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NJEA announces push for Amistad Curriculum in NJ schools, Cornel West encourages

NJEA announces push for Amistad Curriculum in NJ schools, Cornel West encourages


ATLANTIC CITY — Using Pleasantville schools as a model, the New Jersey Education Association and the state Department of Education will work together on an initiative to better implement the Amistad Curriculum across the state.

“We all know the work of racial justice is hard,” NJEA President Marie Blistan said Friday after the announcement at the union’s annual convention. “We believe that there is more that can and must be done, and we are committed to elevating the importance of that curriculum.”

Legislation approved in 2002 created the Amistad Commission to study, develop and promote programming that would incorporate African-American history into the public education system year-round. The curriculum is named for the ship famously commandeered by African slaves.

Despite being a law for 17 years, many schools have not fully implemented a program, so the NJEA created a task force last year to address the lack of implementation and looked directly to the Leeds Avenue School in Pleasantville, where teacher Tamar Lasure-Owens has been pushing the curriculum in her district.

The announcement of the new partnership followed a keynote speech Friday from Harvard philosophy professor and author Cornel West during the second and final day of the NJEA’s 16th annual convention.

“He didn’t give us a lesson. … He has given us a call to action,” Blistan said. “He has touched on our moral and ethical responsibilities, on our responsibilities not just of being a citizen of the U.S. but of being a human being.”

Educators packed the hall inside the Atlantic City Convention Center where West sermonized about education and social justice.

“When you’re talking about justice, you’re not just jumping into public policy,” West told the crowd.

He said it is existential.

“What type of virtues will you attempt to embody?” he asked.

West spoke about his education, his mother — an educator — as well as race, free speech and the role of an educator. He emphasized the importance of love and tenderness, and a commitment to students over paycheck.

Nearly every seat was filled. Attendees stood lining the edge of the room to hear the provocative speaker who called upon the lessons of authors, musicians and activists before him, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Toni Morrison.

He advised the educators not to live in an echo chamber or look down upon people whom they disagree with or “who are not as woke as you would like them to be.”

“Lift every voice, not lift every echo,” he said. “When you lift your own voice, you learn how to live in the tension. … We’ve got to learn from each other, we’ve got to listen.”

But most importantly, he told teachers to be there 100% for their students.

“Their very presence requires us to give our all,” he said.

New Jersey Commissioner of Education Lamont Repollet said West’s call to “lift every voice” was in line with the message of the Amistad Curriculum because African American history is American history.

“That story needs to be told, to be embedded in everyday discourse about our nation’s history,” Repollet said.

Atlantic City teacher and NJEA member Brenda Brathwaite chaired the NJEA’s Amistad task force and said they are developing a set of guidelines to help schools better implement the curriculum, setting aside funding for schools to do so and working with the Department of Education to make sure schools are held accountable.

Outgoing NJEA Executive Director Ed Richardson said the partnership between the NJEA and the state is being called the Amistad Journey and will start next summer with the first group of educators visiting sites in Africa and the United States.

The DOE’s role in the program will be to develop the criteria to apply for the travel opportunity, create an advisory committee to review proposals and host workshops to inform educators about the program.

“The model is to be more like Leeds Avenue School,” Brathwaite said.

Lasure-Owens said she was “past Cloud 9” after the announcement.

“I have energy, momentum, encouragement and support,” she said. “It’s an honor, and it’s a humbling moment.”

Contact: 609-272-7251

Twitter @clairelowe

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Staff Writer

I began covering South Jersey in 2008 after graduating from Rowan University with a degree in journalism. After seven years at The Current and Gazette newspapers, I joined The Press in 2015. I currently cover education.

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