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Friday, 25 May 2018 06:38

Who's Got the Power: Reframe the Education System to Close the Achievement Gap

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Education 0525wrp(Photo: Alan Levine / Flickr)

KIMBERLY MANNS FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT

As a Black woman growing up in predominantly white neighborhoods and schools in Dallas, one of the most segregated cities in the US, I have since spent my professional life working to increase access to educational and economic resources for marginalized Black communities.

In that process, I've intimately experienced the symbiotic relationship between the systemic oppression of Black communities and the concentration of power -- including financial, political and social capital -- in predominantly white communities.

As managing director of Early Matters Dallas -- a program engaging stakeholders including parents, community business and philanthropic leaders to increase access to better early childhood outcomes -- I have learned that power, when used competently, expands. It is a false assumption that power is forever limited as a rule and not a fluid commodity.

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The achievement gap that is racialized all across this country burrows deep into many geographic pockets marked with poverty and generations of racism. As this month marks the 64th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court case that found racial segregation in schools unconstitutional, I envision three ways communities can expand power to close the achievement gap.

Teach All Children the History of Power in Our Country

According to a recently released report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, high school seniors struggle on the most basic questions about American enslavement of Africans. Only 8 percent can identify slavery as a central cause of the Civil War and more than two-thirds don't know it took a Constitutional amendment to end slavery.

As a young Black woman, I studied Maya Angelou's work. In her poem, "Still I Rise," she writes, "I am the dream and the hope of the slave." The teaching of this poem and the history of African-Americans ensured I knew my worth despite constant communication from existing power structures that my life was less valuable than others.

If taught the responsibility and burden of this heritage at a young age, all children -- particularly those who are privileged and white -- can be taught the responsibility of the privilege and power derived from the marginalization of Black communities.

For instance, understanding that the ownership of slaves was how some white families accumulated wealth is critical information. Before the Civil War, nearly 4 million slaves were worth $3.5 billion. This barter of human life created generational wealth for many white communities. The disparities in wealth have been further exacerbated by policies like redlining or the GI bill, which prevented people of color from accumulating wealth through home ownership and relegated people of color to communities of concentrated poverty.

Though officially banned, these policies are still terrorizing Black communities.

A Federal Loan program, Parent PLUS, designed to help parents pay for their children's college education, is widening wealth disparities. Low-income Black families are utilizing the program at high rates to help their children take part in the "American Dream," yet are defaulting at alarming rates due to the inability to keep up with payments.

While it is important to strengthen this basic understanding of the history of this nation, it is equally crucial for students to make the connection between this past and how this affects the social, political and economic racial disparities in our communities today. It is also essential to teach all children that the myths surrounding the race gap are not based in truth.

For example, the idea that hard work and education will reap the "American Dream" discounts structural racism. Black unemployment rate is two times the white unemployment rate at every level of education. The rules simply aren't the same. Children with little exposure to this history and the myths they propagate will reinforce the same power structures that create these disparities. Children need to question their individual capacity to either contribute to these power structures or disrupt them.

Spread Power Through Integration

Though many stalwart Republican voters may disagree, access to privilege and power still lies in predominantly white communities. White families have nearly 10 times the net worth of Black families, and the gap is growing. This disparity in access and influence over public and private resources intimately ties power to race. Integrating schools does not diminish power for white communities, but it does spread the reach of power for all communities.

The new Poor People's Campaign, a continuation of the campaign Martin Luther King Jr. was working on when he was killed, will demonstrate this expanded power through linking our humanity rather than by segmenting by color, class and all other factors that divide us. Rather than have shadow school systems for privileged communities while poor communities of color often rely on second-class school systems, parents with privilege who believe in racial equity can choose their values over choices that only benefit their children.

A 2015 report from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that white student achievement does not differ in schools with the highest Black density versus schools with the highest white density. Yet for Black students, due to the intersection of race and power in our country, attending an integrated school may signal the difference between receiving a quality education versus not.

With integration, the benefit is that attending diverse schools also makes children more likely to have cross-racial friendships and reduce racial bias, which will be increasingly important since our nation is becoming increasingly more diverse. Integrated Schools, an organization with chapters in 18 cities, works to help white parents live their values and choose schools for their own children that will affect the success of other children.  

Have the Courage to Dismantle and Recreate Inequitable Power Structures

According to Board Source, 90 percent of nonprofit board CEO boards are white, despite a significant portion of nonprofits serving communities of color. Additionally, 16 of the 500 Fortune 500 companies report that 72 percent of their leadership consists of white males. Although the most diverse to date, people of color make up less than 20 percent of Congress.

While individuals in the white community are not personally responsible for the crimes of their ancestors, they can acknowledge the responsibility to eradicate the current systems of oppression born of that marginalization. Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) frameworks such as the Meyer Memorial Trust Diversity Equity Inclusion Spectrum Tool enable organizations to address systemic inequities through data by evaluating key components such as hiring practices, diversity and community involvement.

Across the country, organizations claim they are not able to find qualified candidates of color. This is often because of existing power structures that define "qualified" based on their lens of success.

"Leaders often give access and exposure to people who they are comfortable with -- who are in their circle. Those, often times, are people just like them," Kristen Robinson, chief human resources officer at Pandora, recently told Forbes.

Such DEI tools force organizations to move beyond lip-service to diversity and put in place data-driven policies and strategies to strengthen organizational diversity from the entry level through board appointments and C-suites.

My organization recently underwent an equity audit and uncovered inequities in compensation for employees in the same role with comparable experience. The causes of inequity are that employee salaries were based on the previous compensation of the employee and the marketplace values men over women, and white people over people of color. After the data emerged, my supervisor reconciled those inequities to mirror the values of our organization, despite these larger systems of discrimination.

The most important sign that an organization is leveraging its power competently and not reinforcing current inequities is how it collaborates with the community. Often community leaders are used to inform decisions but rarely are they a part of the decision-making process.

Content experts are those with formal training, such as staff and leaders with formal power, while context experts are those with the lived experience of the issues the organization is working to resolve. Equitable power structures value both expertise equally and find ways to co-create policies with the community.

Brown v. Board of Education was a courageous attempt to ensure all children have access to a quality education, still our school systems reinforce separate and unequal. As recently as the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, in 2014, the typical Black student attended a school where only 29 percent of their fellow students were white.

As a nation, we have not given enough focus in reform efforts to build the capacity of white communities to dismantle oppressive power structures systemically created by centuries of slavery, Jim Crow and other structurally racist policies and practices. All strategies attempting to eradicate systems that relegate students of color to second-class citizenry need to be in play.

Our achievement gap is not about the allocation of finite resources such as tax dollars. It's about a pervasive lie that power is a finite resource. It is not.

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Kimberly Manns is Managing Director of Early Matters Dallas, a coalition of over 150 community partners working to increase early childhood outcomes. She is the former Deputy Director of Policy and Communications for the Mayor of Baltimore, and a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.