Understand the past. Empower the future.

This February, students across the country are celebrating Black History Month. They’re reading books by black authors, writing research papers on civil rights activists, memorizing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech or watching videos about the Underground Railroad.

And if they are taught honestly, as they learn about the struggle of the past, they’ll begin to recognize it in their present — when a cashier squints suspiciously as they walk into a store, when they turn on the news and see another person who looks like them lose his/her life to senseless violence. These lessons are anything but history.

As a Teach For America teacher, I see my kids are deeply impacted by these negative stereotypes, though they sometimes don’t even realize it. I hear them call their neighborhoods “bad” and other neighborhoods “good.” When I ask them what’s bad about the streets they live on, they immediately respond, “the people.”

These people are their families, their neighbors, their friends and themselves. They don’t just say their neighborhoods have a lot of violence or not enough resources. They believe the streets on which they are born and raised produce “bad” people.

This poses a real and urgent threat to these students, their communities and our country. This school year marked the second in which the majority of public school students are minorities.

Our generation has a responsibility to work to ensure that each and every one of them is moving through a system that affirms their identities, shows them they’re valued and allows them access to the opportunities they have been denied for far too long.

While the “whites only” signs of the 60s have come down, the reality of separate and unequal endures. Alongside glaring gaps in educational, employment and economic opportunity, people of color in this nation face a variety of subtler, no less damaging assumptions. A successful black lawyer hears whispers of affirmative action. A young black boy on a corner is seen as “lurking,” while his white peers “hang out.” A black college student is asked to give “the black perspective” to a seminar full of white students who are never asked to speak on behalf of their entire race.

I joined Teach For America because I couldn’t stand by while entire communities were denied the opportunity to reach their full potential through education.

During my time at Miami, I truly bloomed.  I was heavily involved with the office of community engagement and service and participated in the urban plunge and EMPOWER. Once I joined my sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, I got the chance to discuss issues and challenges facing so many different communities I’m a part of.

These experiences opened me up and will put me on the path to a life of impact, activism and import.

We have a long way to go as a country before we truly achieve justice for all. To fix the systemic oppression that has created the gross inequality of the present will take the hard, dedicated work of countless leaders and change-makers — many of whom have experienced it first-hand, others who bear witness to it from further away. We must work toward these long-term changes as well as the immediate, urgent opportunities to change the way our students view themselves and their futures.

As teachers, we can play a central role in this. Every day, we can remind our kids that their thoughts, ideas, identities and opinions are important. We can share our own stories so that when our kids look to the front of the room, they see a little bit of themselves reflected back. We can remind them that they matter, that they always have and they always will.

Shelby Stone-Steel