School Should Start with Social Justice

As the school year gets started, I have been reflecting on the conversations that I had with students over the summer. They include incredible young people like Yamiri, a rising high school sophomore, who I met at Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, AL. Yamiri won the $3,000 top prize of EJI’s high school essay contest, and we were there to celebrate his accomplishment, and help create a memorial to honor victims of lynching as part of EJI’s Community Remembrance Project.

Equal Justice Initiative’s Community Remembrance Project
In Yamiri’s essay “Things Remain the Same,” he writes:
“I imagine, hope and pray that one day racial injustice in the courts and other places will end and young men like us are treated with the same respect as other men.”

I share Yamiri’s vision for a more just and equitable world for all boys and girls, and I’m confident that we can achieve it because students like him are a powerful force for social justice.

So as students across the country head back to school, let’s ask ourselves: what more can we do to empower students to lead change?

James Cole collecting soil from the site of a lynching as part of EJI’s Community Remembrance Project.

One of the most important things we can do is eliminate barriers to opportunity for young people, which is why President Obama launched My Brother’s Keeper a little over two years ago. Already, nearly 250 cities, as well as rural and tribal areas, have stepped up to create local action plans that leverage public and private investments to improve literacy, create summer jobs, and strengthen neighborhood safety.

That means progress in places like Detroit which provided 8,000 jobs to youth this summer.

While we celebrate that progress, we also know there is a lot of work to do because of the barriers students still face. For example, less than half the high schools with high black and Latino enrollments teach physics, while two in three high schools that have low numbers of black and Latino student offer physics. How can we expect students like Yamiri to become lawyers, doctors or teachers if they do not have essential courses like physics in their schools?

Yamiri accepting his award next to Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative.

Over the past few weeks, I have heard from countless students about their concerns about college affordability, summer job opportunities, and community safety. Each of those areas presents complex challenges, but I know that our efforts to tackle them will benefit from the ideas and the energy that students bring to the table.

If we create more chances for students like Yamiri to learn, speak up, and lead, we will accelerate our progress towards opportunity and social justice.

James Cole General Counsel, Delegated the Duties of Deputy Secretary of Education at the U.S. Department of Education