by Mikel Kwaku Osei Holt
I hadn’t seen Virginia Walden Ford since this time last year. But I’d kept up with her through the grapevine, and various news reports.
She’s spent much of the last year fighting fellow Democrats, including President Barack Obama for callously killing the D.C. scholarship program despite its unprecedented success and overwhelming support from poor Black parents and key city leaders.
Jackie Joyner-Cissell has been pretty busy as well, fighting for educational reform in Indianapolis, when not organizing poor parents or pressuring politicians to prioritize the needs of children over those of adults with vested interests in maintaining educational apartheid.
It’s been a much longer period since I’ve last shared thoughts with Dr. Ben Chavis. It’s been a while since he was ‘dismissed’ as executive director of the NAACP, joined the Nation of Islam and fronted a dozen or so social justice campaigns. But there he was at the annual Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) symposium as well, still energized, committed and resolved to improve the quality of education for Black children by empowering their parents.
Over 500 like-minded brothers and sisters joined the aforementioned activists this past weekend in Jersey City, New Jersey. They were as young as 16, and as old enough to remember when Black nuclear families were the norm and Jim Crow wasn’t a cartoon character.
The common thread that bound them was a love for Black children and an uncompromising commitment to fight for excellence and educational options for them.
The conveners came from dozens of U.S. cities where they are confronting similar scenarios: failing schools, apathetic or myopic politicians, parents in search of what Malcolm X once called the ‘passport’ out of poverty, despair and second class citizenship.
Last weekend’s symposium was the 11th since BAEO was organized during a meeting convened by Howard Fuller in March 1999. Fifty-two activists appropriately convened at the ‘Mayflower’ Hotel in Washington, D.C. to launch a ship to replace the mothballed Freedom Train. Their stated goal was to fight the latest battle in the civil rights movement: equal educational opportunities for Black children.
In its short tenure BAEO has become the preeminent educational advocacy group with a dozen satellites in major cities across the country, including Milwaukee. Its membership is a testament to its broad base of support, ranging from Newark, New Jersey Mayor Cory Booker to former New York Congressman Floyd Flake to former school Superintendents Howard Fuller and Deborah McGriff. As Fuller noted in his opening address, BAEO members share the blood of freedom fights from Marcus Garvey, to Malcolm X, to Big Mama to MaDear. They continue the fight of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, to lead Black children out of the abyss of failing schools to the freedom of educational options, in whatever form best meets their needs.
Last week’s conference drew 300 first time conveners, including 50-plus ‘emerging leaders’, including a dozen teenagers from Milwaukee. A key goal of BAEO is to bridge the generational gap, to merge the wisdom of older activists with the enthusiasm and energy of young leaders.
Additionally, the annual symposium serves the dual purpose of updating activists on the on-going battles around the country to provide Black children with quality educations through options ranging from charters to home schooling to scholarships, but also to introduce new recruits to the latest battleground of the civil rights movement: education.
They quickly learn from teachers like Fuller, board chair Kevin Chavous and president Kenneth Campbell that this civil rights campaign is for the very soul of Black America, that the national 50% high school drop out rate is dooming Black America to a permanent underclass—poverty and prison. That sad reality is obviously by design. How else can you explain how this new form of genocide has gone mostly underreported or justified by poverty, or Black inferiority, or lack of financial resources. That latter excuse raises eyebrows in New Jersey, where student allocations are in excess of $23,000 per child. Yet 48 of the worse 52 schools (all in the Black community) in the state have failure rates in excess of 60%.
There are obvious reasons for that embarrassing situation, as well as to why many traditional civil rights groups have turned a deaf ear to the cries of millions of Black parents. And you don’t have to be one of New Jersey’s rare high school graduates to figure out why the Democratic Party has decided to prioritize the needs of adults over that of children. You need but recognize that even our beloved and admired Black president, Barrack Obama has turned his back on the plight of the Black poor, deciding to kill the D.C. scholarship program even as he choose to send his darling daughters to a private school instead of the public schools known for their failure.
Fuller addressed that very issue in his opening address, noting that a decade ago he debated an Illinois senator with aspirations for higher office who naively believed he could sustain the status quo yet somehow reverse decades of educational apartheid.
Obama is only willing to go so far in his quest to tear down those walls, obviously feeling the support of the mighty teachers unions as being more important to his administration— and the Democratic Party–than are the cries from the Black underclass.
