On a recent State of Black Education – Oakland Rants Podcast (SoBEORants) Dr. Charles Cole III interviewed educational activist and brightbeam CEO, Chris Stewart on the hypocrisy of liberal cities and the recent report from brightbeam, comparing rhetoric and outcomes in cities like and including Oakland.
Listen to the full podcast, or read a transcript of the conversation below:
Charles: Hey everybody, this is Charles checking in from the SoBEO Rants Podcast. On today’s episode, you’re going to hear from Chris Stewart, one of my really good friends. We do another podcast together, and I’m just inspired by him and actually all the brothers and in the 8 Black Hands Podcast. But just really inspired by them for different reasons.
Chris, just because of how much of an activist around education he is, and he just recently released this report with his company at brightbeam Network and it’s called “the secret shame” about how the most progressive cities in our country are actually not doing a really good job of educating Black folks. And in this episode, I just gave him some space to just talk about why that’s important. I didn’t want him to have to argue about this or that and a third, like it really was just an opportunity for us to look in the mirror for a little bit in Oakland and say, “Hey, why are these numbers looking like this in one of the most sought after cities in the world at the moment?” So, it was just really good, and we have that report attached. There’s a link to the report.
Charles: The other side of this, which was just I think really great, was the side around being a mentor and the struggle. So, Chris and a few other people, I’ve been blessed, they just have wrapped around me in a different type of way and have had a lot of patience with me in times when they probably shouldn’t have had patience with me. Right? Or didn’t have to have it. And just trying to really figure out in a place like Oakland, where there’s some issues around our multigenerational leadership and tradeoffs, and just offering some advice around what we can do to make sure that we retain our own power. It was a really good conversation, and I’m really grateful for it. And I also know that Chris is a big fan of Prince, so let the Prince transition us and I hope you enjoy the conversation. All right, peace.
Charles: Welcome back to another episode of SoBEO Rants. This is the place where we talk to leaders that are having a great impact on Oakland with the work that they do and just doing some amazing, incredible things. Today, I have a really, really good friend of mine, who was also my cohost on the 8 Black Hands Podcast, Christ Stewart. Now, before I hop in and have him talk about more of what he does, Chris is the CEO of Bright Beam, one of the largest educational publications in the country. He’s been an activist for a long time and just a really, really good friend and mentor to me. Man, I truly loved this dude. Chris, thank you so much for being on the show, man.
Chris: No, I appreciate it. Thank you for having me on, man.
Charles: It’s all good, man. So, we’re a little different here than we are on the 8 Black Hands. This is more just a space where I tee up one question about what we ranting about today, and you just kind of go. And I have some little smaller questions peppered in there, but it’s really for you to just have a space to let what you need and say breathe. You recently just done just amazing report that talks about academic inequities in some of the most progressive liberal places, and it names San Francisco and Oakland. So, that’s one of the reasons I definitely wanted to have you on the show. So, Chris, what do we ranting about today?
Chris: Man, I need to just rant about these liberals, bro. I mean, honestly, especially in education, like education liberals in progressive cities, in cities where there is a lot of wealth and a lot of opportunity, but all of it seems to bypass the Black and Brown children living in the margins of those cities. And when you start to talk about it and ask why that might be and why our schools are producing such bad results, we get the P-ing, what I call the P-ing. The P’s everywhere. It’s the poverty, it’s the parents, it’s the programs, it’s never the practice or the potential. People just want to P all over the place. Poverty, parents.
Chris: So, I think we need a different discussion, and we need to not keep letting people off the hook with these silly excuses. As these cities get richer and richer and richer and the people growing up in these cities get more and more further away from the opportunity of those cities, with all your condos and all your beautiful things, your shiny buildings and all of that going up, and kids living in the margins looking from the bottom of the well, at that, knowing that they’ll never have it. That’s what I want to rant about.
Charles: Well, continue going brother. So, when you wrote the report, and I know you used to live in the Bay Area, so what do you want Oaklanders to know about that report?
Chris: Well, man, I lived in the old Bay Area. I didn’t live in the Bay Area that you guys have right now. Things have changed quite a bit. And the thing that I think has changed the most is just the enormous outgrowth of wealth. And with wealth, to me, come situations, wealth brings opportunities, wealth brings the ability to do things you haven’t done before, but it also brings choices. The leadership in cities like Oakland make choices. They make choices about where they’re going to build things, about who’s going to benefit, about who’s going to have the ownership of land and property, all that stuff, and we need to have our people at the front end lines in those conversations before these cities get even further out of hand and we’re just dissipating. Our numbers are dissipating completely out of these territories, and we get pushed to not just the suburbs but the suburb of the suburbs that nobody wants anymore. Right? And that becomes our new territory where we have to live.
