By Mikel Kwaku Osei Holt
For 14 consecutive years, hundreds of parents, activists and politicians have attended the annual Black Alliance for Educational Options symposiums.
While there, they join with brethren and sisteren from dozens of cities to learn about the plight of minorities in America’s urban educational centers, strategize to increase much needed quality educational options for the nation’s low income students, and how to maximize parental involvement in the academic process.
Participants also learn about innovative strategies to close the achievement gap, participate in workshops to sharpen their advocacy skill sets and, for emerging leaders, to secure information on college readiness.
For many repeat attendees, the symposium serves as a family reunion of sorts, as well as a venue to recharge their batteries for the battles that await them back in their respective hometowns.
The 2014 symposium was no different. Over 700 people were in attendance for three days at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in New Orleans, home to one of the nation’s most encompassing charter school networks.
Over the course of the three day symposium, participants heard from some of the nation’s foremost educational leaders including Rod Paige, former U.S. Secretary of Education, Dr. Andre Perry, founding dean of Urban Education at Davenport University, and gospel star and minister Dr. Marvin Sapp, founder of the Grand Rapids Ellington Academy of Arts and Technology.
Each brought a unique message to the event, offering insight on their respective efforts to bring about quality educational opportunities to their communities, or as in the case of Paige, the nation through the No Child Left Beyond legislation.
But as informative and inspirational as each of those speakers ( and dozens of others who headlined various workshops) were, it was the words of former Milwaukee Superintendent and Black Alliance founder Howard Fuller’s that resonated long after the closing ceremonies.
In his address, Fuller asked the impassioned audience to reflect on why they traveled from cities near and far to attend the symposium.
“I am pleased that for some of you this was your first trip to New Orleans. I hope you enjoyed it,” he said.
“I hope many of you made new friends and established new connections. I hope you enjoyed listening to the various speakers. I hope you like being in this hotel. But, at the end of the day if you are leaving here without a renewed commitment to fight for our children, then either we failed you, or you failed us.”
Having attended all 14 symposiums, Fuller said he leaves each event reenergized, having learned something new. The symposiums also reinforce the reasons he and other members of BAEO commit themselves to the often thankless job of steering a national educational revolution.
“So why do we come here?” Fuller asked rhetorically. “We came because to BAEO our children are in need…they are our most precious gift from God. And we know far too many of these precious gifts are not receiving one of the things they need to give them a shot at a decent life. That thing is a quality education.”
Attendees did not gather to “determine what the return on investment is for helping our kids. We did not come to this place to reassure each other that we are amazing and awesome.
“We came here because we know that some of our children come to us in the 9th grade and literally cannot read!”
“We came here because we know that in so many schools in this country, the needs and interests of our children are secondary to the needs and interest of the adults who control those educational enterprises.”
The symposium is important because many educators teach in schools they would never enroll their own children in, but “demand that low income and working class families send their kids to those schools so that the staff can get paid a salary that allows them to put their own children in private schools.”
While those scenarios are important, Fuller said it was his hope that those in attendance “came because you want to be a warrior, a fighter for change once you leave here.
“It is easy to talk about all of the issues facing our children, and wring our hands and be all militant while you are down here. The real question is, how militant are you going to be when you go back to Hartford, Milwaukee, Memphis, Louisville, Jackson and New York?
“Our children don’t just need a convention in New Orleans. They need action when you go back home. They need some of you to have grown a backbone or strengthen your backbone while you’ve been down here in NOLA eating gumbo and catfish.”
Those in attendance have a responsibility to return home and look in the mirror and be brutally honest about what we are currently doing or not doing to dig ourselves out of the educational nightmare that is the reality for so many of our children, he continued.
Parents must support, love and set expectations for their children; not be their friends, he said.
Students must be willing to push themselves, and not settle for poor grades.
Educators must do all in their power to push students.
Clergy must provide moral leadership and elected officials need to be courageous.
“I am hoping more of you will leave here seeing yourselves as leaders of the struggle for the present for our children, not just their future. They are here now. They need us now.
“But our children need leaders who are not scared. We need leaders who will speak truth to power.”
Those are marching orders I can relate to.