Making sense of Brown v. Board in light of today’s struggles over school reform

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In education there is no bigger legal challenge in history more famous than the Brown v. Board of Education case of 1954.

That suit, brought by the NAACP, was a largely successful strike against state sanctioned discrimination against black and brown students.

Dr. Cheryl Brown Henderson, daughter of Rev. Oliver Brown – whose name has become synonymous with the landmark legal case, joined the Rock The Schools podcast to talk about Brown v. Board, education, and school choice. You can listen to the discussion below, but here are some of her comments edited to make them easier to read:

Dr. Cheryl Brown Henderson

Dr. Cheryl Brown Henderson

 

On her first recognition that her family had been involved in a groundbreaking legal case:

Coming home from school as an 8th grader and seeing a white man I did not recognize standing on the porch. We lived in an integrated neighborhood so seeing people of other races was not unusual but I didn’t know this man. I got closer and he noticed my reluctance to approach him, he stuck out his hand and said “Hi, I’m Charles Kuralt with CBS news and I’m doing an on the road show for the 10th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education.”

On how the case came about:

In our city it began appropriately so with the NAACP and it’s leader at the time, a man by the name of McKinley Burnett. He decided that he was going to organize a challenge that would include Federal intervention in segregated schools. There were 11 school segregation cases in the state of Kansas before Brown vs. The Board of Education. Three of those early cases were also in Topeka so he was following a very long standing tradition when he set out in 1948 to convince the school board that it was time to really make a policy shift and desegregate the elementary schools.

On how the Brown family became involved:

The NAACP decided to recruit parents that had elementary aged children, which is how my father ended up getting our family involved. His participation was almost coincidental.A knock at the door. A friend of his who was one of the attorneys in the NAACP, part of the team recruiting asked my father if he would be willing to join their campaign as one of the Plaintiffs because it was a class action lawsuit they were putting together.

Meet the Brown parents:

My mom was 29 years old at the time. Dad was 32. They were young people. They were not activists. They didn’t belong to the NAACP. My dad ended up being the central figure because the final roster included 12 moms, homemakers, married women, so gender we believe is why he became the central figure in the Topeka case.

On the role and power of parents:

Parents really understand what’s going on because they have so little choice. Much like Brown parents, parents today need to align themselves with like-minded advocates, policymakers, and civil rights organizations so they can speak truth to power. We need to recognize, respect and honor the role of parenting. Parents know that education can help break the cycle of poverty but sadly what I observed as a teacher back in the 70’s, – and it’s also true today – the social economic status of the parents impacts how the system views them. There is a lack of willingness to fully engage parents as partners in their child’s education.

On the low expectations of teachers for black children:

The classroom teachers, some of my fellow educators who were white, were not as willing to engage with parents of color. And they certainly were not as willing to set the high standards that we all grew up with when it came to expectations for students of color. I watched that decline up close and personal. Our country had a major opportunity that we missed after Brown, after the civil rights movement. We missed that opportunity by not having the cultural competency training that could’ve helped a lot of teachers. Their biases came into the classroom with them and those biases often impacted the educational options that set outcomes for their children.
You know children have to believe you care about them. They have to believe they’re important. They have to believe that education is important. They must have high expectations and standards. It requires an awful lot of initiative.

On what really drove Brown v. Board’s push for integration:

Brown was about having access to the resources and equal educational opportunity. The money follows white children, let’s be honest. So it was about following the money, following the opportunity, following the resources, following the access to excellence moreso than the complexion of the person sitting in the seat next to you.

On her father’s concerns about the impact of integration on black educators:

His concern immediately after Brown was announced was what would happen to the teachers in the black schools? In 1953 the superintendent of Topeka Public Schools right before the court was to hear Brown sent out a letter to the African American teachers who had been teaching for 3 years or less, I guess what they considered non-tenure, told them in that letter that if the Plaintiffs succeed you will not have a job. In his way of thinking there would not be enough white parents willing to have African American teachers for their children for them to be retained. So before school started in the fall of 1954, he made good on that promise and released a lot of those black educators. When schools were integrated in Topeka the educators were integrated as well. And for one year he issued a policy that if I’m a fourth grade teacher in your school now, now you have a black teacher in your school for the first time, you have to call every white parent of fourth graders in your school to get their approval.


