me they were ready to go, and just about everyone scrambled to be next to use the vacuum. I burst out laughing when I went into one room to “Just take a look at my side, please” as every square inch of floor, bed, and desk was covered on one side while the other was spotless, a ruler-straight line dividing one side from the other. The first girl’s roommate hastened to assure me “I’m working on it! It’s actually better now!” And in point of fact, it was even better by the time the hour was out.

Andrea and I moved quickly from the dorms to grab the vehicle we used to shuttle the bowling trip students off to French King Bowling Center. The students quickly lined up to get shoes, formed groups of up to four per lane, and began to program in their and their friends’ names. Several groups clamored for the bumpers to be put up, and the owner good-naturedly teased them before complying. Randomly, I happened to witness one student toss a ball right over the bumper and straight into the gutter, where it wobbled all the way to the end as she doubled over laughing. Meanwhile, one lane over, another student was pumping her fist as she knocked all the pins down. On the way back, I learned that the students on the first bus trip *really* knew the line “make a wish” in the song “Breakaway” by Kelly Clarkson which was playing on WHAI as they sang it with at least twice the volume and energy of any other line in the song. Even, on occasion, when Kelly Clarkson herself was singing something else altogether.

Tomorrow, I’ll help transport the 7th graders to Smith College, and once we’ve finished at the Garden, enjoy a quick walk in town to the Starbucks. After lunch, I’ll meet Humanities 7 for a long double period. Three students will present their work from the last unit, we’ll discuss the ending of the novel Gingersnap, we’ll finish up planning the next unit, and I’ll be sure they have some “choice time” to finish up their self-assessments, turn in their “Works Consulted” pages, and simply enjoy some free reading time in each other’s company. It’s a great way to finish out the term.

No wonder I love my job.

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Filed under In the Classroom, School Happenings, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, The Faculty Perspective, Uncategorized

No One: Reflections on Ferguson

It’s about an hour since the grand jury’s decision in the Darren Wilson case in Ferguson was announced, and I’m still feeling sucker punched despite being among the millions who had anticipated the decision and the millions more who could tell it was coming once prosecutor Robert McCulloch began his bizarre preamble to the announcement. Besides sharing their own anger, anguish, sadness, or frustration, teachers on my Twitter and Facebook timelines have also been wondering what on Earth they’re going to tell their students tomorrow.

We’re on Thanksgiving vacation, so I don’t have that immediate worry, but I do need to think about what we might do upon our return in December. As it happens, one of the six students in my Humanities 7 class who still has to present on her second Focus Question after break wrote her essay on racism and white supremacy. She had been unafraid to tackle difficult questions, including white privilege. And her essay included a powerful moment when the white resident of a predominantly black neighborhood, made the statement that “There’s no need to be careful if you treat people as human beings.” At that point, she saw a black woman emerge from a nearby house and added, loudly, “As long as you don’t have a gun in your hand, I’m okay with you.” (Huber)

Okaaaaaaay then.

That alone should generate a fair amount of discussion in this class!

Today, we are also mourning twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, shot by Cleveland police officers while he was carrying a toy gun. Today, we are also reacting to the news that Marissa Alexander accepted a plea deal under which she will serve out the remaining two months of a three-year sentence, all for having attempted to defend herself when she feared for her life.

I may be sickened and saddened by all of this, but I also hold in my head and my heavy heart the realities that our justice system would treat me very differently if I were a person of colour and that white privilege may be, in the words of my student, “an unfair thing as it is something that is decided by something you can’t control,” but it is no less real for all that.

Leslie Carole Taylor, one of my friends from high school is a UCC minister, and she was posting an incredible series of quotes and thoughts on Facebook through the evening. As a Black woman, she no doubt was experiencing today’s events differently than I was, yet everything she wrote resonated with me. Among her posts was this quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.” I wrote back, “I share that belief. And I share responsibility for bringing that final word about.”

In meeting that responsibility, I would simultaneously be working toward my student’s vision: “Your race shouldn’t affect how people treat you or see you. In the end, I feel that no one should be judged because of their race.”

No one. Not Marissa Alexander. Not Michael Brown. Not Tamir Rice. Not Eric Garner. Not John Crawford. Not Ezell Ford. Not Trayvon Martin. Not Jordan Davis. Not Renisha McBride. Not…

No one.

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