Chris: In education, I can’t be any more clear than to say that liberal politics is killing us. Educated people are killing us. The middle-class is at war with us in all of these cities. You have middle-class workers showing up every day to schools to earn their living and their pension in places where kids can’t read or the future is predictable for kids. You can predict that they are never going to be part of the first-class people are their cities, and you can see it as early as kindergarten, second grade, third grade, whatever. It’s not a mystery to people.
Chris: Now, this is what I said about earlier, about the P-ing, what everybody’s going to say, but it’s explainable. It’s explainable because of how poor they are, so stop acting like it’s the school’s fault. Stop acting like it’s only the schools. Listen, I’m sympathetic to that argument that schools are having to deal with things that they’ve never had to deal with before, that we have new levels of trauma, created, by the way, by leaders and their decisions that they made in the past that created these inequities in the first place. It’s not like all of a sudden Black folks just got the poverty flu. That came out of a longterm set of circumstances that still continue today. Neglect, political obstruction, all kinds of things that took place. But even if we’re sympathetic to the argument that students are coming to school in rougher shape than they had been before, which actually I don’t believe that it’s always as that cut and dry people say.
Chris: I left Oakland in ’87. It’s not like in ’87 everything was straight and everything was cool, right? It’s not like every child in Oakland in 1987, when I left, was living like some glorious lifestyle and all of a sudden they lost parents and became more traumatized. There was trauma in ’87, and I’m sure there was trauma in ’67. I’m sure there was trauma in ’47 in Oakland. Right? So, let’s stop pretending like it’s worse than it’s ever been. Lord have mercy. Have you been to Oakland in 1987? Right? These schools, I’m sure having a tough time. I’m sure they’re not having 1987 types of time right now. And you can correct me if I’m wrong. You can tell me it’s worse than it ever has been. But even if we-
Charles: No, not at all.
Chris: Yeah. But even if we buy the argument that there are more kids that need help in our schools today, it’s not going to change the fact that we have research based evidence that the teachers who stand before our kids are the least qualified to serve the ones that struggle the most. And the kids of White families get the more veteran, better rated teachers. That’s not just in Oakland, that’s everywhere. Right? I’m not making that up. Research will tell you that. If folks need citations, God bless you, but it is true that the teachers are not prepared to do something so simple as… Let me not say so simple as. Something so essential as teach reading.
Chris: We have over 1,300 colleges of education that are not teaching teachers how to teach reading. Something so simple and basic. Let me take the word simple out again. I keep saying it so essential. If you can’t teach reading, if you have paid for four years of college higher ed education, and you have been inducted into the teaching profession without the basic ability to do something so essential as teach reading, I don’t care how poor kids are, that’s a problem you need to fix before kids are poor or rich, before you even get kids.
Chris: You can’t blame families for bad teacher preparation, low bars of induction into to the the system, inequitable systems for distributing teachers to schools and classrooms, inequitable systems of paying the teachers of White students versus Black students, inequitable systems of funding the schools that White and Black students go to. The schools in the hills and the schools in the foothills, right? How can it be more damn clear, right? Like God has given you every sign you need. The school’s up there are doing better than the schools down there. What’s that tell you? Right? Black people didn’t create this. Poor mama’s didn’t create this. Poor families didn’t create this. People who need opportunity didn’t create this. Who created it then? And who’s in charge now? Take me to your leader. If I land in Oakland and I say, “Who is responsible? Take me to the office. Charles, put me in your car. Take me to the office of the person most responsible for the racialized gaps and achievement,” where are you going to drive me to?
Charles: Man, as far as responsible, accountable, I don’t know. Who has the power to change it? Then we might just drive to whoever’s house that… I don’t know. I have no idea where I would take you.
Chris: And that is something that someone like you in multiple cities could say to me. Someone in Seattle could say that to me. Someone in San Francisco could say that to me. Somebody in Austin and Boston and Minneapolis, St. Paul, they all could say that to me. DC, Baltimore, I could keep going down the list. There are very few people in the political class of these cities, the people that we elect, who have fully taken on the challenge to say, “Dammit, the buck stops with me. It stops with my office. I have budgets and people and resources and decisions that can be made, and we are going to make it happen or I’m going to leave.” Right?
Charles: ow. I mean, first off, that’s how you rant. This is why I built this platform the way I built it because I don’t even know if you’ve ever had a chance to just be able to say all that stuff without somebody jumping in or giving a rebuttal or, “Who’s paying for this?” or whatever. That’s one. Two, how do you want people here, officials, parents, educators, the union, whomever, how do you want them to interact with the report, which is in the description, by the way?
