Creative and reflective journal part 1

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Answer the following question in 200 words using only the source attached (PAGES 1-37 ONLY!!!)


What is the main point and what is the authors purpose?

Part 1 and 2


by Joan T Mj,nne
My country. My country.

Tis of thee I sing.
Country still unborn
Sweet land yet to be

n our country, cited in the above spiritual (Harding 1981), we often find
inspiration from different sources. Some find it in poetry, music, science,
in cultural beliefs or religions; some are inspired by parents, friends, chil­

dren, or mentors; still others by listening to the earth. I’ve been inspired by
each at different times, especially by my mother and my daughter. Yet I’ve
also found that the source which seems to rock my soul is the rhyme, rhythm,
spirituals, poetry, epistemology, philosophy, complexity, indeed, the spell­
binding story of the African-American struggle to be free in a “sweet land
yet to be.”

Born white in the south and, thus, drenched in the dirty history of southern
Jim Crow laws and slavery, I seem to have drunk this struggle into my blood.
I’ve spent a life time studying that Black liberation chronicle; trying to under­
stand it; making friends with it; but mostly standing in awe of it. Immersed
in its tale, though, I have often asked the same question the character, Stamp
Paid, asked in Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved. After consistently witnessing
the savagery of whites during slavery, he asks: ”What are these people?”
(1987 p. 172). So, part of my story is also investigatingjust what “these people”
are, my white people and me, because I do not want to be “trapped in a
history I do not understand” (Baldwin 1963, p. 8). Like James Baldwin,
I believe that until I unravel it, I cannot “be released from it.” T herefore, I’m
always listening for a variety of voices that sing about justice, hegemony, and
grace in this “country, my country.”



My friend and co-editor of this book, Carlos Gonzalez, in our syllabus for a
course that we team-taught for Miami Dade College professors, wrote the


This is an invitation to sit and explore the tension of working, teaching, and
profiting from a system that inherently creates distinction and privilege, one
that thrives on disparity. If Asa G. Hilliard III’ is correct, reformation of
this system is not really possible. Critical transformation is our best hope.

So, what are we to do as those in the middle? How do we possibly teach
and work with the understanding that, at the core of our efforts, there is a
seed waiting to sprout, that will eventually put down roots and possibly
bring down the bricks and mortar of injustice, privilege, and oppres­
sion? This prospect is downright frightening! What would we do next?

Carlos’ words helped shape my vision for this book. It, too, is an invitation, a
call for being “out-rageous” in declaring ourselves against the hegemonic
machine that pulverizes our imaginations, like a cow’s flesh in a meat grinder.
Hoping to escape that grinder, however, Carlos and I, through this text, pro­
pose a challenge—that we gather as often as we can and tell our stories, as
encouragement to think more deeply and act more diligently in resistance to
the “injustices, the privilege, and the oppression” in schools and the acad­
emy, injustices that chop up our spirits, and for many others, their bodies.
We picture these pieces, represented in the book by multiple writers’ stories,
as a catalyst for creative encounters confronting the repression that our stu­
dents face every day in school buildings, where children of the poor are

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treated as fodder for prisons and wars; where children of the elite are bam­
boozled by philosophies of self-aggrandizement and greed; and where the
earth has become invisible in concrete camouflage.

Yet rather than a heavily theoretical discussion, we share stories about what
philosopher, Martha Nussbaum calls “the frontiers of justice” (2006). For us,
that frontier includes all species on the earth as well as all humans. And such
conversations in this country, we believe, should begin with a recognition of
a crime, one which Civil Rights icon, Bob Moses, brings to light in his essay
in this book. To frame his essay, Moses cites James Baldwin who declared,
“The crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen is that they
have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not
know it and do not want to know it.” Baldwin further insists that “It is not

Asa G. Hilliard Ill’s passage to which Carlos refers is: “Revolution, not reform, is

required to release the power of teaching . . . Vrrtually, all teachers possess
tremendous power which can be released, given the proper exposure. We c an’t get to

that point by tinkering with a broken system. We must change our intellectual
structures, definitions and assumptions; then we can release teacher power.”


permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the
innocence which constitutes the crime” (1963, p. 6).

So, following Moses’ lead, we and our students continue to help each other
deconstruct that crime of innocence. We assume that our civic duty requires
exploring the nation’s feigned innocence in the hundreds of years of death
and destruction of many cultures in ‘this country, our country.’ In the class­
room as well as in the national dialogue, we argue that learners and citizens
alike should heed Bryan Stevenson’s suggestion, in his Equal Justice Initiative
report on lynching, that “Suffering must be engaged, heard, recognized, and
remembered before a society can recover from mass violence” (Lynching
2015 p. 23). The severity and the currency of the repercussions of the crimes
referenced by Baldwin and Stevenson as well as the violence against other
cultures seem to demand that we address this suffering in Who speaks for jus­
tice?. Within that context, we like to think of this book as an instigator of
what David Lawrence,Jr.2 calls “creative outrage” (2012).

As we wrote and edited, we strove to carefully parse our words, wanting them
to stay as true to our committnent to justice as Diane Nash’s actions demon­
strated on March 7m. during the 50m. anniversary of “Bloody Sunday.”
Returning there, to Selma Alabama, to push forward the country’s dream of
democracy, one soaked in blood that day 50 years ago, Nash3 spoke to the
media, sat in priority seats to listen to President Obama speak, and, then,
stood alongside the President and his family to walk across the infamous
Edmund Pettus Bridge. Yet, when Former President George W Bush walked

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into the line to cross that bridge with them, Diane Nash walked out of that
privileged line.

Explaining later to Amy Goodman on Democracy Now (2015), Nash said:
“They placed me in the front line. And then George Bush . . . got in the
march. And I left. … I wasn’t marching anywhere with George Bush. T he
Selma movement stands for nonviolence, peace, democracy, fairness, voting
rights.” To her, Nash clarified, Bush represented the exact opposite, even tor­
rure. She didn’t want to be a part of any photographs, she explained to
Goodman, which might travel around the globe depicting Bush as one of the
leaders of nonviolence. For Nash, his picture would suggest the nonviolent
movement had “sold out;” and, more importantly, she insisted, it would be
an insult to all of the people who had been murdered in Selma.

2 President of the Children’s Movement of F1orida and former publisher of the
Miami Herald.
3 :1ash a leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNCC); co-led
the Freedom Riders; helped plan the Selma march; and is nationally known as a

constant “Freedom Struggle” activist.


Well, regardless of what position someone might take on former President
Bush’s right to be on that bridge, Nash’s spontaneous action of walking away
from that stately spot shook our conscience, crystalizing what vigilance to
one’s truth might look like. Forced us to ask the question, “How often have we
remained in the lines of privilege, and, thus, compromised our vision for jus­
tice, for listening to those who have been silenced?” Nash’s daring action that
day seemed to model a different way of being in the world. Her releasing
attachment to the traps and seduction of privilege that oppress us as citizens,
as teachers, as students was not only a gutsy move. It, indeed, also required, as
Lisa Delpit once said about Vmcent Harding,

4 “principles of steel.”

Nash and Bob Moses, another one of our heroes, have dedicated their lives
to pushing for full rights of citizenship for all Americans. A citizen-poet­
writer who also pushes America toward realizing its dream of freedom for all
is Nikki Giovanni. In 1994, she suggested that the ideals of democracy in
America still create a powerful imaginative force that she continues to hold
onto in spite of the horrors of the nation’s history and the terrors of its
current global initiatives. But, she declares later in her book, Racism 101, that
the African-American “spirituals teach us that the problem of the twentieth
century is not the problem of the color line. The problem of the twentieth
century is the problem of civilizing white people” (p. 56-5 7).

We seem to have failed to solve that problem. For, in the twenty-first century,
Western-Eurocentric people on the planet perpetually ratchet up the bellows
and machinations of wars upon wars. In the twenty-first century, public edu-

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cation is becoming more a mouthpiece for corporate interests than interests
of a democracy or of the earth and all its species. In the twenty-first century,

unarmed black boys, men, and women have been shot down like vermin in a
nation that professes •�ustice for all.” Yet as the rapper, Common, sings in
Gltny, ”.Justice for all ain’t specific enough.”

So, we wanted the stories in this text to be “specific enough.” We wanted to
tell of the tragedy and glory of cultures, of humans, of trees, of earth. We
wanted to raise all of those stifled intonations. The youth, the ancestors,
the elders, the rock, the land, the river, the sea, the cosmic energy. We believe
those vibrations and stories will stir us in our perpetual work toward resis­
tance and inspired action. For, as Giovanni insists about story-tellers, “There
must always be griots … else how will we know who we are?” (p. 19).

And when thinking of us as griots, we were reminded of Archbishop

Desmond Tutu when he condensed the history of Africa into this one short
quip: He said, “When the white missionaries came to Africa, they had the

• Historian; writer; social activist; speech writer for MLK, Jr.; Professor of Religion
and Social Transformation


Bible, and we had the land. They said, ‘Let us pray.’ Ne closed our eyes.
When we opened them, we had the Bible, and they had the land” (f utu
2015). Therefore, the lens we look through, as we describe our individual
u·uths, can become as vital as the truth itsel[ Recognizing the imperative of
seeing our separate histories through multiple lenses can create an intellec­
tual smorgasbord that might entice all citizens Lo see and reckon with the
complexities of living in an inscrutable world, one full of contradictions and

Any ambiguities that unfold in this text, we hope, might also encourage stu­
dents to recognize not only tl1e inevitable convolutions of life’s sLOries, but
also tl1e power and the place of those sLOries in tl1e scope of researcl1. For,
Carlos and I tl1ink of research as just a story. Some tell it in statistics; some in
ethnographies; some in case studies. But all research is formed within a
specific context of socio-political realities. As Dcepak Chopra suggests, “We
have all walked through different gardens and knelt at different graves” (p.
16). Because of those separate realities of lived experiences, the fact that
research studies and discoveries often conflict with one another holds no sur­
prise for us, especially since humans from all walks of life design those stud­
ies. Yet it is important to reckon with at least two realities when searching for
research validity. These realities are as significant as assessing the validity of

tl1e measurements used. The first is that hist0rically the typical researcher
came from the colonial elite. The second is that most often now researchers
come from the academic elite. So, we hope that students will wrestle with the
biases that naturally emanate from the context of researchers’ lives. Taking

Lhe time to examine our lived experiences can clarify how those events com­
plicate our perspectives in di,·erse disciplines, whether literature, science, an,
music, or education. Further more, unpacking the ever-present colonial sub­
texts of our own lives might liberate our minds from the daily grind of the
oppressive institutional demands that often trap us into accommodating

Recently, raising Lhe issue of tl1e historical V.’estern economic accommoda­

tion of injustice, scl10lar and activist, Noam Chomsky, insisted I.hat “Racism
is a serious problem … white supremacy in tl1e U nited States was even more
extreme and savage tl1an in Soutl1 Africa …. Our economy, wealtl1, privilege
relies . .. on a cenwry of horrifying slave labor camps.” Drawing from
tl1e work of Edward Baptist (2014), Chomsky equated I.hose camps Lo tl1e
horrors of tl1e ones created in :1 azi Germany. Baptist, in his book, insists tl1at
American slavery, tl1e buying and selling of bodies as investrnem and capital,
created an economic engine in tl1e 18th and I 9th century in Lhe south, in Lhe
nonh, and in Europe I.hat drove the explosion of U.S. fmancial and commer­
cial prosperity and superiority, which is still sustained in this nation. But, for
us, Baptist’s and Chomsky’s condemnation of our history seems Lo beckon


another line from the song, Glory, the challenge of John Legend and Common
when Lhey proclaim, “Now we right the wrongs of history” (Glory, 2014).

So how do we do Lhat? How do we right the wrongs, not only of our human
hisLOI) but the history of our abuse of the ecosystem? How do we nurture
ourselves and others as we take on sucli daunting work? How do we, in any
corporate or bureaucratic jungle, create what Bob ?vioses calls, the “crawl
spaces,” (200 I) where we can build healLhy relationships? How do we resist

injusLices and continue to laugh big and loud? How do we stop oppression
while learning to sing new songs? How do we dismantle public policies Li1at
sustain the plctl1ora of societal utjustices, while lcarnu1g to dance wildly?
How do we stop planetary destruction, while eawig apple pie? How do we
walk iii and out of privilege, while sLrumming a guitar? How do we redeem
America’s soul, while frolicking witl1 every �!other’s cliild? And how, oh how,
do we block out the cacophony of hegemony and begin to live Fannie Lou
Hamer’s chorus, “Freedom is a constam struggle; make a joyful noise”?

Conscious of the joy amidst the angst in the struggle, Carlos and I offer this
te..xt as an enticement to explore each other’s sto1;es about our battles to be
free, as researchers, teachers, learners, citizens. Vhen editing, he and I tried
to write ourselves out of Lhe lines of privilege that we occupy, while seeking

to extricate ourselves from the scholastic shackles Lhat we wear. As a counter
to our professorial privilege, we listened not just to persons wiLh national rep­
uLaLions in circles of jusLice, but also to studenLS, friends, and younger col­
leagues. Ve invited Lheir m·iting imo our circles im·esLigating their lessons,

. . .

challenges, joys, quesLions. Ve believe Lhose narraLives can lead us LO con­
front togeLher Lhe hegemonic noise of systems LhaL exploit humans and Lhis
small planet earLh. As Ram Dass suggests, “�’e’re all jusL walking each oLher
home” (1971 ).

So, as we ‘re walking each oLher home, let’s consider once again Lhe words of
Lhat master of story-telling, James Baldwin, who said, ” … while the tale of
how we suffer and how we are delighted and how we triumph is never new, it

must be heard. There isn’t any other tale Lo tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in
all Lhis darkness” ( 1995 p. 87). Carlos and I believe that it is in our shared sto­
ries, Lrue or not, Lhat we can discover what sustains us “from the inside when
all else falls away” (Orial1 1999). BuL, beyond Lhat, perhaps, our joint stories
will help us and our studems determine” .. . if we can get up, after a night of
grief and despair, weary and bruised 10 Lhe bone, and do what needs 10 be
done LO feed [and Leach) Lhe children” (Oriah) in our communiLies, in our
schools, and in Lhis “counLry sLill unborn.”



Baldwin, J. (1963). My dungeon shook: Letter to my nephew on the one
hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation. The fire next time. New York:
Vmtage Books (p. 6).

Baldwin,James. (1995). Son’!)”s Blues. New York: Penguin Books Ltd.

Baptist, E. (2014). The half has never been /Qld: Slavery and 1k making of American
capilalism. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Chopra, D. ( 1991 ). Unconditional life: Discovering 1k power /Q fo!fill your dreams.
New York, NY: Bantam Books.

Dass, Ram (1971). Be here now. New York, NY: The Crown Publishing Co.

Giovanni, N. (1994). Racism 101. New York: William Morrow and Company.

Harding, V. (1981). There is a river: The Black struggl.efor freedom in America.
Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace and Co.

Hilliard, A.G. III (1997). “The Structure of valid staff development.” Journal
of staff tkvelopmem. Spring, Vol.18, No.2.

John Legend & Common, video on https·//wwwyoutube
com/watch ?v=HUZOKvYcx o

Lawrence, D.Jr. (2012). The Principles of Power and Leadership: How to
l!’et thinl!’s done in Miami and America. The Chapman Leadership Lecture.

Florida International University, S eptember 12.