“Our children are just as smart, just as capable, just as accomplished, or can be, as any other child.”


 On the opportunity charter schools offer:

First of all, we’ve lost so many generations fighting over how we do education. Magnet schools…is it neighborhood schools? Is it this? Is it that? Is it charter schools? Is it vouchers? Is it school choice? We have been fighting since 1954. If charter schools have the opportunity for flexibility, innovation, to be able to show a difference in improving math scores and reading scores; I don’t want to see more children languishing in traditional public schools while policymakers fight. I’m of the opinion that educational options have to be on the table. Our children are just as smart, just as capable, just as accomplished, or can be, as any other child.

On the push of today’s NAACP to halt the growth of charter schools:

Before you take such a public stance on something you point out that you worked on yourself, historically to give African Americans options to school improvement, better options, better access for their children, let’s have a sit down. Let’s examine the Stanford University studies on charter schools. Let’s talk to the people that are charter school administrators. Let’s talk to the parents who have children that are succeeding in those schools. Let’s talk to the parents who are on the waiting lists. Let’s have a sit down before you do that. We were not afforded that opportunity to sit down with the leadership with the NAACP before that vote was put before the membership. I’m kind of heartbroken about that.

Listen to the podcast with Dr. Brown Henderson…

Could an ‘African American pedagogical model’ be better for black students than focusing on integration?

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Largely based on the research that supported the NAACP’s landmark Brown v. Board case, our conventional wisdom says “segregated” schools harm children of color and deny them access to the vast resources that put other students on track for productive lives.

Yet, in the years since Brown, scholars like Derrick Bell,  Frank Kirkland, Tommy Curry, and Vanessa Siddle-Walker (among others) have approached the issue of public school integration with a deft nuance gained through historical review, new scholarship, and assessing the public experience with school integration schemes that resulted in unintended consequences.

On the positive side, Brown spurred a moment in time in the 1970s where school started to integrated, and for a time there were improved outcomes for black students. According to Harvard’s Martha Minow, there were also the following educational advancements for a broader set of students:

1) the advocacy for gender equality in public school that first took the form of seeking co-education but over time has taken the shape of policies supporting single-sex public education;

2) the push to “mainstream” students with disabilities–including students with mental disabilities so that they may attend part or all of the school day with other students;

3) the emergence of school choice, first as a device for avoiding court-ordered desegregation, then as a technique for encouraging racial desegregation, and then as a technique intended to promote competition and school improvement;

4) the ultimately successful effort to secure constitutional approval for the use of public funds in support of private religious education.

Those positive achievements considered, still, the conclusion of most scholarly inquiries is simple: the push for public school integration by itself wasn’t enough to improve schooling for black children, and, in some notable ways, it set us back.

Chief among those setbacks was the decimation of black leadership in the education of black children, including a seeming irreparable decline in the black teaching force.

In 1955 the NAACP anticipated there would be a loss of black teachers, but marshaled forward with the thought it would be for the higher good of black students. At the time an attorney with the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare quipped “In a war, there must be some casualties, and perhaps the black teachers will be the casualties in the fight for equal education of black students.”

According to Dr. Siddle-Walker’s research, the “casualties” may have been the students themselves who were suddenly deprived of the successful pedagogical and community leadership practices of black educators in formerly segregated schools. Their “African American pedagogical model,” built on years of practice and interstate fellowship among black teachers, was positively impacting student achievement before Brown v. Board interrupted their progress.

Among the things we lost to history when post-integration black teachers were either fired or integrated into white teachers associations were the highly functional black educator networks at the state, regional, and school levels, across the South where most black students lived, that created an exchange for professional development and communal responsibility for educating black children.

