I had the pleasure of interviewing Kaya Henderson about her new learning platform, Reconstruction US, for my #UnPublic broadcast Friday morning. She reminded me of the conversations we started a few years ago about a vision for an education movement made for us, by us (FUBU)—ideas that have made it into her new venture.
It started a few years ago—I wrote a blog post about an ultra-private meeting organized by uber-wealthy African-Americans who brought prominent Black organizations together to create a fundable strategic plan for successfully lifting millions of Black children to reach their academic potential.
Billionaire Robert Smith, along with Oprah Winfrey and Mellody Hobson, were hosting the NAACP, UNCF, Urban League, Greek organizations, Jack and Jill, and other groups with budgets and infrastructure to work with educators and researchers on the question, “How do we save our children?”
There was one rather large and disqualifying problem with the meeting.
Reading to the end of my blog post, there was a one-sentence admission—that I had made it all up. The meeting was a ruse from my playful imagination. I intended it as a call out for us to stop falling victim to the devilry of our deficits and to start building on aspirations of our assets.
God help us if 42,000,000 Black people can’t ensure 8,000,000 Black youth learn to read, write, compute, and think at high enough levels to beat the systems that would have them die in ignorance. As the people who are more than nominally responsible for the development free, universal public education across the south during the reconstruction years, how the hell could we become the beggars of education?
Years of education stasis and “reform” positioned us to be employees, agents, and sidekicks in the various movements that were allegedly formed to liberate and sharpen our minds. There was a lot of frustration among my reform soldiers about the fact that much of our efforts were atomizing and sputtering. They were tired of being invited to the meetings after the real meetings, being asked for their advice on plans that had already been written and paid for, and having to carry tainted water of headstrong, heart-weak education proposals drawn from the empty well big-dollar paternalism.
I heard more than a few passionate entreaties about the need for a movement made in our own image, FUBU-style.
Each time I heard those calls a tiny dancer in my heart did the jig and screamed,
“Let’s do it!”
Then, momentum would die. There was a recurring impediment for some of the would-be FUBU proponents. Some of them couldn’t conceive of a self-funded education movement, and, because of that, they often became immobile in their feelings about what white philanthropy wasn’t doing for them or their organizations. My cold assessment of their problem was that it felt like nonprofit-industrial-complex entitlement and a betrayal of the hardcore activism that has always been required of Black people who want to be free. It felt a little like adolecents living in their parent’s basement complaining about the food in the pantries they’ve never stocked themselves.
I’m uneasy about that characterization and not sure it is the right one. I’m just honest about how it seemed like a needless impasse. As my colleague Dr. Charles Cole often says, if our liberation is dependent on white people changing we’re in trouble. He prescribes agency and I tend to agree.
Whether or not I shared their frustrations with white philanthropy wasn’t as important to me as considering a strategy for changing the game even if the predictable mechanics of grant-funded nonprofit work weren’t going to change anytime soon. I don’t like plans with implausible terms and conditions (i.e. until we fix poverty we can’t improve achievement, or, until philanthropy gives us a billion dollars, we can’t educate our kids).
I couldn’t understand the roadblocks, the lack of creativity or the lack of urgency given the size of our problem. Black minds die daily in ineffective and insufficient classrooms across the country. That dreadful problem will exist whether or not we’re getting the donative dollars we think we deserve to host circular discussions at hotels overlooking the sparkling waters of San Francisco. I don’t think the appropriate message from our talented class to the faces at the bottom of the well will ever be, “I’d love to fight for you guys, but so-and-so Philanthropy turned down our $500,000 grant request to organize y’all.”
It’s not that I dismiss the role of philanthropy. They are good for asking us to do permanent work with temporary funding. They love their metrics of the moment and don’t seem to understand how staff and operations aren’t nearly as elastic as the whims of foundations.
And, yes, there is a problem in the nonprofit world with them treating those among us who will accept it like ‘The Help.’
Assuming that all is true, then whatever plans we devise must be robust enough to include workarounds for these predictable obstacles. For all of our talk about living up to the legacy our ancestors built, how true is it if our response to financial barriers is resignation. That Black fragility isn’t worthy of our history. We must know white guilt has never been as fueling to our progress as Black determination and invention.
The argument I made in 2018 remains true today. Black people face wealth gaps, but we aren’t broke. We have $1 trillion in spending power that places us among the most prosperous nations of the world. We’re conditioned to see our lack more than our holdings, but we hold too much to consider ourselves powerless.
Just three of the Black organizations mentioned above have combined revenue of over $300 million. And, with 23% of Black Americans having college degrees—more than any time in history—we have enough educated people to plot a new course for our children and ourselves.
As I said then, “while our situation isn’t perfect, collectively we own some things, we know some things, and we’re going some places.”
What are we doing with what we have?
How much more could we do if we worked together rather than looking outside of ourselves for salvation from improbable sources?
I was lucky that Kaya was one of the first people kind enough to read my post and to respond productively. Like others, she was midway through the piece when she wondered why she had not been invited to the big meeting I described. If anyone should be there, it damn well should be her. Kaya’s work in D.C. produced the fastest improving school district in the country in no small part due to her ability to understand complex systems and pedagogical interventions. Presidents, philanthropists, and parents were aware of her work in a tough education market, even if they weren’t aware of how politics and pensions prevent leaders like her from doing all they know to do for children.
(On this point, I predict some smart person will soon document the fatiguing experience of people of color who lead school systems into greater accountability and performance, which often made them targets for coordinated attacks, smear campaigns and demands for resignations. Whoever writes that story should look at Valeria Silva’s ousting in St. Paul Public Schools, Susana Cordova’s resignation in Denver, and Janice Jackson’s recent announcement that she is stepping down from her role leading the Chicago Public Schools. Each of these women came up through the ranks in their districts and were committed to collaborative approaches to education, but their pushes for equity were no match for the collective power and status quo of public employees united by self-interest.)
Others who read my blog post stopped reading before the punchline and started making calls about it. Once they realized they were fooled, I heard a few variants of “Chris, why are you like this!?”
That was followed by the spark of an idea. Sure, the “private meeting” was fiction, but why couldn’t it be real?
Why couldn’t such a meeting take place? What was stopping us?
Others must have been thinking along the same lines because since 2018 there have been multiple meetings involving different configurations of the actors I mentioned above. I can’t claim any credit but as a digital provocateur, I’m filled with gratitude for our leaders at all levels who bring people together with adequate seriousness about saving our children.
We lost so much educational capital after 1954 when we turned the lights off on Black schools, Black teachers, and Black pedagogy, only to then turn our children over to systems that hate our children. If there is any hope of rebuilding Black educational capital and saving our future, we desperately need a positive conspiracy that takes stock of our assets and pools them just as Black communities did before Brown v. Board’s empty promises convinced us to sell our youth down the river.
It’s well past time we pull together, to support each other fiercely and lovingly, and to model humble, relatable, engaged leadership that gives our people hope we can win our freedom on our own terms.
The only thing stopping us is us.
If you want to learn more about Kaya’s project, see our discussion on it from last week’s #FreedomFriday episode of #UnPublic: