The Historical Importance of HBCU’s – A Discussion with Van Jones and Dr. Michael Lomax

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Historically Black Colleges and Universities have received increased attention this week, after a majority of the 104 HBCU presidents accepted an invitation to the oval office to meet with President Trump.

A lot of people weren’t happy with that meeting and a statement from John Silvanus Wilson Jr., president of Morehouse, seems to indicate that the meeting and Trump’s executive order on HBCU’s won’t signal much of a change in funding, or address issues like boosting pell grants or setting up an HBCU innovation fund as the presidents had hoped.

Rather than highlighting the important work that HBCU’s do and have done throughout their existence, the meeting mostly led to social media outrage.

Back in October of 2016, we had political commentator and activist Van Jones as a guest host on the ‘Rock the Schools’ podcast to lead a discussion with Dr. Michael Lomax of the UNCF about the historical and current importance of HCBU’s and a report they released titled “Building Better Narratives in Black Education”.

Instead of getting caught up in social media driven controversy such as the feet-on-couch-scandal, take a listen to the full conversation:

You can drag HBCU presidents for meeting with Donald Trump, but don’t ignore their struggles for our people

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If you were dying of thirst and some stranger rolled up to give you a tall glass of water, how would you feel about it?

What if the person giving you the water hated Mexicans, Muslims, lesbians, gays, transgendered or gender nonconforming children, black protesters, black people who vote, women, married women who resist genital grabbing men, white women who think for themselves, people who read, the media, and Rosie O’Donnell?

Such is the life of presidents leading America’s historically black colleges and universities recently invited to the White House. They are fighting for the survival of their institutions, often alone, and now they are suffering indignant Twitter challenges to their integrity because they met with Donald Trump.

“You’ve been used for a photo opp” many of the Twitter millennials – and some older people who act like Twitter millennials – are saying.

If you aren’t clear, Twitter millennials are always intellectually on point, morally pure, and insufferably “woke.” Especially the lucky few that make it through college (often through HBCUs) only to travel the country Snapchatting their picture-perfect meals while ignoring email soliciting contributions to the colleges they rep on t-shirts.

If only their activism was focused, practical, and aligned with the fight HBCU presidents are having to keep the lights on for a 150 year tradition of black self-determination in education.

University of Pennsylvania’s Marybeth Gassman, quoted in the Business Insider, says “HBCUs often struggle because they have fewer resources than other colleges — typically due to lower endowments and less money coming in from alumni giving.”

The same article points to inequitable funding from government, citing a piece by Donald Mitchell, Jr comparing ”the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill’s $15,700 in state funding per student” versus “North Carolina A&T University’s $7,800 in state funding per student.

It’s doubtful that Trump found Jesus on this issue for himself. Realty television celebrity (and ordained pastor) Omarosa Manigault, herself an alum of Howard University, is suspected to be the point of origin for his calculating interest in throwing a bone to black education.

According to HBCU Digest the result will be an executive order promising increased support for HBSCUs, one that bills itself as “among the most progressive partnerships between the White House and HBCUs in decades.”

It’s going to be huuuuge.

I’m not so sure, but I’m happy to see “White House Initiative on HBCUs” might move from out of the Department of Education’s basement and into the actual White House.
Ironically, and painfully, this showy display of Trump’s love for black colleges is in bizarre contrast to eight years of President Obama’s record.

HBCU presidents have complained for almost a decade that the needs of their institutions, and their students, were not only neglected by the White House, but in some cases they were harmed.

Black college students and HBCUs were disproportionately impacted by the Obama administration’s changes to the time span students could use Pell Grants, and his stricter guidelines for government-backed student loans to low-income families.

Those defending Obama’s record will point out he increased funds for HBCU students by $1 billion. That’s true and you should be thankful for it.

Critics, though, will remind you that it wasn’t all perfect. During the same time, our Ivy League educated “first black president” often slid into discomforting paternalism and reminded his incredibly loyal black voters that he was the president of America, not black America. He scolded us about being better parents; told us to stop complaining, pull up our pants, take off our slippers, and get to work – for him.

We obliged like good soldiers even if it felt like a slap to our esteem. It’s what we do.

Nobody felt the agglomeration of that relationship more than HBCU leaders who never received the support you might expect from a president that enjoyed nearly universal black support.

Now HBCU leaders must pivot and make the best of yet another intricate relationship, this time with an incomparably problematic president who offers thirsty people water for political reasons (see Nixon’s overture to black capitalism for a parallel).

If I were leading a historically black college and I was asked to attend a meeting with the highest elected official on planet Earth, I would go and be there early. I would resist lazy activism or childish displays of oppositional defiance that promise no gains for my constituents. I would stubbornly keep the main thing (producing more black college graduates), the main thing (producing more black college graduates!!!).

Regardless of who occupies the Oval Office, we must stay focused on our permanent interests, and the survival of black schools is definitely one of those interests.

If you want a detailed list of tangible policy aims to bolster HBCUs and their students, the UNCF (as always) has you covered. Their memo to President-elect Donald Trump from December 2016 details 10 actionable goals we all should support.

If all you want to do is be Twitter-famous for talking nonsense about people who are doing more than you increase the number of educated black people, no one can help you.

All I can tell you is that if Twitter had been active when Booker T. Washington was building black educational institutions more than a century ago – the institutions that created successive waves of middle class black intellectuals, professionals, and yes, Twitter activists – we might not have HBCUs today.

Luckily we have always had leaders that knew how to keep their eyes on the prize. Sometimes you just have to drink the unholy water and pray your people will have some grace about your sacrifices.