What blacks lost after Brown:

  • 1954: 82,000 black teachers taught 2 million black children.
  • 11 years immediately following Brown, more than 38,000 black teachers and administrators in 17 Southern and border states lost their jobs.
  • 90% black principals lost their jobs in 11 Southern states.
  • NEA data: 85% of minority teachers had college degrees, compared with 75% of white teachers.
  • Black students majoring in education dropped by 66% between 1975 and 1985
  • We never recovered. (Source)

We lost more than bodies and jobs in schools. We lost critical institutional knowledge that was…

  • Increasing the literacy rate
  • Decreasing the dropout rate
  • Increasing the college going rate
  • Increasing test scores

Dr. Siddle-Walker says pre-Brown teachers in black schools were making these gains with black students “without having the things all these other [white] schools had.”

Watch this full video to see Dr. Siddle-Walker’s masterful presentation.

Also, read Dr. Siddle-Walker’s paper “Organized Resistance and Black Educators’ Quest for School Equality.”

Organized Resistance and Black Educators Quest for School Eqality

I’m tired of sacrificing for the dream of integrated public schools

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Integration. The idea brought well deserved cheers with Brown vs Board of Education. Many likely assumed that 60+ years later, deeply segregated schools would only serve as a relic of the past and a sharp pivot in the road for equity and justice for communities of color.

Today, there is another push for integration because student achievement in Black and Brown neighborhoods has languished. For the record, although I never attended one, I am not against integrated schools. I do wonder, with all of the energy devoted to it, how will it actually happen, look like, and to what end?

As a kid, what I remember most about attempts to integrate were bricks being thrown at school bus windows. Through the windows, white hurlers could plainly see Black children. Public regard for “separation is inherently unequal” was damned-we saw it in housing, the creation of suburbia,distribution of school funding, and resistance to Affirmative Action.

As most schools remain segregated today, even without Jim Crow laws, one has to wonder:  1) Does America really want integration and 2) How will it improve life outcomes for those who are left behind?

A ONE-WAY STREET

Yesteryear, many conscious Black folks were concerned about integrated schools because of the impact it would have on the slowly growing Black middle class. They knew, with certainty, that even if some Black kids were sent to a predominantly white school, their parents would not be able to “ride the bus” with them to work in same schools.

We saw something similar with integrated dollars. Black folks were not allowed to shop in certain stores. As a kid, although Woolworth’s was downtown and looked like a great place to eat, my Mama would never go in there because of how she said it used to be segregated.

Once Black people were able to use their purchasing power in Macy’s, for example, the smaller, Black-owned shops lost business. There wasn’t a major push from white folks to patronize the Black owned stores (besides entertainment) and so, when integration came about, Macy’s benefited, not the Black community’s entrepreneurs.

American integration tends to be like a one-way street, heading in one direction. It tends to mean “join us or continue to perish.” Black folks also know that, with white students, schools will get resources. America will make sure of that. There doesn’t appear to be a great push to integrate school funding. Pennsylvania, for example, has some of the worst examples of school funding inequities in the country.

MY BIGGEST CONCERN

My biggest concern about integration can be read in-between the lines of Chief Justice Warren in his brief about Brown vs the Board of Education:

“Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the Negro group…Any language in contrary to this finding is rejected. We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

I used to read this and wonder, why is there even a term of “separate but equal”?  Where exactly are the separate but equal Black/Brown and White schools? Is injustice only damaging to Black and Latino kids, or does it damage white children’s character and life outlook too? How much of our continued problems are because too many white children grow up to wield power over people they only saw on television?

When I ponder these words, I also think of a country not really wanting equity and justice to become pervasive. Yes, “separate but equal” has no place in public education, but any Black and Latino family can tell you thatseparate and unequal not only has a place, but a strong, unrelenting foothold.

