Join Me in My Refusal to Lose

Like many young boys of color, I faced obstacles as I matriculated through schools. I am Black and an immigrant and was subjected to all the biases and discrimination that are rampant across our communities. I was an English language learner and was put in the basement of my middle school. The school separated English learners and special education students from the mainstreamed population.

I was spat on and bullied. My high school made attempts to track me, blocking me from the most advanced courses. Nevertheless, I prevailed and graduated at the top of my class. I am grateful for my parents, the teachers who understood my potential, the support I received from mentors and the social connections I acquired.

Nearly ten years ago, I co-wrote an article, Beating the Odds in Urban Schools. In it, my co-author and I described the protective factors students need to graduate from high school. We shared that gateway protective factors (e.g., social connections, parental resilience, concrete supports) enable young people to overcome barriers presented by poverty, low expectations, family instability and other adversities. We also shared that as important as any one protective factor may be, students succeed when protective factors operate synergistically in their lives.

For a long time, I’ve pondered what I think is an important question: “Can mutually reinforcing protective factors be created at a community level?” I believe that the answer is “yes.”

With these thoughts in mind, I introduce you to We Refuse to Lose, a series produced by Education First featuring cradle-to-career community partnerships in Buffalo, Chattanooga, Dallas, the Rio Grande Valley and Tacoma. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been supporting the P-16 to workforce efforts in these communities since early 2019. The five community profiles will present the cross-sector work people are doing to address disparities in educational opportunity and outcomes for students from populations historically oppressed and marginalized.

The first profile featuring Tacoma is coming out next week. Each month through May 2021, we will publish additional content that explores communities’ efforts to achieve greater racial justice.

The series will make no bones about the fact that systemic racism is the root cause of inequities, including opportunity gaps. The community profiles will present the root causes with clarity and include examples such as redlining, the practice of denying people of color home loans; restrictive covenants that prevented whites from selling homes to people of color; federal-and state-subsidized white flight to the suburbs; medical experimentation on Black men and women; racially isolated schools and low expectations for students within them; and false narratives about boys and young men of color resulting from white supremacy.

The series makes clear that if there is to be justice for people of color in America—more equitable systems in education, healthcare, criminal justice and housing, for instance—Americans must not only understand but also own the truth of what the country has done to people of color. They must resolve to undo systems of oppression and address the toll they continue to exact on human lives.

The publications will also present what for me and my colleagues has been an important learning: The community-based entities or backbone organizations that convene partners, build coalitions and coordinate action are uniquely positioned to advocate for, support and implement systems changes (or dismantle unjust systems) that improve opportunity for Black and Latino students. This is precisely because making inroads against the most complex, difficult and painful American challenge, undoing the effects of a 400-year history of racial oppression, requires all hands on deck. White hands. Black hands. Brown hands. Business. Industry. Higher Education. K-12. Early Learning. Nonprofits. Parents. Citizens. Students. Philanthropy.

Why “We Refuse to Lose” as the title for the series? Tafona Ervin says in the Tacoma profile we will release next week that “Blacks in America have always had the mentality that they have to fight, persist and be resilient against systems of oppression. Giving up is not an option.” I hear her words echoing the wisdom of Cesar Chavez in his expression of the importance of collective action: “The people united will never be defeated.”

Chavez, like Ervin, doesn’t sugarcoat the reality that because there is struggle, there is also opposition. Neither suggest victory is at hand because the struggle is long. Rather, they choose to persist and fight: Losing or being defeated by that opposition is not an option. Losing more generations of Black and brown students to racial oppression in its many forms—housing and employment discrimination, inequitable access to quality teaching and healthcare, mass incarceration and state-sponsored violence—is unacceptable.

I hope you’ll join me not only in anticipating this series with eagerness but also in opposition to oppression. Join me in my refusal to lose.

About the Author

Jean-Claude Brizard is the former senior advisor and deputy director in the United States Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He led the program’s P16 Community Investment Team in their effort to more deeply understand a student's journey from preschool through completion of a postsecondary credential. Jean-Claude is the former chief executive of Chicago Public Schools, and prior to his appointment in Chicago, he was superintendent of schools for the Rochester, New York School District. His experience also includes a 21-year career as an educator and administrator with the NYC Department of Education. Jean-Claude is currently the President and CEO of Digital Promise.