Our systems are broken, but our people are resilient.

This year has highlighted in profound ways how the systems we have built in this country are producing the outcomes they are designed to get—Covid-19 unchecked, racial disparities in health care and education accelerating, white supremacists marching, the wealthiest among us getting exponentially richer as working families struggle. And while we mourn the losses, and rightfully demand answers, the work to change things starts right here in Pittsburgh, in our homes and neighborhoods.

Isabel Wilkerson, in her recent book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, writes:

“We cannot fully understand the current upheavals or most any turning point in American history, without accounting for the human pyramid encrypted into us all. The caste system, and the attempts to defend, uphold, or abolish the hierarchy, underlay the American Civil War and the civil rights movement a century later and pervade the politics of twenty-first-century America. Just as DNA is the code of instructions for cell development, caste is the operating code for economic, political, and social interaction in the United States from the time of its gestation.”

We rarely talk about an American caste system, but Ms. Wilkerson artfully explains how it perpetuates existing inequities in our society. From health outcomes to how one is treated in an interview to the dangerous reality of interactions with police, the American caste system permeates our laws, our mindsets, and our communities.

So how does it change? It changes when school leaders like Dr. Tamara Sanders-Woods works with staff at Colfax to raise the number of Black students reading proficiently by third grade from 35% the year before she began in 2015, to 63% in 2019. It changes when a team of teachers like those at South Brook focuses on authentic relationships with students and accelerate learning growth to be in the top 15% of schools in the state for growth in 2019 (read these stories at ourschoolspittsburgh.org/2020-rising-up). And it changes when White parents question how the education system prioritizes the needs of their children at the expense of Black and Brown families and begin listening to and supporting their neighbors to make a change.

Over the course of the multiple pandemics we’ve faced this past year we have come to understand the critical role that schools play in our communities in addition to teaching and learning. Getting kids vaccinated, providing nutritious meals, supporting the health of students with disabilities, and connecting homes to the internet are all roles that schools have played in the past year. We know they can’t do it alone. That is why we joined together with over 70 organizations to create the Pittsburgh Learning Collaborative (PLC). The PLC is a group of community organizations, educators, non-profits, and funders who began working together this summer to make the best use of our region’s expertise and resources to eliminate inequities facing students.

I continue to believe that we have everything we need to succeed by children and families in Pittsburgh. We must move from the world as it is to the world as it should be. My ask of you is to dream of a city where schools care for and educate all children, where parents and community members are partners in school innovation and success, and where the legacy of caste is questioned, wrestled with, and thrown off.

Isabel Wilkerson ends her book, “A world without caste would set everyone free.” Working together to improve schools and mindsets is truly freedom work. Let’s get to it!

By James Fogarty
Executive Director, A+ Schools