“I applaud President Obama’s decision to send his precious daughters to a private school. He had a choice. All I want for (poor Black families) is to have the same option,” Fuller declared.
The Washington, D.C. schools are among the worst academically in the country. Parents are fearful for their children’s safety. Violence is a daily occurrence, and the drop out rate is among the highest in the country. Failure is the norm, and strangely some Black ‘leaders’ resist change, apparently believing that the children are at fault, and not the system.
Against that backdrop, community activists joined with political and religious leaders to advance a scholarship program that has served as both a Godsend to parents and a catalyst for public school reform.
Studies revealed major improvement in reading and math among scholarship participants, which made Obama and Democrats’ decision to end the program as soon as they became the majority all the more confusing. And insulting.
“Parents should have the right to choose from a variety of options. It’s un-American to deny options,” Fuller declared. “The reality in America today is that people with money have choices; only people without resources are doomed (to mediocrity).”
Walden Ford has emerged as a tireless advocate to reverse the Democrats’ callous decision, which is obviously a concession to the national teachers union that pumped millions into their campaigns. Many local Democrats including a former councilman who is now BAEO’s chair, Kevin Chavous, have joined her. Interestingly, Chavous was once on the other side of the debate. But his investigations of the D.C. school failures, along with talks with dozens of parents opened his eyes to the truth. He now is a leading proponent of the scholarships, and devotes full time to coordinating BAEO’s efforts nationally.
What makes BAEO effective is not only the commitment of its members, who fight battles similar to those in D.C. in their respective home cities, but also because they put the interest of Black children, Black people, ahead of all other affiliations.
In just about every speech Fuller has made in recent years he has integrated a slogan that has become the mantra of BAEO: ‘I am unapologetically Black.’
Very few Black organizations today are willing or able to make that claim. Sadly, most are corrupted by special interests that pay their bills or strategically place members of the Negrocracy in positions of power or influence. Indeed, the last few truly Black run organizations, including BAEO, NBUF and NOI, often find themselves fighting a status quo that includes the Negrocracy that has a vested interest in maintaining that status quo.
That’s as much the reason for educational apartheid in America as anything. And, it was at the core of an analogy used by Derrell Bradford, head of the New Jersey organization Educational Excellence for Everyone, during a workshop on Mobilization and Advocacy: ‘For too long, Black people have found themselves fighting for the donut hole; not the dough or the (frosting), but the hole.”
Fuller’s declaration was interwoven into every workshop and briefing at the symposium. Chavous echoed it during his chair’s address when he challenged the audience to be freedom fighters for Black children, and among students from Milwaukee’s CEO Leadership Academy who taught participants how they integrate IPad technology into their daily lesson plans. The CEO students were not only unapologetically Black, they were uncompromisingly excellent.
‘Now is the Time’ was the theme for this year’s symposium. It reflected both the urgency of the new civil rights priority, as well as a declaration that Black America is tired of the excuses, meaningless reforms and unfulfilled promises.
As you ponder that statement, consider how many Black children have dropped out of school in just the last decade? How many politicians have promised reforms and solutions since BAEO was created? How many bricks have been removed from the walls of apartheid?
The sad truth is the plight of Black America is not high on anyone’s agenda but ours. It’s a good talking point, and always a political campaign concern. But it speaks volumes that BAEO has accomplished more in 10 years than the NAACP, SNCC, National Action Network and Democratic Party has since Brown vs. Board of Education.
BAEO has enlisted more Black families, pushed more legislative proposals, and celebrated more reforms than all of those groups combined.
It’s no wonder BAEO has become targeted by those with a vested interest in the failing status quo. Poverty and despair are big business in America. And it’s not just the missionaries that enrich themselves off Black suffering.
BAEO’s accomplishments have not come without sacrifice, endless determination and tons of tolerance. The Negrocracy has attacked BAEO leaders, boldly making the claim that we are better off failing than seeking alternatives. Or equally insanely that failure is somehow our earned heritage. It is the reward of integration, the end result of the civil rights movement. BAEO members daily challenge those idiotic statements, and refuse to wait among 100 years for equal opportunities.
And just as our voices grow hoarse from declaring our intent to empower Black parents, along comes another symposium where we recharge our batteries, embrace and absorb the spirits of like-minded activists. The symposium offers an opportunity to fine tune and refocus. We leave these annual conventions ready to take on the world again; ready to fight for Black people: Energized and unapologetically Black, and unswervingly committed.