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Courtesy of the Hollywood Reporter

“It’s not broken. It was built this way. It was built to oppress. It was built to control. It was built for profit. It was built for political gain and power. It lives off of us.” – Ava DuVernay

OPINION | By Vesia Hawkins, founder and blogger of Volume & Light Nashville 

On the weekend leading up to Juneteenth, Black Americans’ Independence Day and my wedding anniversary, I watched with my husband of 25 years, 11 months, and 360 days the full series of Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us on Netflix.

In the days leading up to my turn with the cinematic version of the real-life hell of Kevin, Korey, Antron, Raymond, Yusef all wrongfully accused and imprisoned for raping a young white woman in Central Park, I would read hundreds of tweets and dozens of articles praising the groundbreaking director and talented actors.

Unfortunately, the healthy collection of reviews failed to shield me from a ten-minute crying episode during the third installment of the 4-part series. 

A glutton for emotional punishment, the next day I searched for more articles about the amazing young actors who played The Five and try to find out how the now middle-aged Five are fairing.

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Google in its infinite wisdom led me to Oprah Winfrey Presents: When They See Us Now, where Oprah does what Oprah does best. In the first segment, the veteran journalist and talk show host brilliantly interviewed the magnificent (and large) cast and the second interview blesses the viewing audience with the opportunity to hear directly from the Exonerated 5. 

Forty-somethings Kevin, Korey, Antron, Raymond, Yusef, sat on stage, necks stiff, propped up by the pain that owns real estate on their chests, choking their responses, bullying their movement.

Ava, regal and radiant, sat shoulder-to-shoulder with Oprah during both segments, directing in silence, only offering a word to move the discussion or amplify vital points – and her words will forever be imprinted upon my heart, mind, and soul. 

The conversation turned to Linda Fairstein, the former head of NYC’s sex crime unit in the District Attorney’s office, the woman directly responsible for stealing the lives of Kevin, Korey, Antron, Raymond, Yusef.

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In a rare moment during the two-hour Netflix special, Ava jumps in to educate the audience that the problem neither begins nor rests with Fairstein. That the arrogant prosecutor is merely an agent of a system designed to do to Black and Brown people what it did to the Exonerated 5. 

“It was built to shape our culture in a specific way that kept some people here (hand up high) some people here (hand down low).” – Ava DuVernay


So It Goes With Education

Two weeks after the When They See Us experience, I sat through a Nashville mayoral candidate forum on education and two Democratic presidential candidate forums and a disturbing trend emerged before my very eyes.

The annihilation of Charter schools is the education campaign platform for Democratic hopefuls whether they’re trying to move into the local courthouse or kick Trump out of the White House. It has been determined that stepping on the throats of Charter school students and families is the way to get there.

During the Nashville mayoral forum when asked about choice, popular mayoral candidate Rep. John Ray Clemmons (also a state rep.) responded by saying charter schools have no place in our city before a reluctant acknowledgment of the city’s great charter schools.

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Interestingly, he is celebrated for being the only candidate who is a public school parent –  like the thousands of public charter school parents he dissed – with ease. Troubling to see zip code privilege work its magic on such an important stage. It tricks “progressives” into feeling good about “choosing” public schools, providing them a righteous cover to advance their efforts to push out anything that threatens the system that was built in their favor. 

It was built to shape our culture in a specific way that kept some people here (hand up high) some people here (hand down low). 

And 21 Democratic Presidential Candidates Agree

“Fully, 60 percent of all young black men who drop out of high school will go to jail. This should disgrace this country. But it does not…” – Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

We are in a dangerous time when people running for president are too chicken, detached, or bought to campaign against a system that works for some and outright harms others. I don’t expect presidential candidates to take ideological stances as it relates to educational options and solutions, and while charter schools are not the answer to decades of systemic malfeasance against Black and Brown children, these public schools are, without a doubt, a viable solution. Still, the current crop of “progressive” candidates refuse to recognize the value of great charter schools and have, in grand fashion, abandoned charter school families and parents desiring and deserving of additional options.

I get it. To accept charter schools as an option for families is to admit system failure, an affront to teachers’ unions. However, the presidential pandering to unions alienates families – the majority of investors in this multi-billion dollar entity called public education.

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  “It Lives Off Of Us”

After successfully destroying the young lives of Kevin, Korey, Antron, Raymond, and Yusef, Linda Fairstein enjoyed immense success as a best-selling mystery writer – despite or because of her “Central Park 5” work. Fairstein understood the value this society assigns to black lives. As a prosecutor, she knew the criminal justice system’s darkest secrets and how to make it work in her favor. Fairstein knew the boys and their families wouldn’t have the resources to fight. She was confident in the knowledge that the system would easily dispose of those 5 black bodies, as versions of the system had done since 1619.

Similarly, union chiefs and politicians promote a “pro-public education” instead of equity and excellence understand what this means for traditionally underserved students. Yet, they have chosen to fight to protect the system, to protect what works for them. Despite the costs to Black and Brown lives.

I have seen the dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is treehouses and Cub Scouts. The Dream smells likes peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies.

Enjoy your Independence Day.


I am Vesia Wilson-Hawkins. I’m a former Metro Nashville Public Schools student, parent and staffer, and I’m here to tell the story of how and why our public schools must be better. Our babies cannot wait.

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