Our Young People Need Sanctuary — On Independence Day, and Every Day

“The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me…This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”

Frederick Douglass spoke these words on July 5, 1852 before an audience of white abolitionists. Douglass demanded an end to the institution of slavery and levied this charge: “for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival,” which still rings true. Our nation has failed to live up to the values of its birth — independence, freedom, and liberty. Today, communities of color, including immigrant communities of color, face a harsh reality, fearing for their safety even in their own neighborhoods and places of worship, targeted for how they look or what documents they possess.

Young people of color live in fear, any hopes they may have had for a more perfect union as pledged by America’s founding fathers denied. Many immigrant youth are afraid to go to school because they witness immigrants of color being targeted for detention and deportation in their communities and schools and young people of color being pushed out of school due to harsh school discipline and policing in schools.

A growing number of school districts — from Oakland to Denver and Chicago to Miami — have declared themselves ‘sanctuary’ schools to welcome students of all backgrounds regardless of immigration status and protect them from immigration enforcement officers who have recently increased their surveillance tactics targeting undocumented immigrants, almost exclusively people of color, for detention and deportation. This uptick includes increased ICE activity on or near school campuses.

A ‘sanctuary’ is a place of refuge or safety.

We should want schools to be safe places where all of our young people are prepared to succeed and thrive in school and thus in career and in life. Education is the cornerstone of ensuring health, success and wellbeing as young people grow into adulthood.

But many of our young people, particularly young people of color, face barriers to high-quality education in healthy and equitable learning environments where they can learn, grow and thrive. The same students who might be protected from ICE officers in sanctuary schools still may be subjected to suspension, expulsion or school-based arrest by school administrators and school resource officers. Suspensions, expulsions and arrests for minor or nonexistent misbehavior–such as wearing their hair in braids, talking back to a teacher, or walking in the hallway without a pass — have been disproportionately used to discipline students of color, removing them from schools and diminishing their chances of graduation. Over 1.6 million students attend a school that has a police officer and no counselor, as policymakers prioritize criminalizing communities of color over educating them. A shameless hypocrisy, indeed.

That’s why Communities for Just Schools Fund supports community organizations that push for all schools to be sanctuaries, where young people are safe from systemic oppression in all its forms and where they have access to the academic and life skills training needed to fulfill their potential. These organizations know that sanctuary means safety and equity for all young people, regardless of race, immigration status, gender, gender identity, income or sexual orientation. A true sanctuary school gives students nurturing guidance and support and yet enough freedom to make the fraught childhood journey where they experience missteps and victories as one and the same–life lessons.

Black, Latino, Muslim, LGBTQ and immigrant communities of color are coming together to make our schools safer for every single one of our young people. CJSF partners with national groups like Dignity in Schools Campaign and supports local organizations such as Desis Rising Up and Moving and Urban Youth Collaborative in New York City, Vamos Juntos in Philadelphia and Black Organizing Project in Oakland that are transforming schools into places where young people of color are prepared to succeed and thrive.

As we observe July 4th in this difficult year for immigrant families and families of color, we urge school leaders and policymakers at all levels to create safer school climates that offer sanctuary for our students so that America lives up to the promise of education and prosperity for all.

As Douglass reminded us, “The conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled.” We must acknowledge and remove the barriers that prevent millions of families and young people across our nation from realizing the promise of the United States to transform all of our futures — our fates are tied together.

Allison R. Brown is the Executive Director of the Communities for Just Schools Fund (CJSF), a national donor collaborative that brings together the resources of philanthropy with the power of grassroots organizing to ensure that all schools welcome students and nurture their full potential.