Are segregated communities inherently detrimental to the Black child, or is the stark and persistent inequity of funding for our schools what is actually detrimental to their well-being? Will parallel play within an “integrated” school actually help develop the Black child’s psyche? If I attend a mostly white school, but I have no access to rigorous courses and I am regulated to the least experienced or most ineffective teachers, is that an integrated experience? Do my feelings of Black inferiority or white supremacy suddenly dissipate because of the sprawling school lawn and unlimited resources?

When, instead of holding ourselves accountable for what and how much children of color learn-regardless of where they attend, I fear that we are waving the lure of integration as the panacea for the educational injustice our children experience daily. Buyer beware, it will lull you into a 62-year coma.

I’M TIRED OF SACRIFICING

I wonder if the push for integration as the sole fix for the lack of safety and achievement in our neighborhood schools will have a detrimental effect on the psyche of Black children. To be told that your dilapidated building, scarce resources, and teacher equity won’t be fixed, but you will receive the equity and justice you deserve as a human being if you attend a white school, can be damaging to the Black child’s psyche.

Any assault on the idea of Black excellence in a predominately Black space is detrimental and unacceptable.

I agree that if all things are equal, having an integrated school can provide benefits to children growing up in a multi-cultural society. But, I also grow weary of Black folks needing to do the sacrificing in the face of resistance in order to achieve integration. It is like when people of color have to carry the water for cultural context incessantly, while white people get to groan about how uncomfortable it makes them feel.

As in a lot of spaces, siloed attempts to integrate public institutions are devoid of meaningful cross-sector integration. Folks may want their schools integrated, but will it result in just more parallel play? Will the same people who point to segregated schools as the main reason for decades-long failure in predominantly Black and Brown public schools jump at a chance to integrate, say, a neighborhood without gentrifying it?

WE ARE ACCOUNTABLE TO OUR STUDENTS

I work in an overwhelmingly Black school. We are holding ourselves accountable for our students’ education and well-being. We demand excellence from ourselves, and we support and push our students in striving for excellence. Do I believe if our students attended a white school they would get better resources? Yes. Do I believe that they will automatically receive a better education? No.

Out of all the negative by-products of No Child Left Behind law, one silver lining was the disaggregation of data. It illuminated that, too often, these very schools that we want to integrate our children in, have similar results for poor Black children. I would imagine it would be a double whammy to be low achievement in a sea of whiteness. And, that is not to say we should not integrate. What I am saying is, regardless of where Black and Brown kids attend school, let’s demand equity and justice and hold people accountable for the education of students of color -regardless of where they live and attend school.

Many people still view poverty and racial segregation as the only reasons for low student achievement. While I know that poverty has an impact, it is surmountable with high standards, rigorous coursework, thoughtful and sustained interventions and systems, the development of positive racial identity, and accountability for all to ensure this is all happening.

It is unfortunate, that too many folks would rather send a bus of Black and Latino kids to predominantly white schools instead of holding themselves accountable for pursuing excellence in children’s neighborhood schools.

To communicate to communities that they are only deserving excellence when they attend white schools is as insidious as the doctrine of separate and unequal itself.


Sharif El-Mekki wrote this post for the blog Philly’s 7th Ward.

TEACHER: Don’t blame kids of color for the problems whiteness creates

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by Tom Rademacher

They should burn the building down,” she told me.

“They should take all those kids and spread them out,” she told me. She wasn’t kidding.

She and I were in this district meeting thing, we had introduced ourselves with names and what school we were from, and she had launched into this. She was talking about the building I work in and the kids I work for. The building houses a magnet school for Native kids, the kids are nearly all considered poor, and nearly 30% are considered homeless or highly mobile. She wasn’t kidding.  And you know what?  You know the worst part?  I was nodding along.

When she called schools like mine a “cesspool,” when she said there were too many kids from “shit families,” I don’t think I nodded, but, fuck, I might have. Fuck.

