I was 4 years old in 1987, when 16-year-old Michael Taylor Jr. was killed while in police custody. The Marion County Coroner and the Indianapolis Police Department (now IMPD) ruled his death a suicide. At the time of his death, Taylor was handcuffed in the back of a squad car after being patted down by an officer who ensured he had no weapons. The autopsy showed that the single shot that killed the 16 year old was shot from two feet away.
Taylor’s death and the authorities’ suicide ruling sparked protests outside of police headquarters in Indianapolis, as well as a full investigation and a civil trial that lasted nine years. My father was one of the lawyers who represented the Taylor family throughout the trial.
Michael Taylor’s death and the subsequent fight for justice was the backdrop to my childhood. It also served as much of the inspiration for what has become my life’s work. Each day for nine years, I saw my father fight for justice for a young Black child and fight the system that failed to serve and protect this child. Each day since then, I have committed myself to that same fight against inequality and systemic oppression in our community. My father fought for legal justice in a courtroom; I fight for educational justice in our schools. So many systems have failed our students, many of whom look like Michael Taylor. These students have, for too long, been furthest from opportunity and most in need of a system that delivers for them.
I launched RISE INDY in June 2019 with the vision that every single student in our city should be able to attend an excellent public school. Over the past year, we have built a coalition of people across all sectors of our city who care deeply for students and are invested in building a better, more equitable public education system for them. The key to our vision is learning from our community coalitions, engaging coalitions to build connections that support students and organizing to advocate for the needs of schools and communities.
At RISE, we firmly believe that education is a human right, and one that must be protected and enhanced for the future prosperity of our city. The fact remains that Black, Hispanic and low-income students do not have the same access to high-quality education options that will prepare them to thrive and meet their full potential. Education is not alone — systemic oppression spans all sectors and industries. RISE’s work is rooted in the notion that an excellent education has the power to change lives, particularly those most impacted by the racism and inequality woven into the fabric of our society.
We recognize that real and lasting change will take all of us. The RISE Indy Coalition is comprised of teachers, school leaders, policymakers, parents, private and public sector professionals and faith leaders. These individuals see the inequities of our current public education system and are determined to stand up and fight for more — for better — for our kids. To date, we have engaged with over 5,000 Marion County residents. Their insight indicates that in order to achieve educational equity in Indianapolis, we must support school board candidates who:
- Advocate for true restorative justice practices in schools;
- Invest in expanding literacy and STEM programs for historically marginalized students to ensure that they are at grade level or higher;
- Prioritize the recruitment and retention of culturally competent teachers and teachers of color;
- Ensure that students have equitable access to technology and e-learning resources;
- Elevate social and emotional learning for marginalized students, particularly through these challenging times.
Local officials proudly lift up Indianapolis as a world class city — and it is for some. However, we must ensure that Indianapolis is a world class city for all. Like the criminal justice system, education is a key pillar in the struggle for equality. We have a duty to ensure that any progress our city makes is inclusive of our most marginalized and vulnerable communities. It is not an easy fight, but we must fight injustice in all its forms. At RISE, social justice begins with educational equity, but we cannot silo this issue. Racism and inequality in one system invariably impact racism and inequality in another — be it education, housing or health care. We have entered a series of watershed moments that must be leveraged to correct generational wrongs. RISE INDY will be at the table — I hope you will be too. I’m fighting for all of the Michael Taylors who have been taken. Who will you be fighting for?
Jasmin Shaheed-Young is the founder & CEO of RISE INDY.