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Photo from Katie Pak

Students at Penn’s Graduate School of Education participated in the Black Lives Matter Week of Action this month as part of a city-wide effort among Philadelphia teachers and students. Their goal was to raise awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement through classroom education and community dialogue.

Last year, Philadelphia teachers held a Week of Action to educate students on the Black Lives Matter movement and the issues that BLM is concerned with. This year’s Week of Action has extended from Philadelphia to New York, Los Angeles, and other major cities. 

Two BLM Week of Action events were held at Penn. On Feb. 3, the Penn LGBT Center hosted a conversation with LGBTQ youth about race, gender and sexuality — the week’s first official event. 

“We had high school students, and we also had Penn students there for discussion,” Monique Perry, who graduated from Penn GSE in December, said. “The feedback was that people really enjoyed that conversation.” 

There was also a Feb. 6 screening at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts of "Precious Knowledge," a 2011 documentary about high school students and teachers in Arizona campaigning against the Arizona Department of Education’s successful attempt to ban an ethnic studies program at a school. This past December, the ban was blocked and ruled “unconstitutional and racially motivated.”

Besides encouraging Penn students to participate in the Week of Action, GSE student organizers tabled in their student lounge all week to sell BLM t-shirts, distribute flyers and journal articles, and encourage students to write down suggestions for Penn. 

Perry said that she and the other student organizers received support from the GSE administration and met with GSE Dean Pam Grossman to discuss the Week of Action.

GSE lecturer and Interim Chief of GSE Student Affairs Office Ann Tiao wrote in an emailed statement that the school is “impressed" with the Black Lives Matter Week of Action.

“They have deployed their skills as educators to connect and prepare curriculum,” Tiao wrote. “We are proud at Penn GSE of the passionate and committed response of our students on social justice issues.” 

The GSE students also asked Penn faculty to sign a statement of support for the week of action and encouraged professors to incorporate BLM principles into their coursework for that week.

Perry, who is an organizer for the Philadelphia chapter of Black Lives Matter and a member of the Caucus of Working Educators, said that she and the other Penn organizers chose to focus on GSE because of the impact that many of its graduates will have on future public school students.

“We’re training teachers – people who are going out in the field, who are going to be talking amongst K-12 students,” Perry said. “It’s important to discuss the things that they’re saying.” 

Perry added that these classroom discussions are also important because they enable students to talk about issues like injustice and inequality, which may be affecting them personally.

“[It’s] a platform for students and educators to talk about things that are happening in their lives – so they’re not pretending these things aren’t happening, and then they come to class and they’re separate,” Perry said. “These things that are happening, including injustices and inequality, those are things we can utilize in our conversations.” 

The week’s events were sponsored by the Caucus of Working Educators, an activist group within Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which is the union that represents educators and other workers in Philadelphia public schools. Though the Caucus of Working Educators is part of the PFT, the Week of Action was not sponsored by the PFT, but independently organized by caucus members.

Still, third-year GSE student Katie Pak, who helped promote BLM Week of Action at Penn, said that the GSE student organizers “did not go far enough” and wants to see bigger changes such as an “institutional commitment” to discussing the issues of “oppression and structural racism.” 

“[We are] encouraging everybody at GSE to actually be reflective and action-oriented and strongly in favor of doing something for social transformation,” Pak said. “We want it to be an integral part of Penn GSE and Penn’s life and culture of academia.” 

Perry said she hopes that events like the BLM Week of Action will lead to activist efforts that go beyond “one week in February.”

“The goal is to make sure that this conversation moves past today – that if we say that we care about social justice, we take tangible steps towards that,” Perry said. “I think that’s one large goal – to make sure this conversation doesn’t just stop here.”