Lynching in America.: Confronting the legacy of racial terror (2015). EJI
R.eporL Birmingham, AL: Equal Justice Initiative. hUJrllwwwi.jj.ocg/files/
ETI%20Lynching%20in %20America %20SUMMARYpdf

Morrison, Toni ( 1987). Beloved. New York: Alfred Knopf

Moses, R. P. & Cobb, C. (200 I) Radical Equations: Cwil RighJs.from Mississippi /o
the Algebra Project. Boston: Beacon Press.

ash, D. (2015). Interview. Democr<lfl Now http://www.democracynow.
ocg/2015/3/9/cjyil rights pioneer djane nash i

Noam Chomsky on Black Lives Matter: Why Won’t U.S. Own Up to History
of S lavery & Racism? Mar. 3, 2015. DemOCT<lfl Now. http://www.
democracynow.ocg/2015/3/3/noam chomsky on black lives matter

Nussbaum, Martha (2006) Frontiers of Justice: Disabili!J, nalumalip, speciM
membership. Cambridge MA: First Haivard University Press.


Ori ah Mountain Dreamer ( 1999) http· //www. oriahmountaindreamer com/

Roberts, Wally. (2004). E-mail sharing his experience living one summer in
Fannie Lou Hamer’s home.

Tutu, Desmond. Seeds in corifli,ct in a haven ef peace: From religwus Studies to
lnteTTeugious Studies in Aftica. Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee
(SNCC) e-mail list-serve, April 7, 2015.

Defiiclltum jjj

Preface xi


PART 1: A human being is part of the whole ……………. _ ………….. 1

A human being is a part of a whole, called by us a universe, a part
limited in time and space. iHe experiences himseJJ; his thoughts
and feelings as something separated from the rest … a kind of
optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of
prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and lO
affe ction for a few persons nearest co us. Our task must be to free
ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion
lO embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its


Math, struggles, and slash pine …………………………………. 3
by Gartos Gonzalez

Generations Connect: Variation on …………………………….. 7
“Om Namah Shlvaya”
by Gartos Gonzalez

Constitutional Eras for “We the People” …………………… 1 s
by Robert P. Moses

Blockages become gifts …………………………………………. 33
by Gartos Gonzalez

Nature as home . . . antidote to war …………………………. 35
by Matthew Rubenstein

he told me that she did not think she was going to pass her math class,
that the teacher was confusing, that she worked full time, went to
school full rime, and she did not have the energy or time to go to tutor­

ing. She saw herself talcing the class once again, she said. It was five minutes
before I was taking students on a tour of the Environmental Center. I was
drawn into my student’s struggle and for a moment wondered what I had to
offer her; if anyth� In my work I see so many who juggle too much, who
struggle and often don’t sec a way through their challenges because they arc
so many.

We walked toward the start of our tour, and I felt the heaviness of this conver­
sation. To me it wasn’t just one more student merely giving up on a class, but
hers was the voice of so many others. Math was not the real issue. It was life
itself, life that seemed unfair; harsh, and impossible. Clearly I was hearing her
story filtered through my own heaviness, my own sense of struggle, loss, and
pain, the past nine years or so of seeing my mother lost to dementia, the break­
down of family bonds, the loss of loved ones, and at times, che loss of hope.

The week before hearing my student’s story, l had read over 140 essays.
Some of them detailed suicide attempts, painful separations, failed dreams,
loss on a scale that surprised me and reminded me how we are more alike
than we are different. And as I walked to the entrance of the Center, the air
plant growing on the tree caught my attention. It did not do so in a subtle
way. It spoke to me and asked me to tell a particular story. This beautiful
being, although voiceless, was asking t0 speak t0 my student and to me.

The clarity of the communication surprised me. It was now evident to me
that I needed to have overheard my student mention her math class. It was
also evident that what I was going to do for the next seven hours of reaching
was to repeat the message, not so much because of my math challenged



student but because I, too, needed to hear a good word. I needed a reminder.
We needed a story, this story, as Barry Lopez reminds w, “more than food to
stay alive” (1990, p. 8).

The Environmental Center is a nine-acre preserve. One enters it through a
colorful mosaic gate and is immediately presented with a radically different
space. TI1e CenLei’ is on tl1e edge of campus, tl1e edge of time, and a text tl1at
often is misread or not read at aU. It is a reminder of what parts of South
Florida used to be, of how the landscape looked before development. It
offers a glimpse of a bygone era where slash pines covered the area and the
human footprint was less obvious. It is also a clear reminder of the feeble
efforts to preserve the often tenuous relationships between humans and other
life forms. It is a place where one can experience great peace and also be in
touch with a sense of deep loss. It is filled with life and reminders that death
is also part of life and the cycle of beginning and endings is infinite.

So what did the cpiphyte say to me? This was no joke. Adaptation = Learning.
The rest follows.

As I stood before my students, I told them how at some point, millions of
years ago, I was guessing, the ancestors of this plant learned that living on
the soil was not to its advantage, and somehow learned to live on the tree
canopy, gathering food and water from the falling leaves o: the host tree and
in the process providing a home for small animals such as frogs and lizards.

This particular air plant was about to bloom, and we could see the emerging
structure of the flower, an elegant manifestation of perfecdy adapted design.
We looked at the plant, I caressed its leaves. Students looked at me as if I
were on some lcind of drug. I assured them I was not. I told them the mes­
sage from my plant friend: To adapt is to learn and to lake on life’s chal­
lenges and use them to create what is necessary for survival and the possibility
to thrive. We took a moment. I answered some questions. We were quiet.
Some were looking at their phones. I hesitated to take st.cps away from the
air plant, but I knew then that I would be able to hear its message the rest of
the day. And we walked to the little sliver of slash pine forest.

It was only a hundred feet or so away. At the head of the trail, a beautiful
specimen of a tree stands tall. It’s probably 60 or more years old. As I came
upon it, I told them that this tree was a Ph.D. in South Florida; that it had

learned this area so well that it had specialized in living here and nowhere
else. This particular species of slash pine, Pinus elliouii var densa, is endemic
to South Florida (Pine Rocklands-Miami-Dade County). Students looked
at me funny. I stared back. I kissed the tree. I thanked it. By now, everyone
had been pushed over the edge of weirdness, and they just looked at me
and smiled.


I continued with my message and repeated the mantra the epiphyte gave me:
Adaptation is learning. It is the means that all of life has to continue to exist.
Change is a constant. Adaptation is a dance with change. It is the engage­
ment of the core challenge associated with change. It is the ”yes” in all crea­
tures to life, possibility, and existence.

I told them the little I know about slash pines, that there are other relatives
of this tree, but that this species is only found here. I pointed out how this
particular pine learned to use the wet and dry seasons, the poor soil condi­
tions, frequent fires to manifest a beauty that is a gift to witness and appreci­
ate. I celebrated the tree in front of me. Everyone did so as well. A little
attention, at least, from the more hard to reach. We took a moment to
breathe deeply and notice the scent the tree gives off. I was filled with won­
der. Some were too. Others looked at their phones. They were receiving mes­
sages at the time, but not from the epiphyte, the slash pine, or me.

So many unique elements of this tree’s knowledge and manifestation of life
exude in this place, the fringes of this campus where concrete replaced its
kin. Its bark is fire resistant, a useful trait given lighting strikes that in the past
burned the under story: These fires took place in the wet season and were not
destructive. They were energy deposits into the area that these trees knew
how to use. The slash pine drops its seeds after a fire into the ash-enriched
limestone and the seeds take root.

The specialization worked well for thousands of years. It stopped working
once large numbers of people moved into the area. The Dade County slash
pine did not specialize in humans, however. It did not take us into account

and our aversion to fire. Nat sur prisingly, the slash pine has lost out to our
home building and fire suppression. In a matter of less than 100 years or so,
about one to two percent of the endemic slash pine forest is left (Pine Rock­
lands-Miami-Dade County). This tree adapted to the area but has not been
able to adapt to our presence.

