Christine Bischoff grew up in a small southern West Virginia coal town.
"Everyone's dad was a coal miner, and very few people were educated," Bischoff says. It was the type of place where opportunities were few and far between.
There were about six career choices in the whole town.
Christine Bischoff. All photos courtesy of XQ.
"You basically picked one, and that's what you were going to be," Bischoff says. She went with the one that, to her, sounded the most fun: physical therapy.
Then Bischoff's life changed permanently because of her teacher, acclaimed poet Maya Angelou.
"To a 21-year-old, everything she said was mind-blowing," Bischoff says. "Because you'd never thought of the world like that."
Angelou — whose work extended far beyond poetry into activism, social work, and civil justice — was also an education advocate who spoke on numerous occasions about the power and importance of learning. Bischoff had her as a professor in college.
One day, Angelou gave her class a sage piece of advice: If you don't like the path you're on, step off of it.
"So I literally walked out of the class and said, 'I'm not going to be a physical therapist. I'm going to be a civil rights attorney. I'm going to change the world," Bischoff said.
Now she works as an attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center's children's rights department.
The SPLC's work for children fights for education reform on multiple fronts. They work toward ending the notorious school-to-prison pipeline that disproportionately harms black and Latino students. They ensure equal access to education for children in poverty as well as disabled children, and they also provide the mental health services that low-income and marginalized children often can't get on their own.
Every day, Bischoff works directly with kids who have been discriminated against or put at a disadvantage by the education system.
"When school districts or the state department of education violates [student's] rights, we go in and try to remedy the violation so that all students have equal opportunity that they're entitled to under the law," Bischoff says. In other words, when the SPLC finds a systemic injustice in the education system, they try to fix it permanently.
For Bischoff, fighting for education is a direct way to make the world a better place.
"If we don't fix the problems in our education, every piece of our society is going to suffer," she says. From the global economy to growing industries in science and tech to seemingly insurmountable world problems like climate change, educating every single child is a necessity.
"It's very easy to lose sight — that we all are in this together," Bischoff says. "Everybody wins or loses with what happens to education."
For Bischoff, the path toward a better world began with a simple step off a predetermined path — an opportunity that millions of kids might not get.
Giving kids equal access to education is giving them access to equal opportunity. It's giving them the knowledge that if they don't like where their path is going, they too have the ability to step off and forge a new one.
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