I might have because, no matter how much I talk about how I don’t care about white feelings, I didn’t want to make this moment a thing. It took me a minute, a long quiet lunch, before I had put the words together to reach out to that teacher and respond beyond polite nodding. I let it pass in the moment because I just plain got scared of the conflict, because I’m a hypocrite too often, and kind of a shithead, and because it’s actually pretty hard.

But those words hit me, and really, it took me days to really figure out why the ideas behind the words could feel so absolutely wrong and right at the same time.

Because I kinda get it.  What we don’t want to do is group together kids who we have historically and massively failed and then continue to fail them, which is what we are doing, across the country, and over and over again, we are failing those kids. We aren’t giving them the support they need to handle trauma, the services they need to be safe and fed and secure. We are, far too often, not giving them teachers who expect them to succeed and have the tools to help them do it.

But we shouldn’t be burning those buildings down, because the buildings are not the problem. We don’t need to spread the kids out, because the kids sure as hell aren’t the problem.

Plus, is a piece of this maybe that having Native kids all together makes them visible, makes our failure of Native kids visible, which makes us uncomfortable?

Plus, spreading out these kids, or any other groups we want to spread out, like poor kids, black kids, EL kids, kids on IEPs, all the kids that we get nervous when there are too many together, all the kids who scare us, spreading them out isn’t going to make them learn better, it’s just going to make their numbers matter less.

Or, if pushing marginalized kids into the margins of other schools somehow does make them perform better, how much does that have to do with assimilation?  With just a few Native kids, or Somali, or African American, or Latino kids, how much easier can we pressure them to act, talk, learn white, how much easier can we ask them to check their identity and culture at the door when there are fewer kids like them to stand with?

But there’s nothing about being Native, or Black, or poor that makes a kid unable to learn. The problem, the failure, is not in their culture, it is in ours.

Whiteness is fucking up schools.

Whiteness is creating failure.

Whiteness is blaming the victims of racism and genocide for being victims of racism and genocide, and suggesting what they really need is to be around a lot more white people.

I don’t want to call this teacher out, because it’s bigger than that. I sent an email, she replied, whatever. The needle didn’t move, to be real. And, to be real, these are the conversations that are happening everywhere. In coded language and wrapped in well-meaning whiteness, we talk about how kids of color can’t learn when there are too many of them together. These are conversations that are happening too often, that pretend-ass anti-racists like me are allowing to happen too often.

Later in the day, a similar group was looking at Systems Theory and how it applies to school and this quote hit me just as hard as the conversation earlier:  “What we observe, whatever is happening in the moment, is exactly what is supposed to happen in the system as it is.”  *Yes. So, what does that mean about our poor kids, and most especially our poor kids of color and how persistently schools are failing them? Yes. Our system is failing them. Because it is supposed to.

Whiteness is destroying our schools with expectations of quiet obedience, an expectation that people in authority will be respected without being respectful, that they can demand before listening.

Whiteness is destroying our schools by establishing standards of behavior, speech, engagement, and work that are rooted in whiteness, that actively exclude.

So, I don’t think that spreading our “high needs” kids out will help them. But if we can de-colonize their schools from their “needs” that are really just the places where they diverge from whiteness, we can make their schools places that truly love and celebrate and work for them. **

If we can address the needs that are needs, if we treat trauma and poverty, the generational effects of surviving genocide on families and communities, if we treat our students as whole humans and schools as a point of first contact where we can start to undo the persistent inequity of our society, these schools, these cesspools, can be powerful and create power in a way that scares us.

We too often let groups of white people like me decide what is best for people of color, because listening to their leaders scares us, because they might tell us that we’re doing something wrong.

What if the predominantly poor schools, the schools with mostly kids of color, what if they were the best schools in the district or state? What if Equity looked like Equity and the kids who needed great schools most were the kids that got them? Schools with clean water and walls that don’t smell like mold when it rains. Schools with rich arts programs and a much higher percentage of veteran teachers and leaders given room to lead. Schools where the race of the students was reflected in the staff and decision-makers, where the culture of the students was supported in the curriculum and written into every policy and procedure?

