This is a contributing Self narrative post from Maya Martin, the Executive Director of DC PAVE, an exciting new organization working in the family engagement space, opening up systems in the Washington D.C. area. If you're interested in contributing to the Open Blog, e-mail here.
When my parents separated, I was eight years old and with the end of their marriage came a new neighborhood and school. I really liked the students at my school; the teacher and I, however, did not hit it off. She generally looked scared of us, she always looked like she just rolled out of bed, and she didn’t seem prepared for what she was teaching. Naturally, the behavior in the class quickly deteriorated and one day, I shared that until she started teaching, I’d be reading my book in the corner (I know, I know).
She didn’t say anything in that moment but later demoted my reading group. I had been in the advanced group where we read chapter books. Now, I was told to go and join a new group. I was surprised, and hadn’t noticed before, that most of the kids in this group were Black and Latino. The advanced group was all White and Asian and…me. I was surprised that my new group wasn’t reading chapter books. I remember that being the first time that something seemed off to me about the way people are treated based on race. I was pretty ready to give her another piece of my mind but I held my tongue. I went home to my mother for help and she told me that it was my job to advocate for myself. I remember her words to this day: “I’m not always going to be here to help you. If the teacher isn’t doing what’s right, then you need to say something.”
So, I made an appointment with my principal, Dr. Adams, and legs barely touching the floor, I shared my concerns with her. What I remember most from that conversation is that Dr. Adams listened to me, intently. I finished with my call to her, “You need to come in there and see for yourself! She doesn’t know what she’s doing!” Dr. Adams came into the classroom daily after that to do what I now know was observing and modeling for our teacher. The teacher got a bit better but it was never great. We left for winter break and when we came back, we learned we had a new teacher, Ms. White.
Ms. White was an engaging and rigorous teacher who wound up staying with us from the second half of third grade all the way through fifth grade – and made such an impact on my life that years later, she came to my high school graduation. When she started, I remember her asking me, “Maya, what do you think of what we’re doing in class?” I told her that I really liked the way she taught but that I thought the reading groups were unfair. She asked me why. I responded that the teacher had taken me out of the advanced reading group and that the advanced group had the better books and there were no black or Latino kids in it. She paused and had a pretty frustrated look. I was worried that I’d offended her. The next day, she retested the whole class. I was moved back to the advanced reading group (and back to chapter books - thank goodness!) but so were other black and Latino students- ALL of the groups had been rearranged. Ms. White was not only a great teacher because of the quality and rigor of her instruction but because she was open to the voices of her students.
I will never know what happened to my original third grade teacher. I honestly can’t even remember her name. But what I always remember from that situation and what that situation taught me for life is that I have power. And because I felt the power to advocate, and my school was open to my voice, we got a great teacher, Ms. White.
My first experience with power, and at such a young age, set the stage for me. I was fortunate that I had a great principal whose door was open to me, the other kids in the building, and our parents. And that wasn’t the first or last time I advocated for myself in my education. I wanted better for myself but I also wanted better for everyone and always felt that my peers didn’t realize the power of their own voice. Talk to the students in a school and they can ALL tell you which are the terrible teachers - easily - and why they don’t like a certain class. But they don’t get to tell it to the people that matter. Because I felt the power of my own voice and advocacy, my classmates and I saw change.
I have often been struck by how many Black people my age say neither they nor their parents felt power in their education, that they felt the system was always closed to their voices and therefore, getting the education they deserved wasn’t possible. I had to look critically at my background to figure out why my experience has been so different since we share a racial identity. In part, it was because my mother was my strongest advocate AND taught me how to self-advocate. But it is also my privilege in who raised me - my parents are well-educated and know how to navigate the systems to which they exposed me. But it shouldn’t just be those of us that are lucky enough to grow up with power given to and expected of us that know how to use the voice and power that we all have within. And it’s only when we open our education system to the voices of all of our children and families that we will realize the promise and power of education.
Maya Martin: In April 2016, I founded an organization, PAVE (Parents Amplifying Voices in Education), that reimagines our education system to be created WITH parents and not just for them because all parents have power, often they just don’t feel empowered to exercise it. I was inspired to found PAVE because I believe in the power of parent voice. At PAVE, we want all parents to know that they have the power to transform the lives of not just their child but all of the children in their community.