Interview: Joshua Starr, CEO of Phi Delta Kappan International

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Today on the blog I interview Joshua Starr, the CEO of Phi Delta Kappan (PDK) International. You may recognize Starr from an earlier guest post, wherein he shared guidance for how superintendents can cultivate anti-racism in their school districts. PDK is a professional association for educators, and they are best known for their annual poll on American attitudes towards schooling. In the interview Starr and I discuss the most recent poll results and what they might mean for public policy.

Me: What does this most recent polling data tell you about our national education conversation? Are we having the right discussion? Are we talking past each other?

Starr: There’s something missing both from how we talk about the classroom and from how we talk about policy. I’ve been encouraging people not to think of these two things as dichotomous.

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What we do in our poll is that we look at things broadly and try to anticipate what the issues might be. The results tell me that something is missing from our national discussion. Standardized testing is a big part of the landscape, and people understand that. But they want more from testing. They want to see career readiness embedded in schooling. In conversations I have had with people, they want to see an emphasis on both college and career. But right now, the conversation feels too binary: it’s either standardized testing or authentic learning.

People are pretty reasonable, and if they can see that the testing that their children are undertaking, or the curriculum they’re doing, increases their ability to navigate the world in the long term, they’ll be okay with it.

But overall, I think the results tell us that there’s something unsatisfying in the experience of today’s schools. It’s not that it’s bad, or that people reject it. They just want more.

Me: Do the results give you a clue as to what "more" might look like?

Starr: One big issue is career readiness. That looms large. Whether that’s certificate programs or job embedded skills. Huge.

The other piece is the interpersonal dimension. In the poll, we called that “respect, cooperation, and problem solving.” There is huge support for those things. That’s what people think is missing from today’s classrooms.

On the other hand, there are educators who think they’re doing those things everyday. That may be the case, but that’s not how people are feeling as they respond.

Me: Are people assuming that the presence of testing leads to a lack of these other things? Is that a fair assumption?

Starr: People are frustrated with the emphasis on testing, not the presence of it. It’s the notion that when I hear my principal or teacher or superintendent talk about kids passing tests, and that there are pep rallies for it, and that the most communication I get is when it’s testing time.

Again, this my interpretation based on my experience. So I think that it may just be that it’s conflation. Parents see the kinds of work that kids are getting, which tends to be worksheet driven; it’s work that is pretty rote and basic and not really helping them learn how to solve problems, which is much more important than passing tests. I think people see the disconnect.

Me: You asked more questions than usual about diversity, segregation, inclusion, and equity this year. Why did you do that?

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Starr: We have asked one-off questions about integration in the past. Most respondents said that they support it. Given the conversation we are having nationally, it felt important to ask about it. My own personal experience is as a superintendent of diverse systems. It’s an increasing part of the conversation. The re-segregation of white districts seems like a theme. We felt this was an area of interest.

One the one hand, when you look at the data, nothing really jumps out at you. On the other hand, on paper people prefer diverse schools, but they don’t really want to work for it. So it’s unclear whether it’s just a socially desirable answer.

That said, as a whole, white people don’t even say that. There’s an interesting divide between the perspectives of white people versus African-American people. White liberals tend to say that integration is good for society. African-Americans and Latinos are more like, “Yeah, that’s fine, but for me it means that there are better teachers and more resources for our kids, and why can’t you just provide that in my kids’ school regardless of the racial makeup?”

Me: From my perspective, there is a giant mismatch between the elite conversation about integration, and the presence of policy ideas that have a viable constituency. Do you see that?

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Starr: I think about this more on the local level than on the federal or state level. It’s a matter of value proposition. If you just talk about integration and diversity in terms of who sits next to whom, you aren’t giving parents anything, whose ultimate interest is self-interest. Even if you’re liberal and progressive, your interest is still your own kids. The mentality is, if I’m going to put my kid on a bus, or I’m going to send my kid to a school where there are diverse needs, what’s the value proposition? The value proposition of saying, “diversity is better” doesn’t really resonate. There’s a slight majority that thinks that racial diversity will improve things for black kids, but not so much for poor kids. In my mind it has to be framed around teaching and learning, and the improvement of what kids get in the classroom.

When I did this work in Stamford as superintendent, it was framed around teaching and learning. We created core science projects, core books in social studies. For the first time, we said all kids are going to have access to advanced work. The staunchest opponents of integration – always white folks – will come up with reasons for not doing it. But most folks are pretty reasonable. If the white folks on the soccer field are worried that they’re going to be sitting next to black kids and English language learners, they might get antsy. Their mentality is, "I won’t send my kid to a school JUST for diversity," but if a diverse environment also gives them more things that jive with their beliefs about transforming the learning experience for kids, maybe you win over more people over.

And that’s a local decision. You have to do that along with curriculum and instructional improvements, and resources for professional learning.

Me: I’m asking this sincerely, even though I have my own personal biases as to the answer: Why are white parents worried about their children sitting next to a black kid or an English language learner in a classroom?

Starr: In my experience, it’s two fold. One is just contact theory and this idea that the more contact I have with somebody who is different from me, the more likely I am to have a give-and-take relationship with them. And vice versa as well. As a consequence of that, as a parent, I might not believe that the needs of my child will be met. This relates to how parents conceive of teaching. The thought is, the more time a teacher spends with my kid, the better off she is. If all of a sudden one-third of the kids in the classroom have greater needs than my child, my child won’t get what she needs, and that's what I think my tax dollars are for. This ties into the idea that the school is a private commodity, not a public good. I bought a house, I pay taxes, and I expect that my kid will be the beneficiary of those tax dollars. This goes along with the belief that other parents didn’t pay for that experience.

And then I think there’s some straight up racism. There is a sense of entitlement, and the idea that the whiter something is, the better it is. There’s a sense that something is more valuable if I have it, and you don’t. There are white parents who believe that their child is getting a better off education because of the makeup of the school and the cost of the house they built. They have no idea that some of the best instruction happens in the schools with the most vulnerable kids. Honestly, sometimes teachers don’t have to work as hard in schools with privileged kids. But I think there’s a perception that, if it’s white, it’s good.

Me: What do you hope policymakers take away from this polling data?

Starr: You have to make decisions about resource allocation. But the work of educating kids today is so unbelievably complex, and we have to figure out how to embrace that complexity. How do we balance all of that stuff? I think the poll results shed some light on that. On the hardest stuff, you can act much more quickly at a local level. At a national level? Right now, it's very hard to see how you could act on any of this.

Interview: Mayor Kimberley Driscoll of Salem, Massachusetts

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Today on the blog I interview Kimberley Driscoll, the fiftieth mayor of Salem, Massachusetts. Salem has a fascinating history, even beyond the notoriety of its 17th century "Witchcraft Trials." Salem today looks nothing like its colonial forebear, and as one of Massachusetts's "Gateway Cities," Salem is among the most diverse communities in the Commonwealth. In our conversation, Driscoll talks about the linkages between past and present, playing an active role in education policy, and planning for the city's 400th anniversary.

Me: So, a lot of us lost track of Salem after our high school United States history class. What does Salem look like in 2016?

Driscoll: It’s funny you ask that, because our 400th anniversary is ten years from now. We’re working on a community visioning process, to figure out what we want our community to look like then. There’s nothing like a deadline to get people moving, so we’re really focusing on having stuff done for 2026.

What Salem looks like now is a city that’s benefitting from the new urbanism movement. People want to live in active, vibrant places, where there’s walkability and access. If you can do that in a place like Salem, with all of the history and culture we have, all the better.

In Salem, you have the bones of interesting architecture. People can live downtown in a cool building. We have the Peabody Essex Museum, which has a world class collection. For a city of our size, we sort of punch out of our weight class. We have a full service hospital, cultural institutions, and a history. Even though that history is complicated and makes us notorious, that means we are a tourism-based community. We have our own economy, but our economy also relies a great deal on the Boston market to help us thrive.

People, by Thousands

Me: Salem's notorious history, which could be the topic of another whole conversation, means that you get a ton of tourists in October. Is that calming down?

Driscoll: There are still people here this week, but not like in October. We’ll have about 250,000 people visit here every October, depending on the day of the week that Halloween falls. There were five weekends in the month this year, just packed with people and activity. The hotels are full, the restaurants do well. We have walking tours, museums, and attractions. It certainly is a big month.

Me: Salem has changed a great deal in the last generation. What does that mean for your broader civic infrastructure, schools in particular?

Driscoll: We’re a more diverse city than we were twenty years ago. From the socioeconomic standpoint, as well as race, and makeup of our community more broadly. We benefit from the fact that we’re a welcoming, diverse, and inclusive place. We have lots of different backgrounds, and lots of different languages spoken.

Salem in 1980

Salem in 2016

We also have lots of different incomes. We have neighborhoods with pockets of poverty. We have pockets of real affluence too, and everything in between. When we think about the history of Salem, the sea captain Elias Hasket Derby set up shop here, and he was the first millionaire in America. But we've always had income diversity. When you look at the federalist houses downtown, you see the history of wealth, but you have to contrast that with the folks who unloaded the docks in those days. All of those people have always been living within eight square miles of each other, and it’s been a real mix.

When it comes to education, we didn’t have standardized tests twenty years ago. There was no yard stick. The accountability has changed, and so we know a lot more about how we’re doing across those lines of difference

Me: To stay on schools, you have an elected school committee, and you are an elected mayor. How do you interact with the schools?

Driscoll: I would say that when I first started in office, the superintendent was the leader of the schools, and I put a lot of trust and thought into being supportive of whoever that was. Mainly that meant making sure there were the resources in the budget to get the job done. I was a lot less inclined to get into the weeds. I don’t have an education background, and as a parent of three kids in the district, I was pretty pleased. I mainly wanted to make sure there were adequate resources for schooling.

Photo Credit: Salem Chamber of Commerce

Photo Credit: Salem Chamber of Commerce

Then, enter the "level four" designation. (NB: In 2011, one of Salem's schools moved on the state’s intervention list for low-performing schools, and the whole district later was identified as needing improvement.) I felt like, “Holy cow, wait a second. If we aren’t at the level we need to be, I need to play a more active role.”

I started to think about what are the other steps and action items I can tackle, to make sure that all families, including middle class families, can raise their kids and receive a high quality education. Education became more of a pressing, up-front issue for me as mayor. I wanted to get under the hood, working in partnership with a quality superintendent.

Me: Has that paid off?

Driscoll: I think it’s challenging, because as it turns out, educating kids in Gateway Cities is challenging. The hardest work we do as a city is making sure that all kids have great schools. That’s more difficult than roadway issues, and all of the other stuff that comes across my desk. It’s also the most important. Given the impact that schools play on every other facet of our community, it’s such an important part of your profile as a city.

The young millennials need to know the schools are good if they’re going to stay. The families here need to know that their children are being well served, and that is critical to our success as a city. But it’s hard, it’s really challenging work, and I think we’ve had hard conversations as a school committee, and in the community at-large, about what is the best way to achieve success. We want to be innovative and to give parents choices.

Me: So speaking of choices, while many of the municipalities in the Commonwealth have campaigned actively against charters schools, you have taken a different approach. Talk to me about that.

Driscoll: I think that, given how hard the work is, we need an “all hands on deck” approach. We have an in-district charter and an independent charter. We have an innovation school, and we have a school on the campus of Salem State, in partnership with the university. We have an array of choices for families, which I think is really important, especially as a parent of three kids. We have three different learners in our household alone.

The work is so hard, and we end up fighting over charter versus traditional. But we are working towards making sure we have high quality options for everyone. We work collaboratively with our charter school. That doesn’t mean that we like the funding formula. We’d love to see those reforms. That’s a valid issue.

But we are not worse off as a community because we have Salem Academy, which 51% of our families apply to for middle school. We are a better community because of that option. If as a state we could get over this funding situation, we could be more honest on this issue. It would be great if we could work on the math and make sure that all communities and all kids have quality options.

Photo credit: SalemPuritan, Wikipedia Commons

Photo credit: SalemPuritan, Wikipedia Commons

Me: What else, besides options, makes Salem stronger, when it comes to education?

Driscoll: The partnerships we have formed. Working closely with Salem State, working with the Peabody Essex Museum. We work with Harvard, and its medical center, which has a branch in town. One of the ways we approach the work in our schools is with these partner organizations.

We also formed a children’s cabinet, which means we think a lot about how we come together as a whole community. Education is a community mission, so how do we ensure, through our community, that we are providing excellent opportunities? We’ve got people buying in now. Part of the reason we became "level four" in the first place is that we didn’t have as active and engaged a community around our schools. That accountability from the community is a positive thing for us, and we need the lens the community brings to push us even further.

Interview: Pure Black with Reggie Noble

Today on the blog, I talk to Reggie Noble. "Kid Noble," as he is known on twitter, is the man behind “Pure Black,” a t-shirt brand whose slogans and sentiments are embraced by activists around the country. His original design – “Pure Black Nutritional Facts” – was the result of a social media crowdsourcing process (#PureBlack). Noble has a background as a designer and communications professional, and he was a part of the protest community in Ferguson, Missouri. We talked about activism and finding creative ways to communicate about injustices. As a bonus, we talked about the perils of miscommunication on twitter.

Me: Tell me the story of how you started Pure Black.

Noble: I wanted to come up with something cool in the wake of what happened in Ferguson, Baltimore, South Carolina, all these different places. Something to celebrate Blackness that’s affirming to Black people. I wanted to communicate that we are here, okay, and great. I wanted to celebrate that.

I designed the first shirt in June last year, and I asked twitter for ideas. Nobody knew I was designing a shirt, though. I just asked people to share what they love about being Black. I used to do this thing called “Noble Quest” on twitter, where I would ask a bunch of questions, so I framed it as that.

Noble, wearing the original Pure Black Nutritional Facts design.

Noble, wearing the original Pure Black Nutritional Facts design.

Some of the responses were great, some were cheesy. But I used a lot of them. I made a mock-up of the original shirt and texted it to like ten friends of mine. What are your thoughts? What would you change? What do you like about it? Most people thought it was dope, but a few people wanted to play with the percentages. The big controversy was over whether respectability should be 0%. People were like, “Why wouldn’t I want to be respected?”

I’m like, “That’s not what that means.”

I put the shirt out in August 2015, near the anniversary of Mike Brown’s death. The goal was to sell fifteen shirts. I hit that in the first hour. I was blown away. I was like, let it ride. The original was the Black shirt in white lettering (above). People eventually wanted colors and sweatshirts and hoodies. It just kind of took off from there.

Me: Crowdsourcing the shirt was a very “right now” sort of thing to do, in terms of design thinking and empathy-driven prototyping. Is that why you did it?

Noble: I wanted community input, because I wanted the shirt to be something lots of people found attractive and could see themselves in. I could put together the coolest thing in the world to me, but if nobody else thinks it’s cool, they won’t buy it. I compare this with the new Smithsonian museum [for African-American History & Culture]. People can see themselves in that museum, because there’s everything from the history, and it's familiar. There are pictures of my friends Netta and DeRay in there.

Someone might buy the shirt because they suggested a word. I’m always about community input as it relates to most things, including the workplace. I just quit my job at Apple because I moved, but they are big about feedback, and they talk a lot about positive-specific and negative-specific feedback.

Me: You mentioned some of your friends that are prominent in the movement for Black lives. You also came out of the protest movement in Ferguson. Talk about the intersection of movement work and commerce.

Noble: In some ways there’s this conflict between what I try to capitalize on, and when do I just let it ride. For example, when Jesse Williams made his speech at the BET award show, about blackness being real versus magic, I was like “Oh, I can jump on that,” because it’s not at the expense of anyone.

But I never wanted to do any shirts with someone’s name, which felt to me like profiting off of Black bodies. It’s a conflict sometimes. The other way I rationalize it is, I try to put out the shirts at a time when nobody just died. I also try not to advertise in the immediacy of someone dying. Most of the advertising is word of mouth anyway. Someone posts a picture, then someone reposts it.

Me: How did you get involved in the Ferguson protests?

Noble: Before any of the publicized killings happened, I was at my mom’s house one day. My brother was there, and in the middle of the night he took my car to go to the gas station. The temporary tags on my car had expired, and I didn’t have real tags yet. He got pulled over at like one or two in the morning. He’s nervous, because he took my car without asking me, and it’s the fist time he ever got pulled over. He doesn’t handle pressure well, so he was nervous. He kind of freaked out. The police see he’s nervous, and suddenly there’s more than one cop car, and there’s more than one cop. So they asked to search the vehicle, and he agrees. They ransacked the car, as police do. They basically told him to get his tags straight, and they let him go. He didn’t tell me when he got home, because he was afraid to tell me he took the car.

The next morning I went to leave for work. I get to my car, and I call mom and I say that it looks like someone broke in the car. That’s when she finally told me that my brother got pulled over. I was terrified for him, because those police could have done anything to him.

A few months later Mike Brown gets killed. But what had an even bigger impact on me is when Vonderrit Myers was killed by a police officer, which happened in my neighborhood. The same cop that stopped my brother could have been the one who shot him. My brother wanted to go to the protests after Vonderrit, but I wouldn’t let him, because I wanted to protect him.

I had been out in protest after Mike Brown's death, but the next night after Vonderrit I went out, and that was the night we shut down one of the main streets in South City. The next night was the one we shut down QuikTrip. That’s when I met Brittany, and DeRay, and Kayla. I had known Netta since 2009, but that’s when I met everyone else.

Me: What’s it like in St Louis and Ferguson now? What does activism look like when the cameras leave?

Noble: A lot of what’s going on now is around trying to make policy changes. As it relates to actual protest, because we protested for so long, the police have adjusted what they do, so we’ve adjusted what we do. It doesn’t blow up anymore. Some cities are learning that now, but we learned that in 2014. What’s happening now is the police conversation at the policy level, and the implementation of the consent decree. That’s where the activism is moving. A lot of manpower was put into the local elections, getting someone who’s much better than Jennifer Joyce as the circuit attorney, for example. We want to put different people in political positions.

Me: Okay, before we wrap up, we should talk about how we met, and I should disclose that I'm a proud owner of one of your shirts; I'm literally wearing it on my "About" page. I got that shirt after you and I had a funny interaction on twitter. You were advertising, I reached out to you like this, and here’s how you responded:

Noble: Yeah, you were like two seconds away from getting blocked. You seemed like you were serious, but I’ve had a lot of white people like, “Well, what if I wore a ‘Pure White’ t-shirt, wouldn’t that be racist?” But I texted Brittany, and she was like, “Oh, he’s cool,” so I answered you for real.

Me: I think I was actually with her when you guys texted about me, which was weird. I feel like I have a lot of fraught interactions on twitter, especially as a White guy who’s involved in issues of race and police violence. I want to be sincere and open, but I bring a lot of baggage, just by being a White dude. Sometimes, when White people ask you about the shirts on social media, you just send me to explain it to them, which feels like an extension of my broader job of talking to other White people about race.

Noble: Yeah, but you’re so good at it!

Me: Well, I know white people.

Noble: But that's the thing, whether we like it or not, sometimes White people hear things better when it comes from other White people. If that's what it takes, do it.

Interview: Bikes, Bags, and Abolition with Brandale Randolph - Part II

Today on the blog I talk to Brandale Randolph. His new venture, The 1854 Cycling Company, marries high-end design principles with social entrepreneurship. Before moving to Massachusetts and starting the company, Randolph founded Project: Poverty in Lubbock, TX, where his anti-poverty work formed the basis of his 2014 TEDxTalk, “Stop throwing breakfast sandwiches at the poor.” This is the second part of a two-part interview, wherein Randolph and I discuss the intersections of entrepreneurship and social justice work; the continuity of social movements across eras; and whether it’s a good idea to make abolition seem “cool.” You can read the first part here.

"The Garrison," the first model offered by The 1854 Cycling Company. All of the bikes will be named after abolitionists. Photo credit- Totsey Bass.

"The Garrison," the first model offered by The 1854 Cycling Company. All of the bikes will be named after abolitionists. Photo credit- Totsey Bass.

Me: Tell me about the bikes themselves. The slogan is “Bikes, Bags Abolition.” I could talk about the abolition part forever, so talk about the other two things.

Randolph: I wanted to make a bike that’s durable. We did the steel frame. The leather appointments are based on making the bikes more upscale. We don’t appreciate just how upscale bikes can be. There are cities where people don’t even own cars, but they will display their bikes as a show of status. Our bikes should be a form of transportation and a work of art too. The bags also are functional works of art. I want them to be able to be attached to the frame, but also functional enough to carry laptops and small devices. The leather of the bag matches the leather on the seat and pedals, which gives it a rich appeal.

There’s crowded space where stuff is cheap. I can’t do anything with the proceeds of a cheap product. I can’t employ people. I can’t donate the money. I can’t generate wealth. The other thing that motivates me is that a lot of companies say they’re doing social justice work, but they’re not. Shinola turned out to be a scam. They’re owned by Fossil, and the bags and bicycles aren’t really made in Detroit. They’re assembled there, but they don’t employ the people who need the most help. Same thing with Tom’s shoes. The quality of the shoe that they give to the people that they’re donating is not the same as the quality of the shoe that you buy. If you’re going to be a social enterprise, do the dang work. That’s the advantage of having a nonprofit background. I ‘m used to doing the dang work. It’s not a game for me, it’s not a marketing plan.

