How Crisis Can Lead to Transformation: Fixing Our Broken Systems Can Start Now

How Crisis Can Lead to Transformation: 
Fixing Our Broken Systems Can Start Now

By Doannie Tran | Equity and Strategy Fellow at the Center for Innovation in Education | April 9, 2020

Tunis Campbell was one of the first Black legislators elected in Georgia. In 1868, Campbell and 33 Black legislators were expelled from the Georgia General Assembly solely because they were Black. [source]
This is a time to help our families narrate experiences, sharpen opinions and build conviction to shape the world that is to come.
This is a time to help our families narrate experiences, sharpen opinions and build conviction to shape the world that is to come.
This is a time to help our families narrate experiences, sharpen opinions and build conviction to shape the world that is to come.

My kids and I had been penned in by coronavirus for too long. Though we lived within sight of the Georgia state capitol building with its iconic gold dome, we had never visited it. It seemed like a great place to take a stroll and blow off a little steam before dinner on a warm spring evening. Maybe we would even learn something. On any given Sunday, it was likely to be deserted, something even more likely during this time of self-isolation. 

As my children raced around the capitol grounds, I stumbled upon two plaques. One was erected in 1920 by the Daughters of the Confederacy, commemorating the Battle of Atlanta in 1864. It was full of language invoking the “reign of terror” of the Northern siege. The other was erected in 2011 to tell the story of the “Original 33,” the first cohort of Black legislators ever elected to the Georgia legislature. In 1868, they were rightfully elected, but when they came to take up their seats, they were barred from representing their constituencies and executing their sworn office.


(above) Doannie Tran, with his two children, tour the Georgia State Capitol grounds.
(bottom left) Plaque commemorating the Battle of Atlanta. (bottom right) Sculpture celebrating the “Original 33,” the first cohort of Black legislators elected to the Georgia legislature. 

What History Can Teach Us

Looking alternately at these two monuments, I imagined white and Black families across Georgia both looking to the end of the war—some with anxiety, some with hope. I imagined Black families voting for the first time to elect the Original 33. I imagined that for Black families, the upheaval and turmoil of war marked a transition away from a “normal” that was horrifying in both its scale and depravity. I imagined white families looking with fear towards an uncertain world, a comfortable social order upended. It was an oppressive social order, built on slave labor and human pain, but it didn’t take long to see whose discomfort would win out. The plaque from 1920, and the Jim Crow order that it was meant to reinforce, tells us everything we need to know. 

I wonder if the Original 33, standing on the steps of the gold-domed capitol, denied and rejected, might have been able to see down the path of history. Could they see the plaque erasing their story?  And their own role in crafting a new future? 

What COVID-19 Can Teach Us

Often a crisis causes us to question ourselves, our relationships, and our institutions. The coronavirus is revealing the farcical assumptions and practices of our systems of support, from the criminal justice system, to healthcare, to education. Increasingly, we are seeing deep inequities in the systems we have created, seeing that they, too, are built on an acceptance of a certain amount of human suffering. 

If we return to the status quo of schooling this fall, it will be a measure of our failure to support people’s basic needs, leaving their voices unheard as they scramble to survive. We will also have failed to bring together a diversity of voices to hear what they are learning and include them in imagining something different for their children’s education. 

We can’t allow ourselves to slide back into the status quo because we are too exhausted to galvanize ourselves around a different set of possibilities. Those who uphold the status quo and advocate for “stability” are propping up a system that doesn’t work for the majority of Americans. These systems never have, we are just seeing it afresh because of COVID-19. 

Transformation Starts Here

We are rightly focused now on how to support families, students, and teachers to accomplish some measure of student learning for the short term. However, we have a responsibility to learn from families about their experiences and include them in the national dialogue about the future of schooling. In particular, we must support and elevate voices of families most severely impacted by our broken systems, of which education is only one. 

Tony Monfiletto rightly asked in his last blog post whether graduate profiles were a real fix or just a fad. He asked if “they could be promises to young people rather than projections by adults.” In our families that have been abruptly thrust into the role of educators, we suddenly have a much larger and more informed constituency for what these graduate profiles could mean and be for our communities. 

Many groups are focusing rightly on rapid response payments to stabilize the financial situations of families vulnerable to our broken systems. I have been lucky enough to be a part of a small team in our neighborhood of Atlanta that has supported nearly 200 families with basic needs, raising over $15,000 in donations. I have learned that this kind of support is absolutely critical. But I have also learned that we must also ensure that we have ways to dialogue, partner and learn about what they are experiencing. Using our existing text chains, we are starting to ask about educational supports needed, and ask questions like: “What have you learned about what is most important in your child’s education?” 

What might we learn if we eventually ask “How does it compare with the district’s graduate profile?”  If we are thoughtful and careful to learn from families experiencing the inequity of our systems, we might be able to make these profiles a deeper and richer reflection of what our communities really want and need. This is a time to help our families narrate experiences, sharpen opinions and build conviction to shape the world that is to come. Over time, I would hope that these connections would evolve into conversations that could surface themes that would become the backbone of a real platform for change. 

In 1868, the original 33 Black legislators, and the communities they represented, were denied voice at the precipice of a new future, at the emergence from crisis and loss. The return to normal re-established an oppressive social order that we are still trying to undo. We have an opportunity to make the post-COVID-19 world more just—we have to start by listening and learning with those most deserving of justice. 


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