Cool. So, where do the middle class white kids go? They get the crumbling schools, the teachers run out of their old buildings, the new teachers still figuring things out.*** They’ll get fewer sports, fewer options for classes, more rigid teaching. Less fun, less creativity, fewer chances to discover their strengths. Watch how quick it changes when the white parents start voicing the same complaints that have been coming for years from communities of color.

White schools should get less. Someone has to, and over and over again we have decided that the someone who will get less are the kids who need the most. We protect whiteness. We protect white kids. We do. We do it every time we blame the kids who are unteachable, the families who are broken, the schools that are hopeless.

What if we blamed schools instead of kids, blamed policies instead of families? What if we started admitting that we could do something about it? If we started admitting that we’re just not willing to make schools work for our kids of color now the way they’ve worked for white kids for generations?

It’s all already burning. All of it. Time to stop playing around.

– – – – –

*The Art of Coaching: Effective Strategies for School Transformation, Elena Aguilar

** I should give 1,000 shoutouts to people of color whose writings, teachings, and speaking have informed these ideas all over. As a white guy, I really rarely have a thought about race or gender that I didn’t pick up somewhere. So, I don’t think anything I’m saying here is unique or brand new, but I hope adding my voice is somehow helpful. I read and I listen constantly. Most specifically, the way Chris Stewart talks about his work and philosophy in education as being less about being a reformer and more about abolitionist has pushed me hard. He was the first person who I saw talking about the integration issue being insulting because it rests “on an anti-black, white supremacist frame too: black achievement is based on their proximity to whiteness. Yet, white achievement is not dependent on proximity to blackness.”

*** Not to go all “Not all teachers” on you, but, you know, not all teachers, obviously, are bad. I’ve seen some incredible work happening in some challenging situations, and some pretty mediocre stuff float by when there was no reason not to do better.

 

Tom Rademacher is an educator with the Minneapolis Public Schools, and 2015 Minnesota Teacher of the Year. He blogs at Mr. Rad’s Neighborhood.

I’ll just be a cocky young negro

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Cocky. Arrogant. Self-centered.

I may be all of these things or none of these things – I don’t know. I do know that I carry myself a certain way and have since high school. Allow me to explain. See, there are some benefits to moving as much as I did as a child. You learn how to adapt. In the summer leading to my senior year of high school, my parents did what many Black families did in the early 2000s, we made the “Great Negro Migration” from Oakland out to the outer realm of the Bay Area on the way to Sacramento. A bunch of folks moved to the Antiochs, Pittsburgh, and Modestos. We ended up in Stockton.

In my senior year, I went to Bear Creek High School. I went from a mostly-Black Emery High School, which had less than 300 students to a school with 2300 people, and Black folks were the minority. There, I learned of a beautiful yet mystical thing called ‘privilege’. The kids at this school were different. Whereas only a handful of students even had a driver’s license at Emery, I went to a school with a student parking lot where I saw Range Rovers and Mustangs. One of my close friends had a BMW M3 (he was 17), and one of my other friends drove his father’s Corvette. Needless to say, I was in a much different place.

images-5

The students at this school just moved differently. They knew they were going to college. At Bear Creek, I was in AP English for about two weeks. The students in this class set high standards and negotiated assignments with the teachers. In my old school, there was a strict no food or drink policy in our classes, whereas in my first-period Spanish class at Bear Creek, I watched a third of the class enjoy lattes and it was never an issue. In my AP English class at Emery, the most rigor I experienced there was a packet on Romeo & Juliet. No, these Bear Creek students were different. They felt like adults. It was a culture shock. So I watched. I watched the athlete with the bleached-blonde hair and his letterman jacket. I watched the way he interacted with the world and how the world interacted back with him. I watched as he experienced multiple internships in different fields. It wasn’t just white folks either. I watched the Black boy whose parents were both highly educated, and he would get frustrated between making a decision between his dad’s alma mater, Stanford or his longing to study in New York at NYU.