In our next phase of work, you’ll see ten to twelve people employed at 1854. That will be thanks to the people who have purchased bikes and bags on preorder. Part of the movement to buy Black, so to speak, is to make sure that we sell items that Black owners design, manufacture and produce. We also need to employ Black and make an explicit commitment to hiring ex-offenders. I believe that Black entrepreneurs need to be more like Robin Hoods. Will this scare off people of other races who might think it’s racist to talk about this in the context of a company? Probably. But for all of the people who see the bigger issue, this could be something bigger.

Me: What you’re trying to do is tricky, as you’re at the launch stage of something for which you have a much larger vision. I think people will see your nonprofit and assume good intentions, but how do you propose to hold yourself accountable for the broader social mission of your enterprise?

Randolph: Every year, I want to have an annual report that lists the number of ex-offenders we’ve hired, juvenile records that we’ve paid to have expunged, and an actual accounting of the dollars we’ve contributed from the receipts. I want to have that in an annual report that people can read. I have a big dream, and it may not come to pass. I have a dream of introducing a new product every ear, and at the release of that new product, we report on the funds that we’ve dedicated to our social mission. Whether it’s employment statistics, or the background of the people we’ve hired and helped. I want it to be like the Apple keynote, but with a focus on the number of people we’ve helped. The only way that society changes is if we’re helping people while doing the actual work.

One of my pet peeves is treating social justice like the soccer ball in a four-year-old soccer league. We identify an issue, and everyone crowds around it. That’s not how the world changes. Everyone has to play a different role. I’m not a sociologist, I’m not an attorney. I’m not even one of those people who is into politics. But I am an entrepreneur, I think my role is to take my gift for creating ventures to move the social justice needle. If your role is education, push education. If your role is journalism, be a journalist.

Me: So speaking of journalism, you had a little beef with a very specific journalist, Shaun King, last year. Is that over?

Randolph: Yes, I have no animosity towards the man, and I’m excited by what he’s done. Some of that stuff was due to frustration of having a movement ready to be galvanized, with people ready to go. Now, a year after that, he has taken his role as a journalist very seriously. He’s written powerful articles to keep the movement informed. It’s difficult for any of us to change, and he made a positive change that’s been great for the movement. I think that’s kind of an example of people growing and finding a role in the fight for social justice.

Me: You’re in the midst of starting an actual business, and you’re committed to talking openly about the connection between your role as an entrepreneur and the movement for Black lives. Last night was the first presidential debate between Clinton and Trump. Do you think the broader mood of the country, even the presidential election, will affect your business?

Randolph: One thing that scared the crap out of me during the debate was the discussion of “stop-and-frisk.” Anthony Burns was stopped by a police officer for being in the middle of the street. We’re still stopping Black people for being in the middle of the street. There was no sign on Anthony Burns that said he was a runaway slave, but he was arrested anyway. When we talk about “law and order,” that scares me. That’s going to lead to more ex-offenders being arrested for no reason. That will increase mass incarceration and crime. With “law and order” comes the idea that people are permanent criminals, and that scares me.

We also have an idea amongst some people that there is a proper “way to protest.” Those people have not seen real protest. What this country has done in the last two hundred years is crazy. We had abolitionists burning the Constitution. Black pastors were stealing men out of courtrooms at gunpoint. We had abolitionists fighting the US Army for taking a runaway enslaved man away. The forgetting of American history is why America gets mad that a man is kneeling at a football game.

Me: So, you have t-shirts that say “Abolitionist” that you’re planning to use as part of your marketing plan. We’ve talked about the risk of this explicit connection, but there’s a bigger ethical question here. Is it okay to make this kind of work “fun” or “cool?”

Randolph: By talking about abolitionism, we’re connecting this current movement to a history that gives us an avenue and channel to work on social justice. Yes, we’re riding a symbol of a new form of abolition. I think it’s okay to make it cool. As long as people are down with our principles, and want to invest in the long-term goals of the movement, that’s okay. Purchasing the bike and bag helps employ someone. We haven’t had that conversation in years. Commerce, wealth, inequality, and social justice are entwined. It’s part of the intersectional discussion, social justice and poverty. We have to start at these different intersections, not just the ones that we’re told to cross, or given permission to discuss. We have to talk about women behind bars, and the challenges they face, and the idea that many female ex-offenders are the primary caregivers for children, and that the minimum wage isn’t going to cut it, especially for them.

Me: So what does being an abolitionist today, in 2016, mean to you?

Randolph: It’s part of the heritage. The idea of abolition is that we have systems that we need to abolish. There are systems that need to be not reformed, but abolished. The people that are willing to stand in the gap and abolish those systems are part of that heritage that stood against slavery. They’re cruel unjust systems. Without the bold contributions of people from all walks of life, that will not happen. I’m working on not just abolishing the criminal justice system as it is, but also poverty and other systems. If I’m going to do that, I need to understand the height of the giants on whose shoulders I sit.

Interview: Bikes, Bags, and Abolition with Brandale Randolph - Part I

Today on the blog I talk to Brandale Randolph. His new venture, The 1854 Cycling Company, marries high-end design principles with social entrepreneurship. Before moving to Massachusetts and starting the company, Randolph founded Project: Poverty in Lubbock, TX, where his social justice work formed the basis of his 2014 TEDxTalk, “Stop throwing breakfast sandwiches at the poor.” This is the first part of a two-part interview, wherein Randolph and I discuss the intersections of entrepreneurship and social justice; the continuity of social movements across eras; and whether it’s a good idea to make abolition seem “cool.”

Brandale Randolph with "The Garrison," the first model for sale at The 1854 Cycling Company. Photo credit - me.

Brandale Randolph with "The Garrison," the first model for sale at The 1854 Cycling Company. Photo credit - me.

Me: Where did you get the idea to start a bike company rooted in the tradition of abolition?

Randolph: When I first got to Boston like a year ago, I was looking to do non-profit work, but all the spots were taken. The grants were gone, all of the big money non-profits already had them. My wife, who teaches entrepreneurship at Babson, said I should start my own business. So just to clear my head, I wanted to go for a bike ride. Which meant I had to go buy a bike. And all the bikes I saw were either these cheap Walmart, clown colored things, or these hyper expensive triathlon bikes. And there was nothing I liked. I really want to like what I buy. I don’t care if it’s two dollars or a hundred dollars, I need to like it. The only bikes I liked were from Europe, with steel frames, just beautiful. Why do I have to import a bike to get the one I want? So I started playing with design, and I wanted to know how much it would cost to build the one I wanted.

People I know seemed to like the design I put together, and the next thing I knew we were designing other versions. A women’s version, the boy’s version. At some point I realized this could be a whole company. We’re starting with the steel frame, a classic fixed-gear bike. We wanted to make it high end, so that we can attract the crowd that’s used to importing those fixed-gear, steel-frame bikes from Europe.

Photo credit - Totsey Bass.

Photo credit - Totsey Bass.

Me: When did you move to Framingham, Massachusetts?  That’s the source of the name, right?

Randolph. A year ago, last July. I’m a history buff. The part of history I like, is discovering hidden history. Framingham was a major center of the abolitionist movement, in the 1850s through the Civil War, particularly this one place called Harmony Grove.

