Dr. Howard Fuller at the 2018 FOCUS D.C. Charter School Conference

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddle masses yearning to breathe free.  The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me, I lift my lamp besides the golden door!
The Statue of Liberty

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent on things that matter.
Martin Luther King, Jr.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you this morning. I want to focus my remarks on the theme of this conference, Excellence and Equity.  Not only were these two concepts put forward, there was an explanation included which stated:

Excellent schools are committed to equitable access, opportunity, and outcomes for all students. DC’s Public Charter School leaders continue to demonstrate the strength of this commitment by striving to dismantle the link between race and poverty to eliminate the opportunity gap for students.

There are a lot of powerful and meaningful words here. My question is, how many of us truly understand what they mean? And even further how many of us are actually committed to fighting for the realization of these noble ideas – excellent schools, equitable access, dismantling the link between race and poverty, eliminating the opportunity gap. WOW!!

In honor of this being the first day of Black History month, I want to cite a historical fact:

On Feb. 1, 1960, 58 years ago today, four Black students from North Carolina A&T sat down and a lunch counter and demanded to be served. And by doing so doing they changed the course of history. And here we are in 2018 four Black students sit down at a lunch counter where they are welcomed and can’t read the menu.

Here is my question – quoting Beyonce from “Drunken Love” – How did this shhhhh happen?  It has happened because there is no real political commitment in this country to create excellence and equity for Black and brown children, particularly poor Black and brown children. And further more it has happened because we have allowed it to happen and continue to do so today. We talked about leaving no child behind a few years ago and now we are talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion. In a few years there will be some new buzz words. We have conferences, give out awards, and praise ourselves for being awesome but where is the anger. Where is the outrage that year after year we continue to allow them and us to fail far too many of our neediest students.

Last year in my talk, I mentioned a book by Dr. Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited. I want to cite it again today but a different passage.

Dr. Thurman was discussing 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.  The children of these families are in so many instances being victimized instead of being helped by educational systems in this country.  Dr. Thurman said this about those children,

The doom of the children of the disinherited is the greatest tragedy. They are robbed of much of the careless rapture and spontaneous joy of merely being alive. Through their environment they are plunged into the midst of overwhelming pressures for which there is no possible preparation. So many tender, joyous things in them are killed without their even knowing the true nature of their loss. The normal for them is the abnormal. They are likely to live a heavy life. 

These children do indeed live a “heavy life” and their lives are made even more difficult when the world around them reinforces such low expectations of them and indeed imposes on them words, images and actual conditions that diminish and destroy their dreams rather than expanding them. And indeed sometimes their very lives are snatched away by the violence that surrounds them every day in their communities or like in the case of Tamir Rice by the very people who are supposed to protect them.

In using the word equity there is an assumption that people understand the difference between equality and equity. But just in case that is not true let me state the difference as simply as I can: Equity is giving everyone what he or she needs to be successful. Equality is treating everyone the same.

In order to truly help the children from the families of the disinherited, we must go beyond equality and get to equity. To have a chance to be successful these students require not the same level of resources available to the children of families with resources; they require more resources. Because of factors outside of the control of schools as well as some things that happen to them within far too many of our schools equity creates the best possibility of closing the opportunity gaps in education. Frankly, I can’t envision them ever receiving equity or for that matter even equality. I say that because I do not believe the American “body politic” writ large cares about these children or their families.

If that is true then there are several fair questions to ask beginning with why am I here? Why should we have conferences like this one?  Why should heroic educators like some of you in this room continue the work that you do every day, if equity, frankly not even equality is likely?  I will come back to that valid question.

Let me talk for a minute about excellent education.

For me an excellent education means our students leave our classes, our schools, or whatever learning environment they are in with the ability to read, write, think, analyze and compute at high levels. Obviously what constitutes high levels is subjective. But we do have some ideas about the type of conditions we need to establish in school in order to create an environment that will encourage and support student learning. In Paul Tough’s book Helping Our Children Succeed he discussed the work of two professors of psychology, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan. These professors stressed the importance of school environments that stressed three things:

  • Sense of belonging
  • Autonomy
  • Competence

Excellence is possible for our students if we believe it is possible and we create the conditions to help them achieve – Howard Gardner’s work.

So, excellence is possible, but for the young people from the families of the disinherited education alone is not the solution for them. We must also clearly focus on the reality of the impact on their lives of the existence of differential power and access to resources in our society based on race and class outside of schools and school systems.  I am not sure what the organizers of this conference meant when they talked about “dismantling the link between race and poverty to eliminate the opportunity gap for students,” or how they think we will do that, but here is what I do know.

Race and class matter in America.

Young people must see a society where their race will not be an impediment to advancement and respect.  They must interact with adults who have not already reached conclusions about their capabilities because of the color of their skin.  There have been significant changes in the intensity of racial discrimination in this country since the March on Washington 50-plus years ago but race and ethnicity are still factors in determining ones life possibilities in our American society.  I am asserting as strongly as I can the fact that race still matters in America.

But another key factor affecting our young people’s life chances is their socioeconomic class.  Poverty is debilitating to the human condition and the human spirit. (Money matters).

Children and young people who are hungry cannot learn.  Children and young people who are abused and neglected are not going to be able to concentrate in school.  Young people need to see people in their immediate families and their communities working in order to understand the value of work and the connection between education and work.

We must walk a delicate line here because although race and class clearly have an impact on our young people’s perceptions and their life chances, we cannot allow these conditions to be an excuse not to educate them; not to provide them with opportunities for their personal advancement. But, again we also must not pretend that schools or various educational opportunities can by themselves overcome the horrific conditions faced by our poorest children in this community and throughout this country.

Let me return to the questions I asked in the beginning of my remarks.  Since I do not believe we will ever see equity or even equality for the children of the families of the disinherited:

  • Why am I here?
  • Why should we have conferences like this one?
  • Why should heroic educators like some of you in this room continue the work that you do every day?

Two reasons:

  1. We may not truly get excellence and equity for all of our children or change the entire system but we can save the lives of a whole lot of children in spite of the obstacles, if we are not too scared to fight for them inside and outside of schools.
  2. Derrick Bell in his book, Faces at the Bottom of the Well, “Fight even when victory is not possible.”

So the fight for excellence and equity must go on. The children of the families of the disinherited are depending on us to fight on their behalf.

There will be no measure of equity or excellence without a struggle.

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