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Pittsburgh Educators March For Equity, Justice And Condemn Oppression Of Black People

Pittsburgh Public Schools’ Colfax K-8 Principal Tamara Sanders-Woods spoke to a crowd gathered on the front steps of her school Monday morning, asking for white accountability.

“That means interrupt something, say something, and do something,” she said. “Every time that you sit in silence and allow your family, friends, colleagues, doctors, police officers, judges, lawyers to live in a space where it’s OK to be racist and perpetuate policies and systems that oppress black people and children, you are an accessory to crimes.”

Educators, students, and district leaders filled at least two city blocks as they marched from Sterrett 6-8 in Point Breeze to Colfax in Squirrel Hill chanting “Black Lives Matter,” “We want equity,” and “No Justice, No Peace.”

The march began at 8:46 a.m. George Floyd was pinned down by a Minneapolis police officer for 8 minutes and 46 seconds when he died. At the steps of Colfax, they lit candles and sat or knelt in silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds before singing "Lift Every Voice And Sing."

Credit Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA
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Tamara Sanders-Woods, left, and her son Ean Woods, right. The two led the march from Point Breeze to Squirrel Hill Monday.

Sanders-Woods and her 12-year-old son Ean Woods were at the front of the march. Sanders-Woods said she was overwhelmed, outraged and “tired of talking to my sons about what to do and what not to do in situations.”

“Then I thought about my role as an educator and what I can do to hold my white friends and colleagues accountable because the fight is going to be won with white action. We have tried. We have marched, we have kneeled. We don’t hold the cards to some of that power and until our white colleagues and friends start speaking up and interrupting some things we won’t get anywhere, you’ll see again in this same space,” she said.

She said all students need to learn consistently and regularly about the contributions of black people.

“It’s not until then when we change the narrative of what they are seeing, the biases, then they will begin to understand why black people matter,” she said.

PPS Superintendent Anthony Hamlet issued a statement last week condemning police brutality and racism.

“I am confident our students have what it takes to persevere and end this social trauma,” he said. “Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, they have proven themselves resilient, resourceful, and empathetic. As we prepare to graduate the class of 2020, I know they will lead us against divisions caused by racism and bigotry and create a more just world for all.”  

PPS Board President Sylvia Wilson said it’s important to support students and have honest conversations with students. She echoed Hamlet’s words, who said at the start of the march that racism is learned.

Credit Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA
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Protesters fill the stairs and the street outside of Colfax K-8 in Squirrel Hill.

“Kids get along. It isn’t until they’re older with things that people have told them that things change,” she said.

Pam Harbin, who represents Squirrel Hill and Point Breeze as a PPS school board member, said she was proud of the educators who stood up for black lives.

“My hope is, as a next step, we engage in conversations and work together – students, parents, educators, and administration – being intentional about dismantling the systemic institutional racism and oppression that permeates throughout our district, even when, especially when, it’s uncomfortable,” she said.

Kenneth Huston, president of Pennsylvania’s NAACP chapter, thanked educators who teach black children "that they are somebody. That they are important." He prayed for educators and for an end of racism and distributed voter registration forms.

Sanders-Woods asked the marchers to support black businesses and donate to causes fighting for justice.

“Don’t just walk, be about that walk. In your spaces, in your jobs, in our schools,” she said. “You should be outraged. You should be ready to do your part.”

When she started at Colfax six years ago, she said there was only one African-American teacher. Now there are 10 black professionals including a social worker and five black paraprofessionals.

“You have to do the work,” she said.

She says was overwhelmed by the turnout Monday, and now she needs to see action.

“I need to see it demonstrated in their policies in their own schools, in their classrooms, how they hold themselves and their teachers accountable,” she said.