So I’ll give this whole history lesson. There was a 19-year-old runaway slave named Anthony Burns, who escaped from Virginia. He thought Massachusetts was a free state, but because President Pierce decided to enforce the fugitive slave laws in the free states, nowhere was free. So Burns gets arrested on the streets of Boston, just on suspicion. At trial, they found out he was in fact a runaway. Despite huge protest from the abolitionists of Boston, they arrested him and sent him back to slavery. That was May 1854. Later that month, the Boston police department was formally founded.

On July 4, 1854, a bunch of abolitionists got together – William Lloyd Garrison, Sojourner Truth, Henry David Thoreau – they got together to talk about America’s hypocrisy, in Framingham. At the end of the meeting, William Lloyd Garrison burns a copy of the United States Constitution.

That’s the Colin Kaepernick kneeling of 1854, Garrison burning the US constitution on the 4th of July. It pissed people off, especially President Pierce, but it attracted people and got more attention to the abolitionist movement not just here, but around the world.

A  portrait  of Anthony Burns, Boston, R.M. Edwards, printer, 129 Congress Street, Boston, c1855.

A portrait of Anthony Burns, Boston, R.M. Edwards, printer, 129 Congress Street, Boston, c1855.

Me: So do you think it’s risky to name a company, a commercial venture, based on this pretty controversial moment in American history?

Randolph: It’s a sign of the times. We have so many people who have revised history to the point that it’s forgotten. We’re living the effects of that erased history. By naming the company #1854Cycling, and connecting it directly to abolition, and connecting that to our current challenges with recidivism and the criminal justice system, it’s a sign of how far we still need to go.

Me: You’ve made an explicit commitment to building this company with a focus on reducing recidivism. How does that work in practice?

Randolph: I come from a background in non-profit and anti-poverty work. In particular, I’ve spent a lot of time looking at who is poor. I look at the most affected populations. In Massachusetts, there are a large percentage of ex-offenders who are in poverty. They are poor, and many cannot pass a criminal background check. They seem to have done their time, served their time, and yet they’re snatched back into the prison system, over and over again. From the Justice Department statistics, we know that 76% of all ex-offenders will be arrested within five years of release, and over 30% within the first six months.

Talking about those numbers in the context of the fugitive slave act, we have to wonder, are those people really free? You’ve done your time, you’re a citizen, but you’re treated differently by society. Are you really free? The answer is no. And so when we talk about institutional racism, that’s the institution, the criminal justice system. But on the other side of mass incarceration, how does society treat them?

My idea is to take portions of these proceeds from the company and help ex-offenders reenter society, train for jobs, basically give them the actual freedom. I’m not as hardcore as the abolitionists were in the 1850s. Those guys, they would walk into a courtroom, armed, pull a defendant off the stand, and usher him to freedom. That’s why they had to arrest Anthony Burns at gunpoint, they knew that the abolitionists of the era were that bold.

Me: Have you thought about employing ex-offenders?

Randolph: The long range vision is to generate enough revenue to open a facility where we can employ dozens of ex-offenders. I want to train them not only to be bicycle mechanics and master leather craftsman, but also to engage in design and drafting. Part of the reason ex-offenders are arrested after release is that they are not trained to have skills that the world needs. They’re given minimum wage jobs, which cannot sustain a person. What I want to do is be able to pay living wages. If they leave, I want them to have the skills and background to be gainfully employed somewhere else.

Photo credit - Totsey Bass.

Photo credit - Totsey Bass.

Stay tuned for the second part of my conversation with Brandale Randolph, to be published on Friday, September 30.

Interview: Jefferson Morley Talks Colin Kaepernick and the History of Culture Wars Over "The Star-Spangled Banner"

Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, decided not to stand for "The Star-Spangled Banner" when his team played on Friday. He said, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color.” Kaepernick’s act of civil disobedience opened up a conversation about patriotism, the role of celebrity in advancing racial justice, and the nature of "The Star-Spangled Banner" itself. As Jason Johnson at The Root wrote of the song earlier this year, “It is one of the most racist, pro-slavery, anti-black songs in the American lexicon, and you would be wise to cut it from your Fourth of July playlist.”

Author Jefferson Morley

Author Jefferson Morley

Today on the blog I talk to Jefferson Morley, a historian and journalist whose book Snowstorm in August: The Struggle for American Freedom and Washington's Race Riot of 1835 features the song’s author, Francis Scott Key, as one of its primary subjects. Morley and I caught up about the history of "The Star-Bangled Banner," and the politics of its writer, Francis Scott Key.

Me: You’ve told me before that Francis Scott Key was more famous than most people realize. Like he was a pop star, the Justin Bieber of his era.

Morley: He was extremely famous, and it’s important to understand the chronology of his life. There’s the familiar story of how he comes to write the Star Spangled banner, with the infamous racist lines. The song becomes very popular right away, but it’s not the national anthem for another hundred years. But because the song becomes very popular right away, Francis Scott Key becomes something of a celebrity, and he acts the part. He’s very active in the Episcopal church, he’s acts like a do-gooder, he gets into philanthropy and all that.

In the late 1820s, though, he becomes enamored with Andrew Jackson. Jackson is the first real outsider president, as the earlier presidents all came from Massachusetts and Virginia. He overturns the applecart and puts together an electoral majority based in the south and west. When Jackson gets elected, Key joins this coterie of men, who when Jackson wins the White House and comes to Washington, become Jackson's entourage of sorts.

So the famous Mr. Key attaches himself to Jackson. Jackson wants somebody in Washington to tamp down talk of abolition, because slavery is becoming more of a political issue. People in DC are talking about abolition a lot. There’s this sense that, even if there remains slavery in Virginia, maybe we shouldn’t have it here, in the nation’s capital, while we’re ostensibly building this great, free country. Jackson needed someone in city government to keep the abolitionists in line. He nominates Key to the be the district attorney for the city of Washington, and over the next eight years, Key becomes this crusading, moralistic style district attorney for the capitol. He tried to shut down all the Bawdy Houses, in which he was notably unsuccessful. But his other crusade was to shut down the abolitionists who were coming to town to hand out their literature.

These abolitionists are giving out leaflets in the capital, talking about the fact that America is the height of hypocrisy for maintaining slavery while talking about how great democracy is. Jackson wants to shut that down. Jackson doesn’t want to hear from the abolitionists at all, so Key suppresses all of the abolitionist talk. He even pursues libel charges against well-known abolitionists. He doesn’t get the verdict, but he chases prominent abolitionist Ben Lundy out of Washington, back to Philadelphia.

Me: How would you describe Key’s politics relative to the institution of slavery?

Morley: Key’s contemporary politics are completely supportive of the slave-holding order. The racist language in his song is still completely relevant when he’s in political power in the 1830s. Key’s best friend, I think it’s safe to say, and his brother-in-law, was Roger Taney, who was the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. He is most famous for having written the Dred Scott decision. Taney, who is appointed to the court by President Jackson in 1835, is the most prominent voice of the contemporary slave order, and Key is very much in his political sway.

By the standards of the day, Key was a “liberal.” He wanted Black people to have their own country, but that was the future solution. In the moment, he wanted to see that the slavery laws would be strictly enforced, in DC especially. Here’s the man who wrote "The Star Spangled Banner," but his legacy is leading the charge against the abolitionists, and free speech, in the city of Washington. It’s important to understand that crusade as the practical application of his so-called patriotic views.