The lesson in this is difficult. It presents us with many questions. Primarily,
‘What’s our responsibility and role in preserving those life forms that don’t
have the capacity to adapt to the rapid change we are creating?” and “How
do we address those who are not able to learn at the pace of change all
around us?” These were big questions, but not the thrust of what I was hop­
ing I was conveying to my students. The message of the air plant, though a

species that supposedly lacks judgment, seemed more direct: To adapt means
to learn. To stop learning or not learn fast enough means death.

So about one to two percent of the original Dade County slash pine forest is
left. Our campus has a couple of patches where once the entire area was domi­
nated by these trees. We walked away from this small patch and felt ambivalent.


The beauty of the trees is obvious; their fate also seems sealed. But. There is
always a “but” that carries the possibility of surprise. On the way out of the
slash pines, I spotted one solitary atala butterfly heading for its morning break­
fast. This small dark blue butterfly with a red belly and metallic blue dots on its
wings echoed the epiphytes message and gave it a slightly different intonation.

We paused before leaving the forest and observed the atala dancing amongst
the flowers. I mentioned how this exquisite creature was believed to have been
extinct as of 1965 and that in 1979 a small population had been discovered in
Key Biscayne (Pine Rocklands). The atala had almost disappeared because it,
too, specialized and had adapted exclusively to the South Florida environment.
Like the slash pines, it found itself challenged to live because we interfered with
its environment and eliminated the coontie plant, a once prevalent plant of the
hammocks and rock pinelands. The coontie, an ancient cycad, is the sole host
plant for the atala. This specialization meant that when the coontie was virtu­
ally eliminated from the area, the atalas disappeared as well (Pine Rocklands).

I told students to pay attention to this story. That it offered a detail that was not
fully developed in the earlier me=ge of the air plant What was interesting
about this story was that the atala did not die olf. Against significant odds, it crune
back. It was not supposed to swvive. But an effort to encourage gardeners to
plant the coontie allowed the butterlly to return. 1bis was not an all-out plan by
a monied government agency or environmental group. Butterflies are not big
money makers! And so I reminded them and me that not all is loss. Not all is a
scaled fate. Sometimes we get surprised by the beauty of small miracle stories
that don’t allow us to give up. More significantly, the atala reminded us that
there’s always a possibility for the creature with the greatest ability to adapt, us, to
do so and allow others who may not have the same capacity to swvive and thrive.

Our journey through the Environmental Center came to an end as we
approached the chickec next to the lake. We sat there and felt the cool breeze.
The pitched roof thatched with native palm fronds, the cypress columns, and
the setting offered a perfect conclusion. We were sitting under a structure
built by members of the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians. The structure was
one last reminder of adaptation, where lessons from math, life’s struggles,
and slash pine can collide.


Lopez, B. (1990) Crow and �a.rel. Canada: North Point Press. p. 60.

Pine Rocklands. Miami-Dade County Government (n.d.). Retrieved April
21, 2015 from environment/pine-rocklands.asp

!began to write this piece above as I was listening to the wind rustling the
leaves of the trees in the valley below. I’m sitting on a grassy knoll, under

the overhang of what serves as the front porch of the Straw Bale Lodge
donated to Narrow Ridge, a retreat in Tennessee, by Mac Smith, a former
professor in Miami who taught for 30 years at the college where I’ve worked
for 22 years now. He also launched a series of programs that have blossomed
into a several communities that focus on Earth literacy.

I’m not sure why I need to write the paragraph above, but it seems important
to name him, name the place where I’m working, and in doing so remind
myself that the work I do is somehow tied to others who have come before
me. T his “before me” part has been important in the past. Connecting to the
ancestors has been a lifeline that in some of the more challenging times of
teaching has allowed me to find my way when the path was unclear or

encumbered by my own confusion. What I’m noticing more and more is that
those who follow are becoming more relevant. What is dawning on me is that
I am now becoming more of an elder or lifeline to those who come after me.

I’m also realizing that I’m coming to the end of the summer of my teaching
life. I sense the beginning of the fall season and note a number of things.



One that stands out vividly is the notion that the kind of education that I’m
interested in is not one that easily translates into objectives and goals. I real­

ize that I’m interested in the ancient notion of education, which the word
itself suggests, is to draw out, to invite into awareness. This is what I consider
to be my role as a teacher in relationship to my students. It’s also the type of
role, that when I’m at my best, students invite me to play and they play as
well. Together we draw out for one another what is already there but may be
overlooked. And the drawing out is not exclusive of learning a skill. It
involves and requires so much more than merely writing an essay, resume, or
figuring out a complicated calculus.

T hese reflections and my writing came after spending an afternoon touring
Narrow Ridge, an Earth Literacy Center and community in East Tennessee
in the foothills of the Smokies, where my school sends students every spring.
I came up this time as a chaperone. As I live among 13 young people for this
short time, I’m challenged to hold the tension of living from one’s ideals
while often finding that the choices made don’t come close to reflecting
those. Like the young people I have accompanied, I live with the disorder of
my own mind and life, wanting to live consistently within my ideals and com­
ing up short time and again. T his understanding does not jive well with my
notion of being an cider.

The disconnect and discomfort in my own mind regarding elderhood is part
of the generational gap and chasm that has existed for far too long. The
young and old don’t relate to one another enough by living and working
close together: The segregation that started with industrialization and chil­
dren being put in schools that were away from their grandparents and par­
ents most of the day, and that were modeled after the factories the parents
worked in, planted the seeds of a wisdom deficit that we keep bumping into
and find no real way to address. We have become an uninitiated culture
unaware of how to be. This is true of young people and of those who are not
quite old but getting there.

These particular 13 students remind me in their youthful exuberance of
wanting to be, and of being aware of life itself, of exploring the possibilities
of living in a way that affirms rather than denies life. They are able to do this
so freely and quickly as they step away from the constraints of the classroom
and find themselves in a quiet space meant to invite awareness rather than
distraction. When joining them at meals, it is clear as I hear them share that
they also search for ways to live with the brokenness and disjointedness of
life. Our lives are lived in the up-rootedness of urban spaces, where neigh­
borliness is often absent, where green spaces are islands engulfed not only by
roads and buildings, but surrounded and steeped in the “always on” culture
of social media and smartphones. What’s different, it seems, for them is that
their desire for wholeness has not yet spiraled down through the challenges


of living long enough to experience many of the obstacles inherent in exis­
tence itsel[ They haven’t yet experienced the tendency that happens as we

grow older to give up or grow disillusioned and disheartened by the alienated

Narrow Ridge is named after a line in Martin Buber’s book Between Man and
Man (2002). It’s a pertinent thought that can serve as a signpost for all of us:
”I do not rest on the broad upland of a system that includes a series of sure
statements about the absolutes, but on a narrow, rocky ridge between the
gulfs where there is no sureness of expressible knowledge but [only] the cer·
tainty of meeting what remains, undisclosed” (Buber, 2002, p. 218).

The narrow ridge of which Buber and this place remind us is that tenuous
spot where we meet all of life not as objects but as subjects. It’s a tenuous

spot because we do not stay on the ridge easily. We walk it with great care
and humility, honoring and becoming aware of the ultimate mystery of exis­
tence and life itself Too much effort or too much trying, and we fall off the
ridge. Too little effort and too little awareness and the same thing happens.
I’m not even sure that we can use the word tenuous. The narrow ridge is a
point that seems out of reach for most. For me, I don’t know if I’m on it for
more than mere moments, and then off again.

On this particular day, without the use of a textbook or PowerPoint, my stu­
dents and I got a small glimpse of living in that balance and awareness, of
living as Daniel Berrigan says in his introduction to Dorothy Day’s autobiog­
raphy The Llmg Loneliness, of living” … as though the truth were true” (Day,
1981, p. xxiii). This happened as we walked up and down hills and saw and

heard the story of Narrow Ridge. We spent a couple of hours not only walk­
ing, but seeing first hand a physical manifestation of a vision where humans
attempt to live in conscious awareness of their own place in the Universe.
Through its relationship to the land, built structures, and governance, the
Narrow Ridge community shows visitors how a small community tries to
walk the ridge together, to navigate between a culture of mass consumption
and one of great care.

As we walked, we visited with a number of the human residents of Narrow
Ridge. Each offered us a part of their story. Each left us with a bit of the stir­
ring that happens within when we meet another person who has tried her
best to live life in service, in love, in truth.

In the process with these 13, I was reconnected with the question of what
happens when young and old gather to intentionally learn from one another.
And all along the ridge, I’m thinking again and again about the lifeline of
ancestors and my own role as an emerging lifeline to others. As often hap­
pens from these gatherings when we invite the ancestors, ourselves, and the
young together on a journey, we learned the unexpected.


Near the end of our week at Narrow Ridge, we took a day trip to Eagan,just
south of the Kentucky border. Eagan is a border town, on the margins so to
speak, and as such has been a mining town since the early part of the twenti­
eth century. As we approached the town, it was clear to see that we were
entering another America, one that was rich in beauty, culture, and so-called
resources, but one that had been used as the source of cheap energy for more
than I 00 years. All around us we could see the effects of coal extraction,
sides of mountains cut in perfect angles, exposing veins of coal that were the
remains of our prehistoric ancestors. Our bodies also knew we were in a dif­
ferent America. Many of us had difficulty breathing the air. It was as if the
air had become heavy. In reality, the air was heavy with the coal dust of the
mountain that was being removed right in front of our eyes.

The point of this trip was to visit the site of a mountain top removal. This is
a euphemistic term for something much more gruesome. We were there to
witness the decapitation of a mountain, a slow execution fueled by my own,
our own, desire and need to cheaply power our modern way of life. I say
cheaply because none of us have paid the full cost of the coal that has been
extracted from the mountains there. But the mountain and the whole com­
munion of beings who call it home have and are paying the full price.

Eagan felt like a developing country where large landholders control most of
the land and do with it what they will, even when this means that area resi­
dents suffer dearly with the poisons that are the detritus of extracting
energy-either in the form of food (always in the form of some kind of
monoculture) or of fossil fuel to keep the economy running.

It was raining on this day and what we could see was the torrents of brown
runoff coming down from the side of the mountain. Every barren or almost
barren hillside was a flowing river of milk-chocolate-colored water, all flow­
ing to the bottom where mountain streams brim with a cocktail of chemicals
and dirt that kills most if not all of the fish and wildlife who call these streams
home. The effects on humans of this runoff is equally disastrous as flash
floods because the erosion is now commonplace. No trees on the mountain
means no roots to hold the soil in place. We are an uprooted culture in so
many different ways.

We tried getting to the top of where the coal company had removed the
mountain, but we could not. The rain was too much and the road was

becoming impassable. Instead, our guide, Gary Garret, a resident of Eagan,
an elder in training, and a volunteer at the Clearfolk Community Center,
showed us a cemetery on the side of the road. It was the part of the mountain
top that had not been carved out for coal. The cemetery stripped of the
mountain all around was left as an island of the dead, a monument to short­
sightedness on all levels. That it had not been carved out like everything else

For the youth in the group, the anxiety and questions of what to do with the

gift of life in light of the enormity of the challenges before us, how to live in
a world that feels out of sorts in its speed, focus, and ultimate goals were
offered as the base of much of the conversations during the week. The
elders and elders in training, who clearly did not have any specific answers
to these heartfelt questions, but, who, because of the grace of sometimes
living with some awareness, could point out sign posts that have kept them
close to the narrow ridge. The opportunity to be in communion with these
young people served as a balm for the achiness of spirit that too often
plagues those who have awakened from the dominant culture’s hypnotic
spell to merely consume and forget. For me, and I suspect for the others
above 40 in the group, coming together to enter into dialogue with young
people offered the blessing of renewal, a reminder to remain vulnerable,
open, and strong all at once.

Walking the narrow ridge in this regard has something to do with that blessed
space that is described by many spiritual traditions as sensing the divine
presence not in some far off place but in the midst of the current time with
its mixture of beauty along with the oppression, hurt, and ugliness of a


human constructed system bent on domination of the many for the benefit
of the few. Walking the narrow ridge is a movement from disconnection to
communion and awareness.

-7hen together we face the youthful not knowing, the pain of the current
moment, and the elder’s understanding of the inherent incompleteness of
all of our efforts, we can sense, if there is honesty and grace in the container
of sharing, that we offer one another what is needed. We bring ourselves
with all of our limitations into a space of healthy interrogation of life’s

Any uncertainty about the future becomes an entry point to the mystery
that all we need is right before us, that we are the ones we have been look­
ing for all along. In this meeting place, or narrow ridge, the now of this
moment allows all of us, young and old, to be fully ourselves and stop the
continuous effort to cover over our inherent qualities as Homo sapi,ens, a
species among many, a species with a deep desire to reflect upon its own
place in the family of life.

As I look back at my own teaching life, I realize that my development and
growth as a teacher often takes off as I enter or create the kinds of diverse
communities where the old and young come together in a spirit of listening
and sacred sharing. These communities have never been committees. They
have always involved effort in either joining or creating them. Sometimes
they emerge suddenly and with great force. Their intensity brightens up the
path for all who participate. They exist in the margins, in moments-lasting

long enough to serve as reminders to all who are there to witness to wake up
to possibility, empathy, and action.

Over the years, this practice of not just stepping outside of the classroom but
outside of the philosophical underpinnings of a schooling system based on
transaction and objectification, has served to bring me back to myself as a
learner, a seeker, and one who wants to live with integrity. Interestingly, I
have been able to experience this not only outside of the physical structure
of schools such as a place like Narrow Ridge, but also even within the walls
of my own institution, that I sometimes in frustration and playfulness call
Rockland, the psychiatric hospital in Ginsberg’s “Howl” ( 1956).

I point this out, because the magic of this time in Narrow Ridge had more to
do with this community container than the actual place. The container can
be created anywhere, even in the midst of systemic craziness. I believe that
the narrow ridge Buber describes is any space where such gatherings of the
young and the elder as well as peers can emerge with integrity; we need these
to help us find our way and balance. I know I need these to find my heart
and soul when both become opaque or clouded over.


I started this essay with a short poem inspired by an ancient chant to Shiva,
the Hindu deity associated with creation and destruction. I did so honoring
the pattern within me of creation and destruction. The poem is a reminder
that all is not lost. When we find ourselves in the rubble and off the ridge, we
have work to do. In this precious and precarious time, the need to connect
old and young and form diverse communities of wisdom is not optional
because these communities are the medium and the narrow ridges by which
and in which all that is vulnerable and truthful can take root, emerge, reach
for the sky, and create anew.


Buber, M. (2002). &tween Man and Man. London: Routledge Classics. p. 218.

Day, D. (1981). Tiu /Jmg l.lJnelinw (Reprint Edition, ed.). New York, NY:
Harper and Row. p. Xxiii.

Smith, H. A. Early Reminiscences. Number Ten. Scraps from a Diary. Chief
Seattle: A Gentleman by Instinct – His Native Eloquence. Etc., Etc. Seattl.e
Sunday Star, October 29, 1987, p. 3. Retrieved April 21, 2015 from http:// spcmu/ speeches/ chiefseattle.htm

Chapter 2

– � . .

mind and managed to layer, i n all due time, into mine.

In all due time, two and one-half years later, in the early darkness of a win­
ter evening in February 1963,Jimmy Travis slips behind the wheel and Ran­
dolph Blackwell crowds me into the front seat of a SNCC Chevy as we leave
the Greenwood Voter Registration Office. We were to drive from Green­
wood to Greenville on U.S. 82 straight across the Mississippi Delta. Jimmy
zigzagged out of town to escape an unmarked car that had been circling the
office, but as we headed west on 82, the car spots us, trails us, and sweeps
past near the turn off for Valley State, firing a hailstorm of bullets. Jimmy
cries out, slumps over; I reach over, grab the wheel, fumble for the brakes;
we glide off the icy highway, snuggle into the ditch-a bullet-tattooed

1 A keynote address written and delivered by Bob Moses at Emory University,
Atlanta, GAJanuary 20, 2015.
2 A series of bus trips through the American South to protest segregation in interstate
bus terminals, begun in 1961 by African-American and white civil rights activists.
3 Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee of the Southern Freedom Movement.



