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As a network serving predominantly Black and Latinx students, it is critical that we reflect on the role race plays in our cities, our schools, and our country. You can read Achievement First Co-CEO and Superintendent Doug McCurry’s powerful posts on the subject here and here

In 2019, Achievement First adopted new core values, the first of which is Lead for Racial Equity. We describe that value as follows: AF exists to address the legacy of racism in education. We look at ourselves first. We reflect and talk about the role race plays in our work, experiences, and decisions. We strive to be constantly anti-racist in our words and actions.

This is the second in a series of posts about how Achievement First is living this value. Today, Director of Advocacy Jacquelyn Martell shares her thoughts on the importance of living this value as we respond to COVID-19.

When this pandemic first reached the US, I remember hearing that it would be a “great equalizer”. As a woman of color, a New Yorker, and as someone whose work is dedicated to advocacy, it’s easy for me to see the deep untruth in that statement. To make it is to misunderstand why inequality exists in the first place. That answer is the reason why I do this work every day.

Here in New York, COVID-19 has more clearly exposed long-standing problems. We knew we had racial disparities and socioeconomic disparities that are so vast in relation to our communities of color—and COVID-19 has shed further light on this. A lot of our families are essential workers and many others have lost their jobs. Many parents and guardians are shift and low-wage workers who are forced to make daily decisions in regard to their safety to feed their families. Only one in five Black and Brown adults have jobs that allow them to work from home. And if they fall ill, they will need to go to our public hospitals where care isn’t equally rendered.

These disparities are not unique to this pandemic. They have been going on for quite some time. You can see it when you look at Black women’s mortality rate in childbirth, or in the various studies that show hospitals underestimate and under-treat pain in women of color. You can see it in the under-resourced public housing complexes in New York, in which families of color are disproportionately likely to live.

There’s been a lot of coverage about the disparate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color. There’s been far less coverage of why. The root cause is both hard to swallow and easy to identify. It’s the pink elephant in too many rooms: systemic racism. It’s the force that keeps so many in communities of color in poverty, and the various systems of oppression that play into that. Here in New York, we live in a city that is largely still segregated. The chasm between the advantaged and the disadvantaged when it comes to schooling, housing, employment and resources breaks down, as it always has, along racial and socio-economic lines.

To me, this is both incredibly hard and incredibly motivating. Achievement First exists to address the legacy of inequity in education in this country. That inequity has been a tool of oppression used against people of color, and it’s one that I’m committed to upending. It’s why Lead For Racial Equity is one of our organization’s guiding core values. As the director of advocacy here, my job is to fight for what our families need and deserve and to fight against the status quo.

Some of this is through action specific to this pandemic—through calling thousands of families to make sure they’re connected to the internet during this time, and participating on the committee that manages our Team & Family Support Fund for families most financially impacted by coronavirus. Beyond this pandemic, it’s about ameliorating the inequities that underpin it all. It’s about connecting parents and families to elected officials so their realities are seen, their concerns heard, and these long-standing issues addressed. It’s about connecting families with resources for the Census and ensuring they’re not disenfranchised by voter suppression so that they can make themselves heard.

COVID-19 has given me a sense of urgency, and it’s really made me reflect on my work, and on everything we need to do to advocate for our families and communities. The stakes are so high, and it can feel like too much. And, I am immensely proud of our Achievement First family—of what we’re able to accomplish when we mobilize, come together, and get things done. Leading for Racial Equity is always and especially now of paramount importance. It is clearer than ever that lives depend on it. COVID-19 was never going to be a great equalizer. But it can be a call to action.

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