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KIPP Tulsa students attend private screening of Harriet.
Published 11/18/2019 | Reading Time 2 min 14 sec
By Don Parker, Executive Director of KIPP Tulsa
I recently accompanied ninety students, and staff of color from KIPP Tulsa University Prep High School, to a private showing of Harriet: the biopic of the life of Harriet Tubman.
It was a moving, although uncomfortable, experience to watch people that look like me [a White person] treat people that look like my movie-going companions as less than human. I know based on my study of social justice that the violence in the movie was significantly understated, and yet it was still shocking.
Today, we would not tolerate the treatment of animals the way that Blacks were treated 180-years-ago.
While watching the movie, it was on my mind that this was not some faraway place long, long ago. Here in the United States of America, chattel slavery was my great-grandmother’s generation.
The persistent effects of slavery and its descendant structural racism were sitting right there in the room with me, present in my privilege, and in the disadvantage: piled onto my young companions. I wondered what those students were thinking of me as I sat amongst them.
After the movie, Alvin, a KIPP student, looked at me and said that he had cried several times during the movie. There was no disdain being sent my way in Alvin’s expression, just sadness. I shared back with him that I had cried as well. I think my relationship with Alvin moved forward more in-that-moment than it would have in a year without the experience we had shared.
I wondered what the impact on our community would be if we hosted a regular program of confronting the shameful part of our past through movies and books together.
Would a group of Black and White adults be willing to sit down and watch Twelve Years a Slave or read Frederick Douglass together and then discuss what they saw and how it made them feel?
In the aftermath of the movie, I wondered: Should I be thinking of freedom from oppression as something that occurs in waves?
Those students, sitting in the movie with me, have the benefit of their great-great-grandparents breaking the chains of slavery. They are the beneficiaries of their great-grandparents and grandparents ridding us of Jim Crow laws. They are better off as a result of their parents’ generation having loosened the still present stranglehold of racism.
I wondered what was next.
What is the wave of oppression that these students will shake loose? Could it be exposing the corrosive effects of structural racism or the accelerating impacts of racial abuse through economic inequality? Or maybe, this will be the generation that unveils and tears down the tragic root of so many other disparities: inequality in education and economic opportunity.
I have had the honor of volunteering alongside the staff of KIPP Tulsa while they fight the tragic condition of the academic options in North Tulsa for fourteen years. The KIPP middle-school staff run the most robust educational opportunity in North Tulsa by far as measured by either academic achievement or growth. The KIPP high school staff are following in the footsteps of their more mature middle school partners. I am very proud of their work and honored to be a part of it. Together, they are creating the Harry and Harriet Tubmans of tomorrow.
Don Parker is a retired technology and financial services industry executive, student of government and social justice through Harvard University’s Extension School, and Executive Director of KIPP Tulsa, a Tulsa Public Schools sponsored charter school.