Chris: The report at brightbeamnetwork.org, if you look at the report, it doesn’t come with policy prescriptions like you do A and then you get B. It’s not like a certain type of school that we’re pushing. It is not any specific policy legislation. Really what it is, is the basis for collecting your people together, however small or however big, and demanding from your political leaders that they put themselves on the hook, number one, for a plan that is publicly monitored and co-created with the public and that shows year over year growth in all of the baseline numbers. How are the kids doing right now? All the numbers you can imagine beneath the question, how are the kids doing? You should have your political leaders on the hook for next year’s numbers being better than this year’s numbers. So, I don’t care what you’re asking them for specifically. I don’t care about a type of school. I don’t care about a specific policy or practice. It’ll be different in Oakland than it will be in another city, which is why we left it that way.
Chris: We just want the people in Oakland, the people in Seattle, the people in Minneapolis, to demand that their mayor, their city council, their school board, their superintendent, everyone who is responsible for the children in their jurisdiction, to put themselves on the hook with a plan and then let the public monitor it year over year. And then, to be very honest with you, the way I want people to monitor, I want them to do it with the eye on telling their leaders, “You either lead or leave.” Stop giving your leaders endless terms for work that is not being done on behalf of children. Right? Start making them responsible by exiting their butts when they need to be exited. Right? It’s not that they’re bad people. They should just be successful somewhere else, not in leadership, not in city leadership. So that’s how I hope people engage with it. I don’t want them to do anything specific other than fight for a plan. Many cities don’t even have a plan. I could tell you the problem, they can’t tell you what the plan to solve it is.
Charles: Man, that’s super helpful. Thank you so much. That’s very clear. That’s very, very, very clear. Thank you for that. I’m going to transition just a little bit around leadership around bringing in new generations or whatnot. I’ve worked with you for a while now. You’ve kind of adopted me somewhat, and you’ve turned into a really, really valuable mentor of mine. Brian Stanley is another one, Dirk Tillison. Dr. Shawn Ginwright. I’ve been blessed in the last few years to kind of have these people come into my life that’s kind of like, “Hey, man, we got you. You can count them down. Keep fighting, but let me help you kind of level out because your levels are off.” What advice do you have…
Charles: And the reason why I’m asking you this on this particular podcast is because Oakland has a generational leadership problem. We have an issue between who our elders are, who the next generation, like this kind of middling generation that I probably fit in, and also like a new younger generation kind of coming up. And the men that have come to my life as of late have had some of the most patience that I’ve ever experienced in my life. I’m always used to things kind of going bad and wrong, so I don’t know, there’s some psychological things that’s kind of in there. But what advice do you have for other leaders that’s in Oakland that’s trying to kind of accomplish what you’ve accomplished with folks like me, right? Because you’re bringing in a whole new generation of activists and educational leaders, and even if you didn’t realize you were, you are. So, I’m going to ask you, one, what is your source of patience come with me? But two, but ultimately, like what is the advice that you have for building a multigenerational coalition of everybody in this fight for our young people?
Chris: This is a deep, deep, deep question. I mean, and I feel like just before I give my feeble attempt to answer it, that I have to say on the other side of this question is our liberation. If we get this right, we’re unstoppable. Right? So, just to be very clear, this is like curing cancer right here. So, this question embedded in it is, it’s our inability to be stopped if we get this right. Right? I think, we have a generation before me that actually wasn’t 100% used to mentorship as a thing. And as a matter of fact, if we’re being very honest, there was a lot of people in the generation that preceded me. I’m Gen X. So, the generation that proceeded me, it was if you got into a gig, you kept it for life, right? You would run the nonprofit till you die. Right? And then, when you died, you hadn’t brought up three or four other people.
Chris: I once asked one of my elders about what mentorship he had received? And he laughed and said, “None.” He was like, “I never had nobody to be a mentor to me, man. That’s some stuff y’all folks have invented.” Right? And he was serious, and he was somebody that I saw as a mentor in the community just because he was successful and opened doors for a few people here and there. But he was straight up about it. He didn’t have a mentorship ethic. Right? My sense is that what happened for me in Gen X was I did have a few people open doors for me, and I made a personal commitment. A personal commitment was, what I do for two generations down is going to be most effected by what I just do with a handful of people in the next generation.
Chris: So, I’m Gen X. I have a few Gen Y folks who I have just committed for life. Every time I get an opportunity for these set of folks, I’m going to send it their way. It’s not like they don’t even have to ask for it. They don’t even know that I’m doing it. Right? They don’t even know. But it’s my personal commitment. And my hope is that each and every single one of them does the same thing for Generation Z. Right? So, it’s not like when you’re a mentee that you’re off the hook. I think everybody should be both a mentor and a mentee and have an ethic for it. What’s your ethic? What are you doing for Generation Y? Because I’m doing this for Gen Z.
