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Walking in Memphis: A Reality Check on Civil Rights and Education

As an education reporter, I frequently inserted this oft-uttered phrase into my articles: “Education is the civil rights issue of our time.”

I did so because it is very difficult to engage readers, even parents, on education topics. There’s a dearth of education reporters and a tendency for education stories to focus on over-tested kids, underappreciated teachers, overcrowded classrooms, underfunded school districts. You can’t blame people for tuning out.

The hope is that by using the term “civil rights” people will want to tune in to the details involved in providing kids, all kids, with access to a high-quality education. Say we’re dealing with “the civil rights issue of our time,” and they may even feel a sense of urgency.

I watched the film Selma a few nights before departing for my first Portfolio Network meeting, held in Memphis. Afterward, I wondered whether I, and others, had been cavalier in throwing around the term “civil rights.”

Photograph from the Portfolio Network Meeting.

But civil rights came up again and again in Memphis: on the plane in conversation with two Memphis school principals—one, a Memphis native proud to serve his community, the other a transplant from Philadelphia, drawn to Memphis because of its reputation as Teacher Town, USA. Both said they had a drive to address educational inequities in race and class.

It came up during Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey E. Hopson’s remarks at the portfolio meeting’s formal introduction. “Something is happening in Memphis,” he said, borrowing a phrase from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “You can feel the energy and focus on improving underperforming schools,” he said proudly.

Fellow meeting participants represented 30 cities around the U.S. Some of them—like the woman who left Hawaii to return home to Cleveland—were inspired to go back home to support the work underway in their school districts. Others never left, dedicated to serving the communities where they had grown up.

In Memphis, I realized that a story I never wrote and one I’ve never read is about the legions of people returning to their home states all in the name of education and building communities. Amid all the noise and debate about reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the future of No Child Left Behind, of Common Core and of testing, that’s not a bad thing to keep in mind.

It’s heartwarming, but it’s not the entire story.

In Memphis, we were challenged to face the elephants in the room—that people who think of education reform as a civil rights crusade can, in their zeal, treat communities as passive beneficiaries instead of partners. The result is too often community backlash and resistance.

“The children and families you serve exist in an ecosystem,” said Raymond A. Jetson, Pastor of Star Hill Church and President and CEO of MetroMorphosis, a Baton Rouge initiative to transform inner-city communities from within. “To engage a community, you must recognize the many layers of that ecosystem. Just as you take precautions when you go out into the wilderness, you must bring the same level of awareness, knowledge, and sensitivity to these communities and do no harm.”

Because, as Skillman Foundation President and CEO Tonya Allen reminded us, “education reform has to be done with communities, not to or for them.”

Over the next couple of weeks, in commemoration of Black History Month, we’ll share lessons and conversations with African-American leaders on the topic of education reform that we’ve been privileged to be part of:

  • Pastor Jetson’s gentle, yet provocative, rejoinder on how to engage communities, transform relationships, and create sustainable education reform.
  • A conversation led by Ken Campbell, former CEO of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, as he and others share what African-American leaders in education reform think all reformers should consider.

On my last night in Memphis, as a group of us enjoyed barbecue and blues on Beale Street, our young waiter overheard us talking about the portfolio meeting. A student at a nearby university whose life was being transformed because of his education, he wanted to know how he could motivate others. “More kids need to be serious about school,” he told us. “Education is important.”

“There’s something happening in Memphis, “ I told him. “Go be a part of it.” Two minutes later he came back with his Smartphone; the Teacher Town website was up on the screen. “I’ll definitely check it out,” he promised.

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