Chevy, windows blown away, a hole in Jimmy’s neck. 1963, the year that
began with a grease gun terrorist highway attack, ended with the assassina­
tion of a President. First-class black insurgents were not the only ones
paying dues.

This is a talk about an abstract American idea, the American concept of a
Constitutional Person-a talk to help make that invisible abstraction visible.
America’s Constitutional people need outfits, clothes, so they can be seen in
the stories we Americans carry in our heads about who we are, where we are,
and where we are headed: This, therefore, is a talk about the American Lived

The concept of Constitutional People is everywhere in America’s ongoing
story. Over 156 years ago, on June 16, 1858, in front of 1,000 delegates to
the Republican State Convention in Springfield Illinois, a candidate to be
Senator of lliinois opened his talk with these words: ”Mr. President and Gen­
tlemen of the Convention: If we could first know where we are, and whither
we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it”
(Lincoln 1858)

we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it”
(Lincoln 1858)

But flash forward for a moment to the words of another citizen and
president. In 1988, when Kingman Brewster died,

4 it fell to Sam Chauncey’
to say how Kingman should be remembered and to plan a memorable space
in the Grove street cemetery where all presidents of Yale rest. Sam designed
a low black marble wall to enclose Kingman’s grave. On it he etched two
sentences that encapsulate the interface between constitutional and common
law; two sentences to illuminate how, on planet Earth, the ocean of lore
humans inherit ought to instruct and inform the constitutional law humans
create: “The presumption of innocence is not just a legal concept. In com­
mon sense terms it rests on that generosity of spirit which assumes the best,
not the worst, of the stranger”6 (Carter, 1999, p. 292).

Now lurch backward in time. In 1749, A West African boy, nine years old
and captured, sailed the middle passage to Virginia and survived. In August
of that year, a Scottish born merchant slave trader peered into the pluck of
that nine year old and bought him. Up and coming Charles Stewart bought
Somerset of West Africa to be his personal slave (Blumrosen 2005).

Twenty years pass, it’s 1769. Stewart is 44; and Somerset, 29, accompanies
him to London to help care for Stewart’s sister’s family when her husband

4 Diplomat, Harvard law professor, and President of Yale University, 1963-1977.
5 Admirustrator for Brewster, and son of Henry Chauncey, founder of Educational
Testing Seivice.
6Tombstone inscription are words from Brewster’s writings.


dies. London is awash with Africans from the British Empire. Slaves and run•
aways, beggars and workers, sea-goers and artisans, and Somerset, running

errands ever ywhere for his master, meeting blacks on the streets, in the stores,
along the docks, makes a plan. He arranges a baptism, acquires English
Godparents and flows, on October 1, 1771, into London’s stream of Insur­
gent Runaway Slaves (Blumrosen, p. 10).

Charles Stewart, feeling “betrayed and publicly insulted,” posted notices to
get Somerset back. And on November 2, slave catchers deliver Somerset to a
ship bound for Jamaica. Seven days later, Somerset’s Godmother, Elisabeth
Cade pays to petition the Court of Kings Bench for a writ of Habeas Corpus
to release him (p. I 0).

Lord Mansfield, the Chief Justice, issues a writ requiring Captain Knowles

to explain the reason for detaining Somerset on the Anne & Mary vessel. Six
days later, Somerset appears before the King’s Bench with Captain Knowles,
who declares: “Charles Stewart, a colonial from America, delivered his slave,
Somerset, to be sold inJamaica” (p. 7). But Lord Mansfield releases Somer­
set pending a hearing, suggesting he be set free. West Indian planters,
however, want a decision upholding slavery in Britain to keep prices stable in
the commodities markets.

Lord Mansfield cautions them that if they think the question of great com­
mercial concern is the only method of settling the point in the future, they
should prepare an application to Parliament. But Parliament, content to let
the matter rest at the Kings Bench refused the merchants a hearing.

Onjune 22, 1772, while the clerk called the case of ”.James Somerset, a Negro
on Habeas Corpus,” Lord Mansfield, bewigged, the chief justice of the oldest
and highest court in England, mounted the bench to deliver his judgment:

The state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of being intro­
duced on any reasons, moral or political …. It’s so odious, that nothing can
be suffered to support it but constitutional law. Whatever inconveniences,
therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed o r
approved b y the law o f England; a n d therefore t h e black must be
discharged (p. 24).

So why did Slave Owner Stewart feel “betrayed and publicly humiliated?”
Almost 200 years pass, and the matter at the heart of that matter resurfaces
in a provocative letter that novelistjames Baldwin wrote in 1962 in a letter to
his brother’s son,James:

The crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen … that they
have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do
not know it and do not want to know it. One can be …. tough and philo­
sophical concerning destruction and death … But it is not permissible that


the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence
which constitutes the crime {Baldwin pp. 5-6).

It was then in 1772 as in 1963, a question of innocence. After all, saturated
with the lore humans inherit, Stewart’s generosity of spirit saw the “best” not
the “worst” in a nine year old “personable” African stranger. But Stewart
who could not clothe his personal property with English Common Law and
imagine Somerset into a Constitutional Person, instead imagined himself, a
slave owner, an innocent, a victim, “betrayed and publicly humiliated” by an

F lash forward in history again. In 1960, after Jimmy caught that bullet in his
neck, Snick7 regrouped to converge on Greenwood, and black sharecroppers
lined up at the Court House to demand their right to vote. When Snick field
secretaries were arrested, Burke Marshall, the Assistant Attorney General for
Civil Rights under Robert Kennedy, removed our cases to the Federal
District Court in Greenville and sentJohn Doar to be our lawyer. From the
witness stand I looked out at a courtroom packed with black sharecroppers
from Greenwood, hushed along its walls, packed onto its benches, and
attended to the question put by Federal District Judge Clayton: “Why are
you taking illiterates down to register to vote?” (Moses, 20 I 0)

Wrong question Judge: These delta blacks arc dressed up in their new outfits:
constitutional clothes. Can you see them and incorporate them in the story
you carry in your head about who they are, where they are, and where they
are headed?

This conundrum of constitutional outfits, the ongoing dilemma about who
gets to wear what constitutional clothes, surfaced at the 1 787 Constitu­
tional Convention, and resurfaces time and again: In Lincoln’s House
Divided speech; in Judge Clayton’s question; in Ferguson; in the nation’s
theory of “undocumented “people”; in the national education conundrum
of constitutional, but naked school children, sent to school, with no consti­
tutional clothes.

In all due time, we have circled back, in our story, to Abraham Lincoln, that
1858 Republican Senate candidate, who went on to invoke a House
Divided: ” house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this govern­
ment cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect
the Union to be dissolved-I do not expect the house to fall-but I do
expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the
other” (Lincoln, 1858).

Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)


Don’t be fooled, the conundrum of Lincoln’s House Divided speech was not
the Nation, the Union, nor the “it” in ”It will become all one thing or the

other.” Not even close: SNCC was on the witness stand a century later precisely
because the country had figured a way around that “it.” No, Lincoln’s conun­
drum was that other two letter word, “We.” At the 1787 Constitutional Con­
vention, James Madison rose to clarify the background that paved a path into
Lincoln’s conundrum. It seems now to be pretty well understood that the real
difference of interests lay, not between the northern and southern states. The
institution of slavery and its consequences formed the line of demarcation.

Move forward in time to April 1952. President Harry Truman, in the middle
of the Korean war, declared that an impending steel strike ”would immedi­
ately jeopardize and impair our national defense” and ordered the secretary
of commerce “to take possession of all or such of the plants, facilities, and

other property of the steel companies” (Truman 1952) as he may deem nec­
essary in the interest of national defense (Corwin 1953; Loftus 1952).

