Last week I attended a community town hall in Nashville organized by my friend Vesia Hawkins, a relentless and faithful community servant who brought together parents, young people, advocates and successful educators to raise awareness about her community’s literacy crisis.
It was a full house. On a weekday evening. Families were eager to hear about the importance of childhood reading and why we must end the fatal essentialism that condemns the poor, the differently-abled and children of color—especially Black children—to the social exile of unlettered lives.
While there, it hit me that each week I ask you, “how are the children,” but I should also ask how their parents, guardians and defenders are.
This is important because all the talk about "parent engagement" or how parents are a child’s first teacher can feel untrue if you have a kid who needs more than the system is willing to give. Schools work hard to educate children in spite of parents, not because of them. Over the course of 150 years of public school history, parents have been professionalized out of the education equation to the point that many of us feel patronized as marginal actors who should be seen, but not heard, and only activated at the command of school staff we’re supposed to support uncritically even as they fall short for our kids.
In Vesia’s lifelong home of Nashville, it’s like many American cities that boast of wealth and an emerging hipster lifestyle, but where the veneer of a strong economy hides the shame of gross educational failure. Too many kids in her city can't read and Vesia is determined to be a voice that isn't about to let you forget.
She’s not alone.
I met Tremayne Haymer, a father who is starting an advocacy group for Black men to interject themselves into the schools that their children attend, and into the rooms where decisions are made about what type of education they will get in those schools. He gave a rousing and personal pitch for our empowerment as men, for us to get off the sidelines, to stop being bystanders, and he ended with the men in the room standing proudly with fists in the air, publicly committing to being the change we want to see in our communities.
Sonya Thomas, a parent activist who has tussled with school officials over the special education needs of her children, used her time to share the parenting stories that led her to stand up for her children and others similarly miseducated by local public schools. It was a personal story, but common in that she noticed her child was struggling to learn, her school was not helpful and she had to become a detective to find answers (and another school).
Anna Thorsen, a mother, attorney and activist who found out she had unknowingly suffered from dyslexia her entire life (at the same time she found out her young daughter was too!) talked about how the inadequate reading pedagogy she experienced in two generations of schooling had failed them both.
One of the more inspiring parts of the night was the event’s venue. We were hosted by Lagra Newman, the founder and principal of Purpose Preparatory Academy, a successful charter school in a zip code with one of America's highest rates of incarcerating Black men. Many of the parents attending were from that school and it was obvious that even though it sits in a poorer part of town the expectations for students are high.
Newman said the culture of her school is built on the idea that whatever is going on in a kid’s life, they know when they get to school there is a simple demand: "You gonna learn today!"
Apparently, it’s true. Promise Prep students outperform their peers in their county and state.
I left that night inspired by the community’s clear intent to beat the odds with their kids, but, the next day, that joy was deflated. When Vesia debriefed with the other activists who came to support her event, they talked about the costs they’ve paid for advocating for better education. Some of us have lost jobs or been blocked from new employment or from leadership opportunities. They have had their motives and integrity challenged. Critics have attempted to blunt their activism by dismissing them as puppets for anti-public education forces.
I understand this well. I was fired several times in my life because of my educational activism. I’ve been ridiculed, dismissed, devalued and the subject of whispers about my sanity. I’ve been called a shill, bootlicker, sellout—which, in the socialist vocabulary is equivalent to a nigger, pimp and minstrel. I'm used to it. I don’t care. I thank God for the blessing of confidence in the fact that nothing the devil does to me while I pursue justice for children is anything close to what my ancestors faced when fighting for their humanity.
If trapping our kids in unworthy schools and blocking them from accessing other educational opportunities is your dream, I’m committed to being your nightmare.
Call us what you will. Attempt to marginalize us into a corner and demean us into submission, but this war won’t end until our children—all of our children—are literate, numerate and free to learn however and wherever we see fit.
Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of
brightbeam. He was named CEO in April 2019, after formerly serving as chief executive of Wayfinder Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. In the past, Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, ...