"Francis Scott Key's legacy is leading the charge against the abolitionists, and free speech, in the city of Washington. It’s important to understand that crusade as the practical application of his so-called patriotic views."


Me: In your book, Snowstorm in August, you tell the story of one of Key’s most famous trials. How does that shape your understanding of his views on race?

Morley: In the midst of trying to drive the abolitionists – White and Black – out of Washington, in 1835 Key prosecutes an enslaved boy, who was charged with attempted murder. Key aggressively seeks the death penalty for a kid whose guilt is completely questionable, as the woman who was the alleged victim turns out to be his mistress. She later comes out and says, look, he was drunk, but he didn’t try to kill me. Key pursues the death penalty to the end, though. That’s the racial history that’s baked into the legend of Francis Scott Key. In his closing speech in the trial of the accused kid, he was explicitly racist about the inferiority of Black people. He made a very crude appeal to the racist notions of the day during that trial. You can’t let Key off the hook. His racism is so baked in there, that it’s invisible without digging deeper. It’s only when someone like Colin Kapernick stands up that we tell these stories.

Me: There’s a moral dance we tend to do when we discuss actions from two hundred years ago, because while we have an easy time judging people by contemporary standards, it’s important to understand their historical context. This is sort of happening with Woodrow Wilson right now, where it’s pretty clear that – even by the standards of his time – he was aggressively racist in his policymaking. How does Key stack up in his own time?
Morley: Keys’ actions were highly controversial at the time. There were people criticizing him for what he was doing, even people who weren’t abolitionists. People said that his suppression of abolitionist literature was a violation of free speech, that the enslaved boy wasn’t guilty and shouldn’t have been tried at all. It was not at all like he was acting in the norm. These issues were debated then, like they are debated now.

Me: It almost sounds to me like some two centuries old version of Trump getting elected and then appointing Giuliani to be the district attorney for the District of Columbia.

Morley: (Laughs) If you talk to old people, a lot of them will say that we used to sing all four stanzas of "The Star-Spangled Banner." It looks like the four-stanza version died out by the 1960s. In modern times it’s pretty much unknown to know all four stanzas. That happened, in part, because of the idea that the guy who wrote this song was a Giuliani-like bully in his prosecutorial conduct, who openly espoused racist principles. When Key was asked about the abolitionist movement, years later in a series of letters, he said that the abolitionists were “bad for the Blacks, because talk of freedom just makes the Whites control them more.”

Me: It’s not hard to trace that kind of rhetoric to some of the ugly things we hear today.

Morley: Yes, and "The Star Spangled Banner" has always been caught up in whatever the culture wars of the time happen to be. The song was not made the “national anthem” until 1931. The story of how it became the national anthem was mixed up in the culture wars of the 1920s, which I wrote about in the Daily Beast a few years ago. In the fight over making it the national anthem, Southerners who were cultivating a nostalgic view of the Civil War were the song's biggest proponents. On the day that it was approved and "The Star Spangled Banner" became the national anthem, there was a march in Baltimore, in the district of the congressman who sponsored the bill. The march was led by the Daughters of the Confederacy. The Union veterans refused to join the parade. Kaepernick is part of a tradition of civil disobediance, and cultural debate, over the meaning of this song.

I Never Want to Be President, But I Can See Myself Fighting Ghosts

Eleanor Vanden Heuvel, aspiring Ghostbuster

Eleanor Vanden Heuvel, aspiring Ghostbuster

Today on the blog, I’m sharing a guest post from Eleanor Vanden Heuvel. Vanden Heuvel leads a team of data analysts at Amazon, where she specializes in machine learning and speech technology. She holds a PhD from Johns Hopkins and is an artist in her spare time. Here, she discusses the importance of the new Ghostbusters movie. (Full disclosure: she also is married to me.)

A woman is close to becoming the president of the United States, but we don’t have a lot in common, Hillary Clinton and I. She wears pantsuits and gives speeches, whereas I like to wear a jumpsuit and make raunchy jokes. On the other hand, I can totally see myself fighting ghosts. I want to be a hero, run around, spout non-sequiturs, and wear sensible clothing. In fact, this is all I have ever wanted. There is no one I would rather be than a badass with amazing friends who gets to see ghosts and care about science. Clinton can have the presidency, because this is the fantasy that I want.

I didn't know how much I wanted this life until I saw the reboot of Ghostbusters this weekend. The fantasy world into which I was propelled – where women get to be the kind of women they really want to be – is the stuff of unrealistic dreams, raw fantasy, and insane expectations … in other words, the sort of things that generations of men have learned to take for granted.

If you’re a white man, you’ve seen your kind save the world from aliens, ghosts, monsters, nuclear weapons, tsunamis, asteroids, and Alan Rickman. You’ve flown through the air, propelled by the body alone, relying on genius-level intellect to solve earth-ending problems. These white men we watch are flawed, grappling with inner demons as they struggle on screen with literal ones. They also never take time out from demon-slaying to fret about their relationships or pick their children up from school, because they’re too busy saving the world. The men in hero movies even get to wear cool shit while they save the world. Have you ever looked at a drawing of Marvel’s Black Widow? Fact: I do NOT want to save the world in latex and heels. Appearance is trivial in Ghostbusters, because the women busting ghosts did not have time to discuss their age or weight. They were too busy saving New York City by using awesome ghost guns that they invented themselves. Only one character mentions clothing, and it was to make fun of the impracticality of another character’s high heels.

Fantasy matters. That’s what big-budget, studio tent-pole summer blockbusters are for. We escape the heat and allow ourselves to be subsumed in a world that’s just close enough to our own to inspire a modicum of belief. The legions of adolescents and tweens seeing Ghostbusters this summer will be presented with an entirely new picture of women. Those women say things like “I can think of seven uses for a cadaver today,” while fighting in choreographed action sequences. You know what a real female fantasy is these days? Not worrying about mundane shit like having a family or how your job is going to pan out or fretting over who is going to make dinner or if you’re going to get married. Every love interest, inappropriate outfit, and B-plot involving familial matters, typically inserted into movies that feature female protagonists, is a constant reminder of a woman’s stated role and place in this world (paging Katniss Everdeen). Stories with “grounded” women are made for a society that expects women to keep the reality of their existence in mind, which is just another form of oppression.

I grew up in the 80s, but the original Ghostbusters wasn’t one of my favorites, even though Bill Murray is a genius of the glib. I watched the original for the first time in decades just a few weeks ago, but in retelling this story with women, the plot finally made sense to me. Of course the mayor wouldn’t want a bunch of girls publicly destroying landmarks in the name of eradicating “ghosts!” Of course they would be hard up for cash because the two professors had been denied tenure!  Of course the villain would be a white guy who felt like the world was cheating him out of who he was meant to be! Men get to pursue their every whim, but women are punished publicly for indulging in a fantasy, no matter how close that fantasy comes to reality.

If a man wants to become CEO of a Fortune 500 company, he knows it will be challenging, for all of the reasons personal and professional that exist in the real world. If a woman wants to ascend to apex professionalism, she adds dozens of other considerations and challenges that the man doesn’t have to worry about. On the other hand, seeing women fight a green hell-beast is just as absurd as seeing men do it. These fanciful roles remove the political, real, and practical, allowing us to appreciate that anyone can do anything, bringing fantasy and reality ever closer. I’m going to wear my jumpsuit to my job as a manager of a team of data researchers at a big tech company today. And I might wear it again tomorrow. It really is the only piece of clothing I own that makes me feel like someone capable of saving the world.