The Steel Seizure case, which followed Truman’s declaration, culminated in
a Supreme Court injunction prohibiting the secretary from obeying the pres­
ident’s order. Six justices explained their reasons, separately, for deciding the
order was unconstitutional. But the opinion of Justice Robert H.Jackson has
most clearly withstood subsequent legal scrutiny:

The actual art of governing under our Constitution does not and cannot
conform to judicial definitions of the power of any of its branches based on
isolated clauses or even single Articles torn from context. While the

Constitution diffuses power the better to secure liberty, it also contemplates
that practice will integrate the dispersed powers into a workable government
(Clayton 2002 p. 69).

In advance of any practice, the founding fathers at the Constitutional Con­
vention of 1787, who contemplated the actual art of governing when the
institution of slavery and its consequences formed the line of discrimination,
faced a conundrum. While the 1787 Constitution contemplated a class of
Constitutional People in its “We The People” Pre Amble, and diffused power,
the better to secure their liberty, it also contemplated a class of Constitutional
Property, outfits for Somerset’s constitutional clothing desi gned as Article rv,
Section 2, Paragraph 3: ”No person held to service or labor in one state,
under the laws thereo� escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any
law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall
be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor is due”
(Constitution). Thus, ”We the People” does not include slaves.

The Somerset clause contemplated a Constitution that diffused power-the
better to secure slavery-because as James Madison understood only too


well, slavery was the indispensable practice required to integrate the dis­
persed powers into a workable government. Without slavery as its economic
engine, the nation and the government were not “workable.”

America, the land of democracy and freedom, is also a crime scene, the
crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen …. We have the
wolf of terrorism by the ear, and we can neither hold on to it, nor can we
let it go; but it is not permissible that the authors of destruction should also
be innocent. Weapons of mass destruction! It is the innocence which constitutes
the crime.

For three quarters of a century, the Government of Constitutional People
and Constitutional Property tried workability all the while, a Young People’s
Project, Africans, central actors in the Constitutional Drama, acting out,
coming of age insurgencies, invisible, mutating viruses, popping up here and
there, infecting the Constitutional Scene. Until, inevitably, in the persona of
Dred Scott, the central character in the 1857 decision by Roger B. Taney,
Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, their project metastasizes into a cata­
lyst of mass destruction that divides Lincoln’s House, sets into motion the
War of the Constitutional People over Constitutional Property, and drops
the curtain on America’s first Constitutional era. The Era lurched to an end,
but its conundrum refused to expire: Who were we, if “we” was still the

Constitutional Era 2

The moon was quite young when the bell tolled, the young black men rushed
into the chapel to get their guns and Margaret Caldwell, left home, her face

hid, stepped over a body lying in the street near a store, before going back
home where her husband’s brother’s wife and three children cowered with

her against the sound of the white mob roaming the streets. There Margaret
stayed until her minister came to bring the news that both husbands were
dead, and he carried two bodies upstairs. Margaret’s husband’s body had to
be tied together and the minister laid both bodies out to prepare for burial.
I.ate that night the train from Vicksburg to Jackson stopped in Clinton and
Modocs, traveling confederates imagining themselves into a tribe of wild Indi­
ans marched into the Caldwell house, threw open the windows, sang, danced,
cursed, and challenged the two dead men to get up and meet them. It was a
Thursday evening during the Christmas season in Clinton Mississippi; it was
187 5. The second Constitutional Era was getting underway.

Margaret’s husband, Charles Caldwell had commanded the Negro militia
company that marched in formation from Jackson to Edwards on October 9,
1875, carrying armaments for the militia company there. But Ohio’s state


elections were scheduled for October I 3, and Ohio Republicans sent a dele­
gation to Ulysses Grant, informing the President that if he sent troops to
Mississippi, Ohio, “which had voted by a wide margin against ratification of
the Fifteenth Amendment, 8 the state would fall to the Democrats. Grant sent
no troops, but later told Lynch, the black senator from Mississippi, that
“I made a grave mistake.”

Republicans blinked: In 1875, President Grant yielding to the request of the
Republican delegation, put into motion a practice that integrated America’s
dispersed powers into a workable government, the better to secure Jim Crow,
slavery by another name (Blackmon 2008).

Democrats winked: In 1875, Redeemed, Democrats overthrew the Mississippi
Government by terror, violence, and murder, and contemplated a written
Constitution that diffused power the better to secure white supremacy, a
practice which integrated dispersed powers into a workable government, the
better for white people to secure freedom.

On a Thursday evening during the Christmas season of 1875, when the
moon was quite young and the bells tolled, Margaret Caldwell, her face hid,
stepped over the body of her husband Charles (Lemann 2006)

For the Presidential race of 1876, Rutherford Hayes, saved by Grant and
reelected governor of Ohio, ran against Samuel Tilden, Democratic gover­
nor of New York. Terror and murder rampaged against black men across
Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Florida, and when the election
ended in a stalemate at the electoral college, a deal was cut: The Compro-

mise of 1877: The nation got a workable government: Hayes and the Repub­
licans got the Presidency, federal troops were withdrawn from the South, and
white southerners established a political confederacy. The Nation finally
knew who we were and whither we were tending and, therefore, better
judged what to do and how to do it.

And the clarity of the “what and how” of those judgements sharply
resonate when listening to Billy Holiday sing “Strange Fruit.” Her ironic
juxtaposition of words such as “southern breezes, gallant South, and sweet­
ness of magnolias” alongside the words that spoke to the lynching horror.;
resulting in “bulging eyes, twisted mouths, and burning flesh” (Margolick
2000 p. 25) dramatically captured the contradictions of the perverted
betrayals of Black people, sanctioned by corrupted government policies,
both southern and national.

8 The 15th Amendment: “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not
be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color,
or previous condition of servitude.”


On Wednesday May 14, 1919, an article appeared on the front page of the
Vicksburg Evening Post. It read in bold letters, “NEGRO ATTEMPTS RAPE

OF YOUNG WORKING GIRL.” The name of the 22 year old alleged,
attempted rapist was Lloyd Clay, a young black man who worked as a day
laborer. The young working girl, it later turned out, had a secret older white
man as her lover, who ran from the room she rented when discovered by the
landlord. He fled to his black chauffeur whom he hired to take his lover on
midnight drives. Confronted later, the chauffeur, and two other black men
hauled into the Jackson jail, told the entire story to the authorities. All three
men were released and told to leave the state (Clay 1919).

The crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen.

Sheriff Frank Scott, W M. Hudson and Deputy Charley Gantt used blood­

hounds to track down the would-be rapist. The dogs initially led them to a
white man, but a second attempt brought them to the A and V Railroad Sta­
tion where they arrested Lloyd Clay.

That they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of tJwusands of lives

After the white townsfolk heard that an arrest had been made, white men
and boys began to gather at the Warren County jailhouse. Immediately after
Clay was arrested, Mattie Hudson’s father took her into town to pick out her
assailant from a lineup of several black men. As Hudson stood before the
lineup, she stated assuredly that none of the men there had attacked her and
none had entered her room ( 1919).

And do not know it and da not want to know it.

Around 8:00 p.m. a mob used blow torches and a 16 foot piece of railroad
iron to break down the jailhouse doors and bend open the iron jail cell bars.
About 40 men made their way past Sheriff Scott and twelve of hi.s deputies
as they took Clay from his cell. The mob tied Clay up, placed him in a truck,
drove him a short distance from where Mattie Hudson boarded, and
demanded that Hudson identify Clay as her assailant On the third day she
did (1919).

It ir not permirsib/,e that the autlwrs ef destruction should a/,so be innocent.

