This Memorial Day, George Floyd died in the streets of Minneapolis. I felt enraged as a black mother, a lawyer, an educator, and a human being. The totality of my soul felt his life being stolen from this earth. Another fallen soul in the streets, his lifeless body just one more to add to the endless statistics.
Like so many others, I am home schooling two little ones attached to digital devices throughout the day, so joining an in-person protest during the pandemic was not an option for me. Social media gave me a quick outlet to share my thoughts, but I knew that I needed to do more. As the dean of legal literacy for The Little Lawyers, a P-8 curriculum geared toward building kids' legal awareness and empowerment, I have spent years crafting a narrative to empower hundreds of kids to understand law, but what happens when our children see time after time that the law does not apply equally to all?
Black adults, whether on school campuses, walking down the street, shopping in the supermarket, or driving down the road, feel that injustice every waking day. How can we as educators, guides to unknown futures, not feel that urge to do more?
My Italian husband and I have lived in our own biracial bubble in Miami with our two kids. But even in such a multicultural city, our kids have experienced racism. Two years ago, my son, Santo Max, found one of his friends on the playground. It was in the evening after a full day of summer camp. The boys were happy to find a familiar playmate and went off to hunt for iguanas and anything with a pulse. Minutes later, I found Santo Max with a frown that was completely out of place on his happy-go-lucky face.
I learned that his friend's 10-year-old brother had told him, "You can't play with us. You're not white."
My son was 6. He was sad and swelled with disappointment. His feeling wasn't rage. His pain wasn't fear. You see-it's years of experiencing this ongoing discrimination that cements the rage. This was only his first dose of blunt racism. Acts and words of racism happen in parks, playgrounds, supermarkets, schools, and many other facets of life for children of color. Our children constantly absorb the vibrations of a world that judges who they are and what they look like.
I was lucky that I just happened to be there. I just happened to ask the right questions, and my child just happened to find the words to share his pain and sadness. Too often, most Black and brown children do not have the same opportunity to have their pain acknowledged.
Black parents have had a lifetime of the same pain and the endless fears. Racism to a Black child pours down deep into the soil of who they are and what they can be. As many parents of color have lived in the grips of that storm, it may be challenging to not dismiss their children's experiences as just another "normal" part of Black life in America. Under an umbrella of trauma, it can be hard to feel the weight of the rain. This is where educators could be vital to fill that gap.
When I approach law lessons on race through my work with The Little Lawyer, I tell the students a story. I start with Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court case that made systemic racism the law. Together, we learn about the struggle, the fight, and the law. I use educational games and skill-building activities to lean headfirst into addressing challenging issues of skin color and the history of Jim Crow laws. This experiential learning gives the kids a healthy outlet to share their emotional responses and seek solutions.
My son is now 8, and my daughter is 5. I recently decided to share the George Floyd video with them. I found that George Floyd's frightening last moments of life to be a tragically teachable moment for my young children. If schools had still been open, I would have been eager to do the same in the classroom (albeit with parental consent).
"Is it because he is Black?" my son immediately asked. "Can we just stop white officers from policing Black people?" My daughter told me she was scared.
"You have the right to feel afraid, because this is frightening," I reassured her. "You have every right to seek a solution," I told my son. "Let's talk about the moral and legal problem. What do you see?"
It is not up to us to give kids our words or limit their vision. Anti-racism work is about providing facts and law and then empowering children to feel honestly, think critically, and act intentionally.
Teachers, principals, and superintendents: My kids and all students of color in your care are growing up in a world that will challenge them to explain who they are, why they belong, and what their value is. They needed to see that a man like George Floyd lost his life because others could not see his value. They needed to know that they define their own value.
Why did I subject my young children to this? As a Black mother, it was simple. If I don't, others will. If I fail to, others will take them off guard. In this world, they need to be prepared. As a historian, I have always drawn from lessons in history to make informed choices on how to guide my students.
I am fully aware that a day will come when neither I nor my husband will be around to protect our children. Thus, all children need the ugliness in the world to be revealed in a safe and secure setting. That is our job. I am calling on all educators to protest peacefully outside but don't forget to empower your children inside every classroom-even virtual ones.
I believe that as challenges arise, my children will remember their mom's voice pushing them to be strong. They will know that they have a rightful seat at the table. All Black and brown children need to hold that intrinsic power within. Your voice, as educators, can be that voice they hear sheltering them through these surging storms. The time to have these conversations is yesterday.
Allison Matulli is a lawyer and historian. She is the dean of legal literacy of The Little Lawyers, where she works with schools on a P-8 curriculum to empower kids with the law through virtual law programs, teacher professional-development workshops, campus- empowerment consulting, and curriculum design and development. Her upcoming book on landmark legal cases kids must know is due out this fall.