Dr. Howard Fuller at the FOCUS 2017 D.C. Charter School Conference

Yesterday was a truly amazing day.  Picture this:  over 400 charter school teachers, administrators, heads of schools, founders, and other stakeholders gathered standing room only in the elegant auditorium of the FHI 360 Conference Center participating in the inaugural 2017 D.C. Charter School Conference hosted by Friends of Choice in Urban Schools.  Representatives were in attendance from most of the 118 campuses making this the largest gathering of charter school representatives in the 20 year history of a local movement that now educates almost 42,000 children, or 46 percent of all pupils attending public schools.

I will have much more to say about this stellar event in the near future.  But for now I want to bring your attention to an early highlight of the meeting.  The Keynote Speaker was Dr. Howard Fuller.  I have had the great opportunity to hear Dr. Fuller on numerous occasions and he is always motivational.  But this was something different.  Dr. Fuller spoke as if every single atom in his body was united in a supreme battle to convey his beliefs to the guests.  In honor of this man’s passion and eloquence, for which he received a prolonged standing ovation at the conclusion of his address, I am reprinting his remarks in their entirety.

Dr. Fuller is a Distinguished Professor of Education and founder and director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  He served as the Superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools from 1991 to 1995. Dr. Fuller was a founder of the Black Alliance for Educational Options.  In the 1960s he became one of this nation’s most prominent civil rights leaders.  Dr. Fuller has received numerous awards and recognition over the years, including four Honorary Doctorate Degrees.

“Connecting Our Strengths”

I think our strength does not rest in the fact that most if not all of us in this room are here because we support charter schools. Our strength will be found in being clear why charter schools exist.

I will speak only for myself. I am in this room today because I care about the plight of poor children. And as a Black man who loves Black people down in the depths of my soul, I have a particular and special concern about Black children who come from low income and working class families.

I believe that education is one of the few levers of power that gives these children the possibility of being able to change the trajectory of their life chances while at the same time giving them the tools they need to engage in what Paulo Friere called, the “practice of freedom”- the ability to engage in the transformation of their world.

There is no way I can stand before you and talk to you about the education of our children and not acknowledge the national political environment that shadows all that we do right now today in America.

I have talked to many people of all races and ages since the election of Donald Trump as the President of the United States of America.  I want to put my view about this man on the table because it will frame some of what I have to say to you. I believe this man is a horrible human being.  I think he has said and done things that have been hurtful and painful to a lot of people. I believe the divides that were already in existence in our country have been and will continue to be exacerbated by President Trump.  He should read Thomas L. Friedman & Michael Mandelbaum’s book, That Used To Be Us. According to them there were five Pillars that made America great.  One of them was America used to have an immigration policy that recognized that America not only wanted immigrants with great minds but also people who just wanted to create a better life for themselves and their families.

But when I hear some people talk about the pain they are feeling, I am reminded of something Dr. King said in his book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community.

He said, “the central quality in [Black peoples’] life is pain-pain so old and deep that it shows in every moment of [our] existence.  It emerges in the cheerlessness of [our] sorrow[ful] songs, in the melancholy of [our] blues and in the pathos of [our] sermons.  Black people while laughing [are shedding] invisible tears that no hand can wipe away.  In a highly competitive world, [Black people] know that a cloud of persistent denial stands between [us] and the sun, between [us] and life and power, between [us] and whatever we need.”

Pain is not a new reality for Black people, particularly poor Black people. No matter who has been in the White House our poorest brothers and sisters have suffered. While it is true that President Obama cared about them and at a minimum represented the office in a way that made us proud, he was not able to alleviate the suffering that our poorest families endure every single day. Their situations could conceivably get worse under the current regime. But, let’s be clear: no matter who is the President, if we care about our low income and working class brothers and sisters we must be in a continual fighting mode. But political reality dictates that we must be able and willing to protest and where possible collaborate if it will benefit those among us who have the least.  They cannot afford for us to be political purists.  They need those of us who would exercise leadership to be clear that in a political sense we can not have permanent friends or permanent enemies -what we must have are permanent interests. We have to resist while at the same time seizing any opportunity to help our children and the families who need us the most.

Howard Thurman was one of the great African American preachers of the 20th century. He was an author, philosopher, theologian, educator and civil rights leader.

In his book, Jesus and the Disinherited he talked about the plight of the masses of people who live with their backs constantly against the wall.  They are the poor, the disinherited, and the dispossessed.  He said, there is one overmastering problem that the socially and the physically disinherited face. Under what terms is survival possible? The position of the disinherited in every age is – what must their attitudes be toward the rulers, the controllers of political, social and economic life?

But what must also be confronted by those of us who purport to care about the plight of the disinherited is what is our attitude towards them?

So, it is not just what you think about Trump or whomever you choose to direct your attention. The deeper question for me is what are you doing in your school to equip your children to be able to transform their world?

Are we screaming about Trump (not saying you shouldn’t) while we are not creating strong learning environments for our children that are immediately in our line of sight every day?

The strength of the charter school effort is not just our existence; it is understanding the purpose of our existence.  I support charter schools as long as they work for our children. If they don’t work then they have no value. Work for me is more than test scores: It’s treating our kids with respect; It’s understanding all of the issues that impact them before they ever get to school; It’s confronting the issues of race and class in our facilities and in our behavior towards our children; In the rules and regulations that we set up in so many instances to control our children because we are unable to manage them. It’s recognizing that as Paul Tough said in his latest book, that poor children are capable of deep learning.

Yes we must advocate for charter schools. Yes we must celebrate our strengths while acknowledging our weaknesses.  Some charter schools in DC have done and continue to do great work for our children. Those that are well-serving our children should be celebrated and supported. Those that with help can be of value to our children should get that help. Those that nobody’s children should be in should lose their right to exist. Of course I believe that about the traditional system as well.

So my message is simply this, our strength flows from our commitment to purpose and not to the method to get to purpose. Because the moment you get committed to the institutional arrangements to get to purpose as opposed to the purpose you are on the way to becoming the new protectors of the status quo.

I leave you with the words of William Daggett, “We must be committed to our childrens’ hopes, dreams, aspirations and prayers more than to any particular institutional arrangements.”

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