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In Pursuit of Our Inalienable Rights: Reflections on the Presidential Inauguration by Adai Tefera

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

With continued awe at the potential of a second term, I watched the President’s inauguration on January 21, 2013. Fittingly, the day coincided on the same day of our nation’s observance and celebration of an inspired leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Eagerly awaiting the President’s speech on that Monday morning, I was struck by the delicate weaving of words from the Declaration of Independence and our “inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” While I recognize the rights referenced in the Declaration of Independence were not originally intended to be bestowed upon us all, including me – a Black daughter of Ethiopian immigrants – I must confess I have always found the making of the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence intriguing. Unquestioningly imperfect, the President reminded us of our responsibility not just to invoke words from the Constitution but also to embody them. For if “We are true to our creed,” he said, “when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else because she is an American, she is free, and she is equal not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.” It is not enough for us to resign to the belief that we are equal but it becomes incumbent that our actions reflect this value. He continued, “Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for and cherished and always safe from harm.” While our children – urban, rural, and suburban – have these inalienable rights we know they are far from being actualized. 

And if we are to take the President’s words seriously then we must point to the inconsistencies, flaws, and even failures. The income gap between the rich and the poor has widened to record levels in over 40 years (Eichler, 2012). The unemployment rate for communities of color has risen in the last four years, reaching nearly 14 percent for African Americans and approximately 10 percent for Latinas/os (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2013). The current deportation rate is 1.5 times that of the previous administration (Khimm, 2012), and the reality remains that over fifty years after Brown v. Board of Educationsegregation in schools and educational inequality based on race, income, language, and dis/ability persists.

These facts were echoed during my time in an urban high school in southern California four years ago, shortly after Obama’s first election. While the first biracial President had just been elected, seemingly changing the trajectory of this country, the lives of the special education students I was to spend the next nine months with had not. It was then that I realized victory is more than who is in political office, and instead true victory must include a promise to our students that they can not only dream and take joy in the possibilities of those dreams, but, most importantly, are prepared to achieve them. During my year in the classroom, the students shared stories of the challenges they faced, including insufficient opportunities to learn a quality high school curriculum, inadequate access to the accommodations legally afforded to them, and persistent substitute teachers for years at a time. Ultimately these stories only affirmed the enduring legacy of inequality and reaffirmed my allegiance to share their stories and partake in research that aims to ameliorate educational injustice. Most importantly, the students were still hopeful, continuing to entrust their lives in us as parents, teachers, leaders, researchers, and community members.

Two years ago charged with naive optimism and unbinding determination, I went to the U.S. Capitol to work in education policy to see if I too could be part of the change that seemed to be sweeping across the country. After engaging with various community organizations, speaking with constituents, and reflecting on my time in schools, I left the Capitol with a newfound faith in what I know to be true. Power does not lie solely in D.C., elected officials, or policymakers. It is undoubtedly the people who have the power, you and I. As the President said, “You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course. You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time, not only with the votes we cast, but the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideas.” I know this to be true. Not with bubbly optimism in one man’s ability to bring about change, but a renewed faith that we, as educators, students, parents, researchers – ultimately the people of this country – can because we have and in fact we are doing so.

Our critiques, debates, and arguments will resume. They must. In the meantime, however, I’d like to remember that this nation’s course as an imperfect union will never be complete. So we continue to march for the advancement of the rights of the undocumented, lesbian and gay rights, women’s rights, the rights of the poor, and those students who historically and currently continue to be marginalized. But in this brief moment I pause to appreciate the journey, the accomplishments, and I bow to those who have fought tirelessly that I might note the significance of this day if even just for a minute. So I ask you to take a moment with me to revel in the ways the vision and sacrifice of those before us has led to the perfection of today. Then we can wake up again tomorrow, take a deep breath, and carry on.


Bureau of Labor Statistics. U.S. Department of Labor. (2013). The employment situation-January 2013. Retrieved from http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/empsit.pdf.

Eichler, A. (2012, April 11). Income inequality worse under Obama than George W. Bush. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/11/income-inequality-obama-bush_n_1419008.html.

Khimm, S. (2012, August 27). Obama is deporting immigrants faster than Bush. Republicans don’t think that’s enough. Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2012/08/27/obama-is-deporting-more-immigrants-than-bush-republicans-dont-think-thats-enough/.

**The opinions of our guest bloggers don’t necessarily reflect the views of the Equity Alliance at ASU, but they do raise important questions about educational equity. We invite participation and the exchange of ideas with these blogs.

3 Responses to “In Pursuit of Our Inalienable Rights: Reflections on the Presidential Inauguration by Adai Tefera”

  1. Terry Heffron on 2/14/13 10:07 PM US/Eastern

    What a beautifully written, carefully thought out reflection. I hope you will remain in education and remain dedicated to our most marginalized, fragile population: children with disabilities, children of color; children without citizenship, children without the advantage of informed, supportive parents to mold and guide and inspire them. You,then, will be their inspiration. It’s a gift, and a responsibility I trust you with the grace and devotion you demonstrate today. Thank you for recognizing the struggles of yesterday provide reason to revel today and inspiration to never rest, but carry on perfecting this noble and most imperfect idea we call America.

  2. Adai on 2/21/13 3:18 PM US/Eastern

    Terry, your comment has inspired me! Thank you so much. May we continue to do this work together.

    Wishing you the best,

  3. Rosa Jimenez on 2/27/13 7:57 PM US/Eastern

    A beautiful and powerful piece! We are living in complex and contradictory times, which can simultaneously inspire awe and demand a continued struggle. Thank you for reminding us to appreciate the historic moment we were blessed to be alive for.


    Author Biography: Dr. Adai Tefera is a postdoctoral scholar at the Equity Alliance at Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. Adai’s research focuses on the consequences of education policy on culturally and linguistically diverse students, particularly those labeled with dis/abilities. Before joining the Equity Alliance, Adai worked as a Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for Education Policy Research at the University of New Mexico, and served as a fellow with the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation in the office of Congressman Chaka Fattah. As a graduate student at UCLA, she worked with the Civil Rights Project/Civiles Derechos Proyecto, and spent a number of years working with GEAR UP as a tutor, mentor, and researcher. Adai earned her Ph.D. in Urban Schooling and Masters degree in Public Policy from UCLA. Her dissertation focused on the consequences of high stakes exit exams on students of color with dis/abilities. She received her B.S. in Political Science with a minor in Ethnic Studies from Santa Clara University.