Chris: In my own household, in my own family, I’m a dad to Gen Y and to Gen Z, to both generations. In my mentorship life, I’m not really doing as much with Gen Z as I am with Y. As a matter of fact, I’m doing very little, even though I’m in education, with Gen Z. My strategy is put all the effort into Gen Y, and then they need to do the same thing. So, if I help 50 people and they all take on two people, you see how the numbers are multiplied. Right? How the multipliers work? I think that’s my personal ethic.
Chris: One thing I’ve been involved in in the past is something called the African American Leadership Forum. It started with just 15 brothers [inaudible 00:20:17] want to say like five or six and then got to 15 brothers who were meeting on Saturdays just to talk about the fact that they didn’t have the type of power in the city that they lived in that they wanted. And one was at the county, one was with the state, somewhere nonprofit, somewhere with funders. It was a mix of Black men. Eventually their wives looked over the table and saw what they were doing and we’re like, “Well, wait a second, how are y’all just going to be meeting and leave the women out?” So, they formed their own group. The short story is, eventually that grew be about 40 to 150 to 1500 people. And they had an ethic that they agreed upon, they had some goals that they agreed upon, and it was multigenerational. It was specified with specific…
Chris: So, the very first thing I think that people have to do anywhere is create the space where people can come together to declare what their values are, and they have to declare mentorship and intergenerational power as one of their ethics. If it’s not explicit, don’t expect it to happen. If there’s no safe space to talk about it, don’t expect it to happen. If a handful of people can’t get together, like four to eight people can’t get together, and say amongst themselves, “This is what we’re going to do.” If you can’t get five Gen X-ers in room and say, “Look, bro, we’re each going to take on 15 Gen Y folks, and we’re going to pull ourselves, our resources, to feed them every opportunity that we can give them so that they become powerful leaders and that we can die knowing that they did that.” If you can’t get that small number together to do that, I don’t know how you can get a bigger number to do it. Right?
Chris: So, I have my small number of people. If you’re asking me how I personally have achieved it is, I have my small number of people that are in my generation that are doing what I’m doing. And because of that, when I don’t have a resource for one of my people, I can tap into one of them for it, and they know why I’m tapping into them. They know I’m asking for one of my peeps, they know that I’m trying to feed one of my people something and vice versa.
Charles: Well, I want to just appreciate you man and thank you. I want to tell you that I love you. And for the folks that-
Chris: I love you too, brother.
Charles: I appreciate that, man. And for the folks that’s listening here, I know that… I mean, we have a lot of people that I know listen to 8 Black Hands, but I know we have students that specifically are listening to SoBEO Rants because they want to learn about what’s happening in Oakland. And what I’ll say to those young people that tend to look at me is that, there is a lot that I’ve probably endured getting to this point, and there are some ways that I had to be that I don’t always have to be moving forward.
Charles: And sometimes it takes people with patience, some years on them, some folks that kind of went through it, went through their own stuff, to kind of sit you down and be like, “Look, man, we care about you. Ain’t nobody here trying to hurt you. That armor that you need for the world, you kind of don’t need it in this space.” And I’m being transparent because I know the young people that I know by name, some of the young people that’s going to listen to this and have questions about it. And that same angst that you all offer me that I kind of deal with and push back on you, poor Chris and some other people that are in my book club or at 8 Black Hands, they get that from me, and I don’t even [crosstalk 00:23:34].
Chris: [crosstalk 00:23:34] and it’s not poor Chris, bro, because I’m that person to somebody else, too. Right?
Chris: It all trickles down. I got my person that I’m that person to. You got your person and vice versa. But what I want to say is, you have connection to Gen Y or to Gen Z and beyond like I don’t, so my hope for you is that you would be teaching this mentorship ethic right now. We have schools where eighth graders read to kindergartners. Right? I think that’s brilliant. I think it makes a lot of sense to, even in eighth grade, start saying, “You are responsible for your youngest siblings.” Right? And your younger people. So, that by the time they’re teenager, it’s already natural for them to see that, “Younger people are my job.” But you don’t have to wait to get old for that to be the situation because that’s a lot of people off the hook.
Charles: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense, man. That makes a lot of sense. And y’all have been listening to SoBEO Rants. We want to thank and honor Chris for coming on. Chris, can you give all your socials? And we will also put them in a description, but I’ll let you say the best ways for folks to contact you and brightbeam.
Chris: Absolutely. The best way to contact me is on Twitter, and @citizenstewart. That’s on Twitter. And then my email address, if anybody wants to email me with reports or anything, any questions, information, it’s just [email protected].
Charles: That’s beautiful, man. Y’all have been listening to another episode of SoBEO Rants. Chris, thank you so much, and we will see you next time. Peace.
Chris: Thank you, brother.
This post originally ran on the Great School Voices Blog here.