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#AFTVoices: Fighting for Justice by Living the Example - A Conversation with Joel Richards

In honor of Black History Month, we sat down with Joel Richards, Boston Teachers Union member, local activist and chair of the BTU’s Black Lives Matter committee. Joel is committed to justice both inside and out outside the classroom, ensuring that he leads by example.

As an educator, Joel feels compelled to correct the wrongs he sees running rampant throughout the education system. “I am going to do what I can to improve the lives of my colleagues and students, especially injustices experienced by students and educators of color.” When asked what motivates Richards, he smiles and says that his energy comes from a much deeper place. “I am motivated by the Christ- like mindset I have. It's urgent. It's needed. Education is very urgent to me. It always has been.” Richards said that as a Christian, he is a person who works towards justice no matter where he is.

Richards’ motivation to become an elementary school teacher, while informed by his faith, is also rooted in his own experience as a student. “I wasn't the strongest student. When I became a teacher, I knew I wanted to focus on elementary.” He goes on to explain how his elementary school years were a struggle, but was able to succeed because of dedicated mentors and strong support systems. “To me, elementary school is where you learn the fundamentals. Like in basketball, you must learn how to dribble before you play a full game.” When asked how he sees justice and elementary school overlapping, he laughs and says that they overlap more than one might think. “Injustice pains me, and not learning how to read or do math is an injustice. We live in a country–and city especially–that has an obligation

to fund these programs. If they don't, it is an injustice. Not investing in early childhood education is an injustice.”  

When summertime hits, Richards teaches middle school with the first two weeks of the course spent learning how to multiply. Richards said this is something that students should already know how to do by the time they reach him in middle school, but that over the past summer they were able to make huge leaps with the aim of building confidence in his students. “You want to build confidence,” he said. “That's when you know justice has been served.”

Confidence is a big issue for students, especially after the pandemic. Richards said that the pandemic didn’t create new problems, but merely exposed problems that had been underlying in education for decades. Richards said to solve these issues once and for all is to invest in educators and resources students can access while in school, especially in mental health services. “Anyone of color in the education systems needs these resources–regardless of if they’re an educator, student, or paraprofessional. And it’s not just resources, we need to build new schools in Boston; get them out of buses and build true community schools with enough adults to teach all students at all learning abilities,” he said. “You were born a human, you deserve to read, write and feel valued.”

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