This hard working grandmother of 12 is graduating today with a Bachelor’s degree, at age 57

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File this under “never give up, never give in.” Darlene Pitts, a Virginian mother of 5 and grandmother of 12, has earned a bachelor’s degree from Norfolk State University at the age of 57.

Her path wasn’t an easy one, but by all accounts, she was determined. It started with a comment from her manager at Kroger’s grocery store in 2007.

“Is this what you want your grandchildren to see you doing? Working two jobs?” he asked.

Her answer was no.

Back in 2011 The Virginian Pilot profiled Pitts struggle to get her Associates Degree.

There were days when she wanted to give up.

Like the day she was diagnosed with a learning disability, or the days she had to miss class for rotator cuff surgery. Or any of the cold nights when the bus brought her home late, and she knew she’d have to get up at 5 a.m. to finish her homework before catching yet another bus to work.

But Darlene Pitts is no quitter. And that’s why, at 52 years old, this mother of five and grandmother of eight will be handed her associate degree at Tidewater Community College’s 53rd graduation Friday night.

With her AA degree in hand she pushed forward, enrolling in Norfolk University, where more challenges emerged.

During the course of the program, Pitts, who was working two jobs, was placed on academic probation. At one point, she wasn’t sure if she’d be able to complete the coursework.

“I came to work in tears because I got a letter saying I was on academic probation,” Pitts told The Virginia-Pilot. “Some of the classes, they were really rough. I was ready to throw in the towel. I just wanted to call it quits, but I just hung in there.”

But instead of giving up, Pitts quit her job at a Kroger grocery store and focused on her schoolwork and her job as a special education teaching assistant at a local high school. She started working with a tutor, too.

“It was a rough four years,” Pitts said. “But I still hung in there.”

dpitsPitts is graduating today. She’s a step closer to her dream (she wants a Masters Degree).

And, wait. There is better news. Pitts wants to be a special education teacher and pursue her passion for working with students who are misunderstood. She says when she sees students acting out she can relate, and she never blames them.

She says “That child’s wings were not broken by themselves. Something broke them.”

Fly on, Ms. Pitts!

New Orleans on the vanguard (again) with a HBCU teacher residency program

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The HBCU responsible for producing more black doctors than any other institution in the United States is readying itself to produce homegrown teachers willing to teach in their own backyard.

A new partnership between Xavier University and five charter school management organizations in New Orleans will train teachers through the Dr. Norman C. Francis teacher residency program starting in the Fall of 2017.

An email blast from New Schools for New Orleans says this is “the first teacher residency partnership between an HBCU and charter management organizations in the country.”

The email goes on to explain the reasoning behind the new program:

Residencies have a strong track record of preparing teachers to start and stay in the classroom. Though structure may vary, these programs operate very much like a medical residency. Just as a new doctor prepares, the bulk of a teacher resident’s time is spent learning alongside a master teacher before gradually developing the skills and completing the hours of practice necessary to become the teacher of record. This intense, practiced-based preparation ensures the teacher understands the rigor of the profession and has had intense coaching and feedback before being responsible for a classroom of students.

Xavier University of Louisiana, lauded for preparing more black doctors than any institution in the nation, has also been preparing excellent teachers for our schools since the university was founded in 1925. Xavier has long emphasized deep content knowledge and practice in their teacher preparation programs, requiring extensive field experience and student teaching from their education students. When we talk to school leaders about where their effective teachers come from, Xavier’s programs are always high on the list.

According to the National Council of Teacher Residencies, programs like the one forming at Xavier build on the medial residency model by teaching underlying educational theory and providing real world practice.  Before new teachers are allowed to fly solo with a classroom full of students from under-resourced communities, they complete a “rigorous full-year classroom apprenticeship with masters-level education content.”

All of this is a notable sign of progress for New Orleans. For at least a decade school reform leaders have been dogged by community complaints about large numbers of charter school teachers who are not from New Orleans, who are perceived as being culturally mismatched with their students, and do not reflect the racial make up of the student body.

There is another sore spot that usually accompanies the claim about “outsider” teachers too.

The scab on the wound created when thousands of New Orleans Public Schools teachers were released from employment after Hurricane Katrina never quite heals, even all these years later. People often mentioned the “fired teachers” of New Orleans.

They rarely mention that a good number of teachers were rehired in new schools, but not the ones who couldn’t pass a basic skills test.

The promise of a new way to prepare teachers in New Orleans serves two important goals: producing indigenous teachers who teach where they are from, while also preparing teachers who can be effective in closing the achievement gap.

Achieving that would be real progress for a city that couldn’t be more deserving.

In trying times this HBCU president sent a tender letter to his Morehouse sons

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To My Morehouse Sons:

The social climate across America is tragically disturbing. It is not hard for us to imagine that recent events have caused you to personally confront a set of raw emotional questions about where you fit and how you can survive the current state of our nation. As a Man of Morehouse, you have chosen to work hard and excel academically in order to have the life that is promised by America. But the pathway to success probably feels different now compared to last week, given the recent tragedies in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Falcon Heights, Minnesota and Dallas, Texas.

With this letter, I encourage you to endure the recent disruption to your standard summer activities, including your internships, family gatherings, travel and renewal. Keep your heads and your hearts in balance. Look toward the future and strive to be a man of acuity, integrity, agency, brotherhood and consequence. By doing so, you will find your own individual blueprint to change and unite our country. That is why your lives matter.

And, moreover, remember this: black men have managed to survive and remain remarkably productive throughout the slave trade, post-Civil War atrocities, the civil rights movement and so many other challenging periods in the life of this nation – and yet, like the great Morehouse College established 150 years ago, we are still standing as strong men of peace and justice!

My love goes out to each of you. Be mindful, be safe and be constructive. And we will see you next month.

John Silvanus Wilson Jr. ’79



See the original letter here.