By Shea Howell
October 31, 2016
About 200 people attended the community conversation on the crisis in education hosted this week-end at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. The event was organized by the Detroit Independent Freedom School initiative. It was a gathering marked by love, hope and righteous anger.
The program opened with the call to remember, “Education is about becoming the best human being you can possibly become.” Young people took center stage to frame the reality of what they face on a daily basis. Some of what they talked about was all too familiar to those of us who have witnessed the destruction of public education. They explained how they saw programs cut back, classes cancelled, basic courses eliminated, and teachers struggling to teach subjects for which they were not prepared.
On a deeper level, the young people reflected on the assaults on their sense of possibilities. One young woman talked about her desire to be challenged and her disappointment at being in a system where “we are basically robots.” Another asked, “How is anybody supposed to grow in an environment that just puts them down?” They talked of hopes to be journalists, facing school without English teachers, dreams of being a cardiologist while being harassed by attendance offices, pushing them toward the juvenile system.
They also talked about how the lack of response from adults moved them to take actions for their own education. After losing teachers and having no one respond to letters protesting this, one young person said. “So I joined a coalition about education. I realized that this is happening throughout the district. I know it is not my fault, not my schools fault, and that I have a good home base with a mother and father who help me, but what about the people who don’t have that at home? I am not the only student in public schools with no math teacher, no AP teacher, nothing to prepare them for tests.” Echoing the desire to organize with other students, learning “life lessons inside and outside the classroom,” students talked about organizing Freedom School discussions in classes, working to create funds to deal with economic discrimination, and putting washers and dyers in schools. “We shouldn’t have to do this,” but it is necessary.
The students concluded saying, “Tell the truth, believe in us, make us feel wanted.”
These demands provided the backdrop for remarks by Professor Thomas Pedroni of Wayne State University. He gave a picture of the destruction of public education beginning in the late 1990’s at a time when DPS had a budget surplus and test scores were strong and rising. He said we need to “Understand the relationship between this struggle over schools and whose city this is. Understand how degraded our curriculum has become, and how powerful it could be. School could be one of the most meaningful places in our community, where people know how to fight for their communities instead of just a place to produce test scores.”
Helen Moore, long time community activist talked about how she was compelled to “Free our children from slavery” and would not stand by and “see our children abused” as people made money off their suffering.
Professor Aurora Harris spoke of the importance of protecting our children with special needs from bullying and abuse and about the devastating impact of school closings on them. She called on us to “keep special education children in our hearts and minds, to not forget them” and to insist they have the full protection of the law.
Professor Melvin Peters said the education of black children had deep roots in America. He quoted David Walker in 1829 saying that that “as long as we’ve been here, whites have had problems with blacks being educated.” He emphasized the importance of an African American centered curriculum and children being taught by people they can identify with.
Kamau Kheperu closed saying, “The spirit of Mississippi Freedom schools is right here…We have to save our babies, we have to support public education, we have to provide supplemental education for our youth. Now what are you all going to do?”
Community members stepped up to share ideas and over 100 people signed up to join in the Freedom School Movement. One participant said, “It’s not about us. It is about our children. No one will stand up for our children but us. We need to become the working examples for our children.”