Equity: Unpack the Backpacks

Fight ‘equity fatigue’ to lighten the load for children

Verjeana M. Jacobs

Stuffed backpacks can appear heavier than the children who lug them to school each day. What’s in those backpacks? Books, homework, maybe lunch, maybe a favorite thingamajig — and so much more.

As a now “recovering” school board member and a retired corrections professional, I’ve learned a lot about what’s in those backpacks. The 1.8-mile physical connection between the former-elementary-school-turned-school-board office and the department of corrections in my experience may have been serendipitous but the truth of that connection is part of my reality.

Two very vivid scenes collide in my head: First, children swaying side to side, leaning forward, trying to balance all of the “stuff” stacked on their backs. Second, the surreal thunderous clanking sound of heavy doors opening and closing at the jail.

Socioeconomic status, race, gender, trauma, and the all-too-often interference of political structures weigh heavily on the backs of America’s children. These are the complex barriers to successful outcomes. These barriers must be unpacked.

While hosting an annual back-to-school fair where the district gives excited students backpacks filled with school supplies and giveaways, I envision the children who are weighted down by the perils of poverty, racial inequity, broken families, substance abuse, trauma, and hopelessness.

According to a 2015 Huffington Post article, in 2006, 31 percent of America’s students attended schools in “high-poverty” districts. By 2013, however, this number jumped to over 49 percent, according to an analysis of U.S. Census estimates from the nonprofit EdBuild.

According to the National Survey of Children’s Health, nearly 35 million U.S. children have experienced one or more types of childhood trauma. That’s almost half of the nation’s children.

As educational equity leaders, scholars and advocates, we too carry backpacks. After all, this is our life’s work. We often eat, sleep, and breathe the impacts of poverty, race, trauma, discipline, failure of access, failure of understanding, issues of teacher effectiveness, and political discourse around policies and practices. Our backpacks are full, and far too many times don’t stand under the pressure.

This work on behalf of children is often exhausting and sometimes anguishing. I recently read an article entitled “Equity Fatigue and How it Affects Leaders of Color.” It describes how, after months of training and discussion about issues of systemic injustices, inequities, racism, etc., a participant joked, “Can we just do something simple like learn how to write a grant proposal?”

This same article coined the idea of equity fatigue as “equatigue” and defined it as “the feeling of exhaustion, frustration, and occasional hopelessness experienced by systemically marginalized individuals and communities after prolonged periods of thinking and talking about the oppression they face.”

This also reminded me of a recent conversation I had with a colleague for whom I have much respect, who asked “But how are we inspired, Verjeana?” It is laborious enough to acknowledge societal ills, but seeing its negative influence on children can be overwhelming.

It is sometimes difficult to find inspiration when bombarded constantly with the ugly truth of systemic inequities. However, multiple bursts of encouragement, evidence of change, inspiring stories, and camaraderie towards the shared goal of working to ensure the promise of each child, gives energy and inspiration to keep us motivated, to keep us going.

School boards, superintendents, educators, and education advocates across this nation are the MVPs with the will, skill, and courage to eliminate barriers for children. School boards with their governance authority have the capacity to create change and save lives.

The brightest kid with the best curriculum cannot learn in the face of persistent obstacles. To save a child’s life, we must unpack the backpacks. Children are shaped by their experiences at home and in school. We can help them build on their experience as a prize of their future rather than as a deficit. School experience significantly impacts the life of a child.

I hope that during the holiday season you took a much-needed break. As you come back rejuvenated, know that you are not alone. We are in this with you. We are ready to do our best work by unpacking children’s backpacks, alleviating barriers, and lessening the load so they can stand firm, unwavering and steadfast in their resolve. Lighten the backpacks through policies and practices that ensure equitable allocation of resources designed to provide access and opportunity for every child.

Verjeana M. Jacobs (vjacobs@nsba.org) is NSBA’s chief of equity programming and member services.

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