Interview: Johnetta "Netta" Elzie & Sharhonda Bossier Discuss the Protests in Baton Rouge

This morning I caught up with Johnetta Elzie and Sharhonda Bossier. Elzie, better known as “Netta,” is a co-founder of Campaign Zero. Bossier is deputy executive director of Education Leaders of Color and was campaign manager for the mayoral campaign of DeRay McKesson. They spoke with me on the phone from Louisiana, where they are participating in protests.

Johnetta Elzie

Johnetta Elzie

Me: What's the context for protest in Baton Rouge?

Bossier: Just to add some color around the culture of south Louisiana, as someone who has deep roots here, even though I haven’t lived my whole life here. There is a different degree of activism infrastructure here, due to a completely elevated kind of fear. There is a sense of fear that permeates the Black community because of the long, violent, public, unpunished history of racial violence here. That’s in the groundwater. When you think about the way that people mobilize, it’s important to think about the historical context of a place like Baton Rouge, and think of all of the ways that the police have been violent for generations.

This action feels connected to the broader national momentum that has been built. What we are seeing is that people are grateful for the experience from the national movement and are excited to get something launched and going.

Sharhonda Bossier

Sharhonda Bossier

Me: And what's the view from the ground right now?

Elzie: Gosh. As far as I can see, it’s the same here as it is pretty much everywhere. The energy is from the youth, most of whom are the most disenfranchised in the city. That’s who’s outside, that’s who’s making noise. They are craving guidance and leadership. They want ideas. They want someone that can come up with a plan that they can buy into. They want to engage in things, and take the right actions. The older folks with the resources don’t want to give resources without conditions. The young people, the most disenfranchised people, aren’t receptive to that.

The police here are probably the worst I have ever seen. That’s something, coming from me. I’ve never seen police like this. Here they literally smile with their guns pointed, while they chase Black kids. That’s like a next level evil that I wasn’t ready for. You don’t have to live in the city to police here. That reminds me of Baltimore, where these cops come in from surrounding areas, where they live. You might watch Fox News at home and fly a Confederate flag. Then you come to the city to police black people. It’s frightening. I have never seen police smile while they torture and terrorize black people. It’s scary. But even though it’s scary, it doesn’t stop people from coming out and doing things that can lead to arrest.

Me: How have folks received you?

Elzie: I’ve never heard “Ferguson” used as a curse word so much as by older people! (Laughter) People are like, “We don’t want no Ferguson shit.”

I was like, “Ferguson got results though.”

That was hard to stomach. They only think of Ferguson as rioting. That’s the older, respectable “we have resources” crowd. The crowd that only offers things with conditions

On the streets, though, it’s different. When we were out last night, where Alton [Sterling] was killed, we were talking to this guy who could tell by our accents that we weren’t from here. When we told him we’re from St Louis, his eyes got big, and he like flipped out. I thought it was about to be like an issue, so I had to be on guard. But then the local guy was like, “If you guys are here, this shit must be real.”

And I was like ,“This shit was real before we showed up, you don’t need us to come down and make it real.” It’s unreal the love that the local folks are showing us.

One thing the Ferguson crew learned is that you don’t have to ask permission to protest. There’s a need for folks to do action together all the time. I don’t normally take my grandma’s advice, but she’s a big defender of the idea that, if you’re worried about everyone else’s business, you can’t focus on your own. If I’m worried about what actions seventeen other groups are doing, I can never perfect my own. Some folks don’t understand, that If you just show leadership, and just act like a leader, people will fuck with whatever you’re doing. If you have a plan, if it’s solid, if it’s well thought out? Folks want initiative, not a bunch of older folks screaming, “You voted for me.”

Me: More than a hundred people, including DeRay McKesson, who was released and is with you guys right now, got arrested the other night. Did the district attorney ever charge anybody?

Netta: They charged everyone with the same thing, “impeding the regular use of a highway,” I think, something real crazy like that. But they were all charged with it. It’s like a $250 bill.

Me: How does that compare the kind of treatment you’ve seen in other cities?

Netta: They always find a way to charge protestors with some minor infractions. In St Louis it’s usually “impeding traffic.” We got arrested once for “blocking the regular use of a federal door.” But they just give us all the same charge, no matter how far you are from the door. It allows the police to charge whoever they want.

From a tactical perspective, though, on the back end, nobody [at the jail] was ready to deal with 130 protestors in two hours. When we talk to people like Harry Balafonte, who was involved in the movement of the last generation, he always says it’s smart to flood the system.

Every little part of protest is exposing just how fucked up everything is, from the fines, to the prosecution, to the violence. I don’t know if everyone sees it. If you’re from another place, and you’ve done this before, it’s easy to spot the good things that protestors are doing. They don’t have the language yet sometimes.

Me: What else do folks need to know? It's really hard to sort out what's happening from afar.

Netta: If you are watching the news before nightfall, it will be easy to believe the police narrative. It goes like this: everything was peaceful, then the police just had to react to protect themselves. Everything is peaceful, even after nightfall. The police want to do things in the dark. That’s not new. That’s not different. They wait until it’s dark. I would say it’s smarter to turn off the TV and turn on Twitter or Vine or Periscope. If you’re always reading or listening to the police narrative, you’ll always believe it.

Guest Post: Anthony Wilson on White People and Appreciating Black Lives

Anthony Wilson is the founder of the Renaissance Global Liberation Academy. Anthony was a teacher, recruiter for Teach for America, and school turnaround consultant at Mass Insight Education, where we worked together. Today on the blog he shares some thoughts about how White people can engage with Black lives on a more authentic level.

We need more White folks to be advocates in the movement for Black lives. Unfortunately, it’s not enough for White people to show up at the most politically opportune times. Here are some thoughts for how white folks can be more engaged in the Black community on a day to day basis. White folks can:

1. Visit Black churches. Sunday morning at 10AM is still the most segregated hour of American life, and it would be wonderful for White folks to, just once in a while, break from their normal worship tradition to attend services at Black church.

2. Invest in Black businesses and communities with their dollars. While income gaps have started to close over time, the wealth gap between white and black Americans is the result of generations of housing discrimination. White folks can support Black empowerment through spending their money at Black businesses, and parking their savings in Black banks.

3. Read critical pieces from authors like James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and W.E.B. DuBois. The internet makes it incredibly easy to access a huge range of opinions, but our reading lists remain remarkably segregated by race.

4. Watch seminal Black movies and television programs like Harlem Nights, Martin, Shottas, and Menace II Society. White folks have been pretty adept at consuming hip-hop music, but Black media is more extensive than a few record labels.

5. Learn about double-dutch, spades, the candy lady. Black culture includes myriad games and traditions. Even our recreational time is segregated.

6. Try ox tails and gumbo. You might even consider using more hot sauce than you’re used to applying.

7. Listen to Nas's and School Boy Q’s latest albums. White folks consume a lot of Black music, but sometimes they do not internalize the messages that lurk just below the surface.

8. Sit in on some community organizing meetings and schools. Families and community members express their desires on a day-to-day basis, but White folks aren’t always there to hear the perspectives of folks of color.

