After 10 people were killed in a shooting at a Buffalo, N.Y., supermarket on May 14 by a gunman who espoused white-supremacist views and targeted Black shoppers, Buffalo public schools associate superintendent Fatima Morrell’s work took on even more urgency.
“For all our children, we have to unpack white supremacy, as hard as that is to talk about,” says Morrell, he associate superintendent for culturally and linguistically responsive initiatives in the district. “It is important that every single child receives an anti-racist curriculum in the Buffalo public schools, and I’m going to continue to push that.”
In 2020, believing that every child should learn to value different cultures and hear an unvarnished version of U.S. history, Morrell spearheaded the creation of the district’s Emancipation Curriculum, which aims to promote equity in schools, spark conversations about the legacy of racism in the U.S., and offer students diverse perspectives and more lessons about the historic contributions of Black, Latino and indigenous communities. The curriculum includes a range of lessons for each grade level, teaching students about Mexican-American labor leader César Chávez, the history of Juneteenth, and the role of Native American boarding schools in suppressing indigenous culture.
During the last year, conservative groups and lawmakers have taken aim at Morrell’s curriculum and others like it and have sought to restrict how race is discussed in school—efforts that free-speech advocates see as an attempt to whitewash history and prevent educators from teaching students about concepts like systemic racism.
Morrell spoke with TIME about why she created the curriculum and how her work continues today.
You first implemented the Emancipation Curriculum in the 2020-21 school year. What led you to create this curriculum?
We had been doing some work around equity and diversity in our curriculum to begin with. But then, when George Floyd died, it kind of pivoted. We wanted to create a curriculum that addressed systemic oppression and racism and Black Lives Matter.
It was not something we could ignore. We wanted to create some foundational teaching strategies to center joy, but also equity, empathy and cultural relevance in the lives of our students and to edify Black and brown voices in the curriculum.
We know that our students weren’t getting information about who they truly are, their greatness, to begin with. In the Buffalo public schools, teachers are about 77% white. Conversely, our students are about [80%] of color. So we wanted to make sure our teachers were able to include the history and culture of the Black and brown kids. People will say, ‘We need to have more Black teachers in front of the students teaching.’ And it’s like, OK, I like that concept. But we’ve got great teachers right now who are white, and they can teach well if they are given the tools, resources and professional learning that they need, and if we create a philosophy with them about how you can educate Black and brown children.
What are some of the topics that students are learning now through this curriculum that might have been overlooked previously?
Even from the earliest ages of pre-kindergarten, they’re learning things like the importance of indigenous people’s culture. That was not prioritized across our district before the Emancipation Curriculum.
We know that we don’t talk a lot about African culture in our schools. So we added, at our youngest ages, The Spider Weaver, a book that focuses on the history of Ghana and African traditions around fabrics and clothing.
When you think about edifying children’s voices, one of the things that we like to show is, it was young people, like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, [who were leaders] during the 1960s civil rights movement. We say to young people: Edify your voice around advocacy for your own change. You don’t need to be combative, you don’t need to be violent, because your mind is your weapon, and you can use your mind and your voice for social change. That’s what they’re trying to do. Prior to this, we didn’t talk about student voice. Those are the kinds of things that the Emancipation Curriculum brought forward.
Have you had people from other school districts reach out about the curriculum, asking for advice about trying to implement something similar?
I do get calls. I can’t take them all. Folks say, ‘Can I use this?’ And it’s free, it’s public. But I do give them advice: Train your teachers first. Don’t just dive in. See where your school board is, see where your superintendent is on this, before you just roll into the lessons.
We’re in a different time now, so you need to make sure you have the support of your board members and your superintendent. And then you can move through with starting to unpack this.
But I always say to districts, just because they say no, don’t stop. Because that’s part of the problem—many people don’t want to be problematized by systemic racism. And your conversations around systemic racism or elevating Black and brown cultures, they’re scary. So I tell them: Don’t stop, but find your allies. Who are your allies who will help you to move this through?
What might be different if all students had access to a curriculum like this one?
If all students had access, you would see more peaceful communities. You would see more brotherhood and sisterhood across racial lines. You would see more empathy, compassion, less judgment. You would see students edified, knowing they can speak out. They’re confident because they know their history and know where they came from. You would see people who respect multiple views.
When we learn everything about European history and culture, we come to value that. We need to have the history and culture of African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinx and indigenous communities — have their cultures also centered. And then you will value that as well.
What do you make of the fact that there are efforts across the country right now to restrict how teachers discuss racism and white supremacy in class, possibly making it harder for teachers to discuss the Buffalo shooting with their students?
I think we have to stop the political grandstanding. Everything that is taught is not critical race theory. Historical truths and facts are historical truths and facts. It is our history as one nation. The atrocities that occurred and continue to be perpetrated upon people of color have long standing roots in enslavement.
Our young people, especially our white children, need to be educated around this, so that they don’t end up being like this young man who committed this horrific act. They need to be educated.
Another thing that’s extremely dangerous is telling us what we can read and not read. We’re being censored in the classrooms, in schools, around what we can let our kids know. That’s not a democratic principle. It’s not freedom.
Does the Buffalo shooting emphasize why an anti-racist education, like the Emancipation Curriculum, matters?
It really does. Right now, for all children, no matter what their race is, we have to do a kind of reset from this tragedy. We can’t shy away from the facts of the case. For all our children, we have to unpack white supremacy, as hard as that is to talk about.
The Emancipation Curriculum is very important. It is very important for us to humanize people of color in the eyes of the world, because I see a common thread with all these killings of unarmed Black and brown men and women and children, and this racist attack, and several others that have occurred around race.
With these attacks occurring over and over again, we have to start reprogramming our young people, and teaching them about humanity and love for one another. We need to talk about what we have in common, that we’re all special, that we ought to be treated fairly, and make sure our students know that at the youngest ages possible.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.