I didn’t quite know what I was witnessing at the time. I didn’t have the language for it. What I was witnessing was confidence. It was self-actualization in the teenage form. I was learning a different type of confidence. They didn’t feel like they were lucky because good things were happening; they expected it. They expected to be treated a certain way. Their parents expected things from the school with allowed those parents to place high expectations on their children. I wanted that type of respect. I learned early on that you command respect. Yeah, sure you give it, — we always give it! But I never felt like my people were demanding it. I learned how to exude expectations from my environment in the way I arrived.

quote-the-potential-for-greatness-lives-within-each-of-us-wilma-rudolph-72-5-0589

There’s only one problem; my poor Black ass was from Oakland by way of Chicago. There’s an expectation that goes along with that. Striking that balance has been a task that I am constantly learning even today. Here’s what I experience when I display that confidence. There’s a trigger in our heads that go off when the young Black dude has expectations for how the world should interact with him. The trigger says, “Nah, get back in your place, Nigger!” I saw it in college; I saw it in grad school, and I have seen it on every job I’ve had since college.

To the young Black folks that read my words, take heed. Smart people learn from their experience while wise people learn from the experience of others.

I am a person that understands that he doesn’t know a lot and the fastest way to get that knowledge is to find someone that does and commandeer them as a mentor. You can ask some of the biggest leaders working in Oakland today; there aren’t many that I haven’t had lunch with or volunteered to help with something so I could absorb what made them successful. Elihu Harris, former mayor of Oakland, mentored me for a spell when I was an undergrad. He told me something I would never forget. In fact, I found myself quoting it the other day. He said,

“Leaders love to leave a legacy. Every good leader wants a younger, better version of themselves to live through when they leave the work. So ALWAYS pick the brain of the leaders you come in contact with. If their office door is open, it’s your job walk through. If they didn’t want people walking in, they’d close it. Put yourself on their calendar. Make people tell you no.”

I don’t know what Mr. Harris is doing these days or if he would even remember that conversation, but it changed my life. It changed my approach. He told me that people were going to react to me differently because I was a Black kid that came from the slums. He also said that the folks that would have the most trouble dealing with how I moved would be other people of color. It’s stepping out of place in some of those folks’ eyes.

Greatness

So I’ve done that. I value my time, and I don’t waste people’s time, and I don’t allow them to waste mine. I don’t think I am better than anyone but I know I am valuable, and it shows. That thinking made me one of the youngest social workers in my company’s history at the time. In my job after that, it would push me from line staff to directing two sites across the Bay Area. That confidence helped me lead a walk out with a small group of others that altered how California State University, East Bay (then it was Hayward) engaged with students around budgetary changes. It helped lead to my Senate seat nomination at that institution. I know my worth. I’ve seen how privilege moves. I’ve seen how it talks. I’ve studied how it walks and it ain’t only for the white folks, homie.

For any young person of color reading this, you’ve got to know your worth. You have to know your value, and that is what allows you to walk into that president’s doors and still be able to kick it with the janitor. You have to be able to do both seamlessly. The world is your’s; it’s just waiting for you to take it. Take your mentors! Take your shots! Fail! Then fail again. It’s one of the best methods to learning. Trust me, I fail at what I do ALL THE TIME. Folks will call you cocky. Folks will call you self-centered. If that’s what it takes for us to have agency and ownership over our path in life then so be it. I’ve seen the alternative. Listen, if you work with kids in any capacity and they don’t leave your presence believing in themselves more than when they met you, you failed. I don’t care if you teach math or Sunday school.

I’ll just be a cocky young negro. If you decide to be one then you’ll be in good company. Malcolm X was called arrogant. Oprah was called arrogant. Denzel Washington got called cocky. As I write this, there’s a full segment on television on just how arrogant Cam Newton is. I want all of our kids to be confident and demand greatness from themselves and respect from the world. Call us cocky all you want, but you’ll be doing it as move out the way of our success.

– Cole Out