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What We Can Learn from Black Communities to Thrive this School Year

Part 2

By Leah Q. Peoples and Lindsey Foster

2020 has been a challenging year with event after event competing to claim the top spot for worst 2020 memory. For Black Americans the toll of 2020 is unimaginable. As Black Americans face disproportionate health outcomes, treatment, and death as it relates to COVID-19, they also encounter an inescapable debate about whether Black lives are worthy of humanity, protection, and care. Current survey data reveals that public opinion on whether Black lives matter and the legitimacy of anti-black racism is shifting positively. While more Americans come to terms with systemic racism, specifically anti-black racism, Black Americans are witnessing the usual public lynchings, killings, harassment and “Karen”-like behavior in 2020. Like Ida B. Wells’ groundbreaking documentation of lynchings, this intense visibility of anti-Blackness within and beyond COVID-19 is critical and simultaneously exhausting. 

Despite these challenges, everyday people and families must find ways to continue with everyday life, and schooling is no exception. (Un)Fortunately, we can turn to the vast experience of Black communities for wisdom on thriving and surviving challenging times. Previously, we published this blog piece that introduced what we can learn from Black communities in this moment. This blog continues that conversation with three key lessons that help us navigate the 2020-21 school year.


There were thousands of Black people in the antebellum South who had a desire to be educated and understood that their education was directly tied to their liberation. Freedom Schools, created by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), were established to educate Black Mississippians during the Jim Crow era. SNCC developed curricula that included political and civic engagement, the history of racial discrimination in America, and Black literature. These schools, which were formally and informally established and run, served to liberate young Black people and as an entryway to larger liberation and resistance movements such as the NAACP and Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Many Black folks believed that their freedom necessitated Black schools run by the Black community. This began the notion of “each one, teach one” wherein as people become educated, they pass that knowledge on to others to create a domino effect of learning. 

When Black Americans were barred entry into predominantly white educational institutions, the community schools effort expanded into the creation and sustainment of our own schools, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). The first HBCU, Cheyney University in Pennsylvania, was established and opened in 1837, long before the legal eradication of chattel slavery. At their height, there were over one hundred active HBCUs in America, primarily located in the South. Historically Black institutions were a federally-funded continuation of the movement sparked by enslaved Black people to educate themselves on their own terms, with curricula and professors that centered their experiences and celebrated their Blackness. 

Three Lessons

Education plays a vital role in building and sustaining young people who will transform our society into an equitable, just, and free world. Black communities literally used literacy to escape to freedom, to forge their own freedom papers, to build a Black Wall Street, and collectively pull their resources together during Black Reconstruction. These historical moments teach us the following three important lessons:

Everybody Link Up

There is an African proverb that states if you want to go fast, go alone and if you want to go far, go together. We have all heard it before: it takes a village to raise a child, and that includes during a pandemic. Black communities have formed formal and informal schools throughout history. These schools directly responded to the needs of Black communities and their journey towards freedom during their respective time periods. It is wise to build this same kind of informal learning community in addition to the curriculum that your school provides. Students, families, and parents will have new needs when it comes to supporting education during a pandemic. 

Aim to build a diverse group of people who can support these needs in people’s respective capacities. This is a time for friends, aunties and uncles, grandmas, neighbors, and play cousins to build a solid village around pandemic education. Assess the talents, skills, availability, and resources within your community and determine how your group can move equitably. If you are a white or affluent parent, don’t hoard resources and exacerbate educational inequities. Black communities move collectively as opposed to moving according to individual needs. Create a group of support that is supplemental to your public school, prioritizes the needs of the most marginalized in the community, and supports both students and families.

Each One Teach One

Do not underestimate the power of one person or the knowledge, skills, and wisdom that one person may have to share with youth. The phrase “Each One, Teach One” emerged due to the prohibition of enslaved Black people from reading and writing. Black people, often those who worked in slave masters’ homes and overheard lessons, would share the knowledge they accumulated in secret and pass it along to one another in informal underground schools. Black history tells us to consider the ways that we can leverage our wealth of knowledge to collectively educate students in our community. This will be even more important as schools remain or return to remote learning and if schools fail to provide adequate resources for Black children to learn at home. Other students, parents, grandparents, cousins, neighbors, family, and community members can compile their strengths, availability, and resources to develop a plan to educate students. Establishing a supportive community or coalition can help ensure Black children receive the education they deserve.

Learning Takes Place Where We Create the Space

James D Anderson’s book on Black education in the south provides evidence that Black communities compiled money and resources to create schools for the community. These schools were not bound by today’s conceptions of schools. Learning took place at the base of trees, in homes, in secret places, or community built schoolhouses. Furthermore, we know that the world is a classroom and that education does not have to look like the traditional factory model of schooling where children go to school and sit in rows. In fact, progressive and equity leaning approaches to teaching and learning, such as competency-based education, demonstrate that learning can happen anywhere and that it should. Consider what makes your home environment, communities, and more the perfect classroom for students and use that to your advantage to help students learn.

The outlined lessons concretize how communities can support each other during these continued moments of change. Adopting and adapting these lessons will provide our most vulnerable young people with resources to thrive academically while continuing to learn in remote environments. Students, families, and education stakeholders can forge joint, communal efforts to successfully and collaboratively create equitable experiences where young people can co-create knowledge while sharing in non-traditional educational spaces.

Part 3: Focus, Resistance & Joy: Lessons Learned from Black Communities, and Education for Liberation

See more blogs from 2020

Leah Q. Peoples

Assistant Director of Research-to-Practice Partnerships & Community Research