I see a potential blind spot in allyship, wherein allies understand the intellectual principle that “Black lives matter”, but they might not know the cultural influences on that life, especially in the case of Black individuals with less socioeconomic power. Just as Blacks have been submerged in an American culture in which they find no protective space, and have learned its functions and identity, I think it is critical for allies to engage authentically with Black systems, and to consume Black food, media and voices, particularly ones not in rage, but in laughter, thought, and passion. The failure to do this protects allies against believing that to be Black is only to struggle. To see how humanity exists at what they may perceive as the bottom would allow allies to really understand what they’re fighting for, regardless if that thinking has brought them to allyship in the first place.

Guest Post: Josh Starr on Anti-Racist School System Leadership

Josh Starr is the CEO of PDK International. He spent twenty-two years in public schools, as a special education teacher in Brooklyn, a central office leader in the New York City metro area, and ten years as a Superintendent of Schools, in both Stamford, CT and Montgomery County, MD. In light of elevated tensions around race and justice in this country, Josh wanted to share a series of practical steps for education leaders.

For ten years I was a superintendent of two very diverse school systems – Stamford, Connecticut and Montgomery County, Maryland. For school system leaders, the summer should be a time of reflection and planning for the upcoming school year. In the face of violence being perpetrated on Black Americans by government-funded employees who are supposed to protect citizens, and in light of increased attacks against students who are Muslim, LGBT, immigrants, or just simply not white, I believe system leaders, especially superintendents, need to confront this head on. Superintendents lead public institutions and therefore have the responsibility to confront institutional racism if we are to move towards truly living up to our potential and ideals as Americans. I believe educators are the keepers of that potential, but today’s times call for new actions. Here are some of my thoughts, in no particular priority order, about what superintendents must do. Full disclosure – I succeed at doing some of these, failed at others, and never got to a few. This is an aspirational list, as well as what I hope can become a new conditional list of requirements for superintendents. And, if you are not prepared to take on these issues, you do not deserve to be an educator. The list is incomplete, and I hope others add to it. 

1. Read. Go out of your comfort zone and then share what you’re reading with your internal and external communities. Use it as an opportunity for collective learning. Start with James Baldwin’s 1963 speech “A Talk to Teachers;” Gloria Ladson Billings, 2008 AERA speech on the Education Debt; Lisa Delpit, Other People’s Children; Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States; Freire/Horton, We Make the Road by Walking; Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, Ta-Naheisi Coates, Between the World and Me; Jeff Duncan-Andrade, Pedro Nogeura, recent blogs by Sabrina Joy Stevens, Jose Vilson, Jessie Hagopian and others in the #educolor movement. 

2. Look at policies. Ensure your district has equity and curriculum policies that are clear about what students should know and be able to do and that all students must have access to an instructional environment that promotes that knowledge and skills and necessary supports if they need it. If such policies don’t exist, start working with your board to develop them. 

3. Clarify your message. Be clear and relentless about your core values and those of your district. Be clear and relentless about what adults need to do in service of children. Be clear and relentless that all children deserve to feel valued, loved and safe, and that as educators, we have a special responsibility to our kids of color. 

4. Review content. Ask your curriculum and instruction team to review all content for cultural competence and take steps to ensure that curriculum and materials are respectful and inclusive of multiple cultures. Engage teachers and leaders of color in this initiative and be public about it. Crowd source it, as there are more culturally proficient materials out there than some might imagine or are on the state-approved publisher contract lists (see American Reading Company materials for a good example). 

5. Review employee turnover data and flag patterns where there's disproportionality. Talk to educators of color about their experiences. Ensure there are exit interviews so that employees who leave (including non-certified staff such as paraeducators) can give honest perspectives about the climate within the school. Make sure that your principal evaluation procedures can take into account climate and turnover issues; if it doesn’t, put that into your next negotiations.

6. Reduce suspensions of students. Now. Send a clear message to principals that sending students out of the building to fix themselves after they’ve committed a transgression will not help them change that behavior. Students don’t miraculously change behaviors by being pushed away; the opposite is true, they change behaviors when pulled in and held close. Coordinate the moral imperative of suspension reduction with a commensurate effort to train staff in restorative justice and similar programs. Be very attentive to the messages that are being sent to the public about the need to reduce suspensions and explain why we need to break the school-to-prison pipeline.

7. Analyze your budget to see if resources are allocated according to student need. Make sure your budget reflects your district’s values and policies and that the children who need the most are getting the most. Yes, politics are a factor here, as the most vocal parents are typically the most entitled, but be clear, consistent, comprehensive and fact-based in designing and communicating a budget that reflects students’ needs. Look at your Title funds too, as you can be more creative than you might think (see FedEd group for guidance on this).

8. Engage with community leaders and families, and not just the usual suspects. Summon your best active listening skills and reach out to faith-based leaders, community leaders (formal and informal), and key communicators. Don’t rely on the same structures that have always existed, although they need to be engaged as well, they don’t usually comprise the non-entitled. Model this for others.

9. Elevate student voice, listen to their stories, talk to them individually and in large and small groups. Be sure to really listen. Answer their questions respectfully and honestly. Model this for others and tell everyone what you’ve heard. Be sure to talk to students who might not be formal leaders, or who have been in trouble, or are just plain-old-average. Be sure to engage with English language learners and special education students too.

10. Engage teachers, support professionals and leaders, listen to their voices. Try to understand their underlying fears and concerns while also being non-negotiable about your expectations. It’s really hard to learn new approaches and many white educators especially don’t know how to confront their privilege. Teach them by being a partner in the learning process.

11. Negotiate equity, social-emotional learning, and cultural competency into formal evaluation systems. Work with your bargaining units to create appropriate language, use National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers language as models, as both have taken stands on institutional racism.
12. Be absolutely unequivocal in the message that relationships matter and learning doesn't happen without love. Yes, outcomes matter, yes, academics are important. But teaching is a social enterprise, and if children – especially children of color – don’t feel valued, respected and loved in classrooms, they won’t meet our expectations.

13. Analyze your data to determine whether non-academic needs are getting in the way of student achievement. If students are hungry, feed them; if they need support beyond the school day, work with community agencies to get it for them. Develop or purchase an early-warning-indicator system to identify kids that are in danger of dropping out and use the results at the school, district and community level to organize wrap-around supports for kids and families. Look at disproportionality in special education students and English language learners in identification and suspensions.

13. If students are being tracked, stop it. The public education system is the great sorting mechanism for American society. This has done immeasurable harm to generations of children. Look at district policies and procedures for identifying gifted and talented students, academic levels, magnet/choice programs, etc. Review the data, make it public, convene the right people to start dismantling it, consult with lawyers if necessary and Just. Do. It.

14. Measure engagement, hope and well-being, mainly of students, but also of employees. People need to be happy and engaged in their work in order to produce their best. They need to know that hard work will lead to improvement; that’s the basis of hope.

15. Never forget that you’re learning too. The superintendency can be a brutal job, but a wonderful privilege. No one will ever fully understand what you go through and why you had to make the decisions you did, and everyone expects that you have the answer to everything. Don’t become too enamored with your own expertise and past success; learn from and with others about how to lead from a social justice stance.

16. Don't be afraid to get fired for standing up for what you believe in.