Clay’s burnt to crisp remains were placed in a plain wooden box. Early the
next morning the coroner contacted Hattie Clay, Lloyd’s mother who con­
sented to have his remains interred in a cemetery for paupers, misfits and
“bad” Negroes. Neither family nor friends escorted Clay’s body to his final
resting place. The city paid the total cost of his funeral, 15 dollars ( 1919).

Between 1882 and I 930 Mississippi lynched over 700 young black men:
Rounding the numbers, for a half a century, 50 years or 600 months, on
average, every six months, seven black men were Mississippi lynched, or, for


50 years, on average, every year 14 black men were Mississippi lynched (-lal­
drep 2005). OnJune 13, 2005, the U.S. Senate issued a formal apology for
innocence, that it never criminalized lynching, but Trent Lott and Thad
Cochran, Mississippi’s Republican and Democrat Senators retained their
innocence and did not sign (Lemann 2006).

It is tlu innccence which constitutes tlu crime.

On March 30, 1908, Green Cottenham was arrested by the sheriff of Shelby
County, Alabama, and charged with “vagrancy.” After three days behind
bars, 22 year-old Cottenham was found guilty . . . and immediately sen­
tenced to a 30-day term of hard labor. Unable to pay the array of fees …
Cottenham’s sentence was extended to nearly a year of hard labor. The next
day, under a standing arrangement between the county . . . and U. S.
Steel … Cottenham was sold and the sheriff turned him over to Tennessee
Coal, Iron and Railroad Company, a subsidiary, for the duration of his sen­
tence. The Company gave the county S 12 a month to pay off Cottenham’s
fine and fees, sent him to the Pratt Mines on the edge of Birmingham. Green
Cottenham toiled under the lash with 1000 other black men in “Slope# 12.”
Slaves in all but name, almost sixty of the men died of disease, accidents or
homicide before the year was over: Green Cottenham was dead from disease
after five months (Blackmon 2008 p. 1-2).

In our first Constitutional era, 1787 to 1865, young black men suffered nei­
ther prison cell nor the lynch mob. They were Constitutjonal Property. Dur­
ing our second Constitutional era, 1875 to 1954, young black men were
routinely rounded up for vagrancy and imprisoned briefly for debt, before
being conscripted to work in a system of involuntary servitude. They were
Constitutional People turned back into Constitutional Property.

We can thank Douglas Blackmon, who grew up in Greenville Mississippi
and is the former Atlanta Bureau Chief of the Wall Street Journal, for the
book, Slavery by Another Name-. Tu re-enslavement of Black Americans .from the Civil
War to World War II. His story of tens of thousands of black youth criminal­
ized for walking the railroad tracks, charged with vagrancy, jailed for
non-employment, conscripted to die in the coal mines should shake the
conscience of the nation. In his book, Blackmon threw a searchlight on
Circular 3591 issued by Attorney General Francis Biddle on Dec. 12, 1941,
a wrective that ruptured the illusion that slavery had ended in America. And
it warned the legal community that any person or entity who violated the
13th Amendment “would be prosecuted as a criminal”:

It is the purpose of these instructions to direct the attention of the United
State Attorneys to the possibilities of successful prosecutions stemming
from alleged peonage complaints which have heretofore been considered
inadequate to invoke federal jurisdiction. It is requested that the spelling


out of peonage be deferred in favor of building the cases around the issue
of involuntary servitude and slavery disregarding entirely the element of
debt (Blackmon, pp 377-78).

All the Civil Rights Movements of the 20th Century took place against the
background of WWI and WWII and the insurgencies of colonial peoples
across the planet for political voice. African Americans, an internal colonial

people during this era, mounted their own insurgencies for political voice.
No wonder Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor galvanized President Franklin
Roosevelt to seek an end to the conscription of black men into involuntary
servitude and slavery; as soldiers he needed them ready to answer Japan’s
sure to come question: “Why are you, black soldiers, over here fighting us?”

In Clarksdale, as World War II got under way, black day-laborers could “go

at six in the morning to the corner of Fourth and Issaquena streets … trucks
from the plantations would appear at the corner. The drivers would get out
and announce their pay scales. The Hopson place always paid at the high
end of the going rate” (Lemann 1991 p. 71 ). In the fall of 1944 an estimated
3,000 people gathered at the Hopson plantation outside of Clarksdale to
watch eight bright red machines pick forty-two acres of cotton. Richard

Hopson ran the plantation office and the previous spring he had penned a
letter urging all the plantation owners in the Delta to “change as rapidly as
possible from sharecropping to complete mechanized farming … to alleviate
the Negro problem” (p. 71 ).

Three years later, David Cohn, a literary lawyer put the following dilemma
to the Nation: “Five million people will be removed from the land within the
next few years. They must go somewhere. But where? They must do some­
thing. But what? They must be housed. But where is the housing?” (Lemann
1991 p. 51). In December 1946, the Chicago housing authority moved a few
black families into a new housing project called Airport Homes, which was
in a white neighborhood on the Southwest side. The housing authority pro­

ceeded with some care: it obtained the blessing of the mayor; it carefully
screened the black families; it moved them in during working hours, when
the men in the neighborhood were away. Still more than 1,000 whites gath­
ered to ‘greet’ the black families. The mayor had to send in four hundred
policemen to maintain order; the rioting went on and, finally, after two weeks
the black families moved out, back across the housing color line (p. 51 ).

Ten years later, after the 1954 Supreme Court decision, ‘Willis wagons”
maintained the school color line:

It is obvious in retrospect that the established black neighborhoods were far too
small to hold all the black people coming into Chicago Ueaving Mississippi’s
plantations] but [the Mayor’s] efforts were directed at finding ways to maintain


the color line. His school superintendent [Ben Willis] was immediately faced
with the problem of severe overcrowding in the black schools. Instead of
integrating the adjacent and usually half-empty white schools, Wtllis put the
black schools on double shifts, eight to noon and noon to four, and installed
what blacks called “Wtllis Wagons”-trailers converted into temporary
classrooms-in their playgrounds, thereby creating an urban equivalent of the
inferior rural black school systems of the South (Lemann 1991, p. 91 ).

I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men. The
grounds of this are virtue and talents …. May we not even say that that
form of government is the best which provides the most effectually for a
pure selection of these natural aristoi into the offices of government?
(Lemann I 999 p. 4 3)

So Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Adams in 1813. Adams sent his reply
later that year: November 15, 1813:

Your distinction between natural and artificial aristocracy does not appear
to me well founded … both artificial aristocracy, and monarchy, and civil,
military, political and hierarchical despotism, have all grown out of the nat·
ural aristocracy of virtues and talents. Vie, to be sure, are far remote from
this. Many hundred years must roll away before we shall be corrupted.Our
pure, virtuous, public-spirited federative republic will last forever, govern
the globe and introduce the perfection of man. . . . Your distinction
between the aristoi and the pseudo aristoi will not help the matter. I would
trust one as soon as the other with unlimited power (Lemann 1999 p. 46).

flash forward: At the October 29, 1947 meeting of the College Board, the
admissions deans who made up the usual attendance at College Board Meet­
ings, were astonished to sec James Bryant Conant, President of Harvard, in
all his magnificence, as well as the presidents of Princeton, Cornell and
Brown (p. 64). Conant had assembled all these “grandees” to persuade the
deans that the old dispensation of the College Board was at an end; it was to
merge with ACE, the American Council of Education and prepare for the
creation of ETS, the Educational Testing Seivice. George Zook, head of the
ACE, also headed President T ruman’s Commission on Higher Education.
Zook submitted his report to the President less than two months later on

December 11, 194 7, a clarion call to expand American Higher Education:

• The num ber of students enrolled in institutions of higher education by 1960
should be 4.6 million-triple what it had been in 1940.

• A third of every age cohort should graduate from college.
• Government should substantially finance this expansion by paying for students’

tuitions: the first two years of college should be entirely free.

All discrimination in higher education, especially against Negroes, should be
vigorously stamped out (Lemann 1999).


The deans had met two weeks earlier and voted the merger down; they just
didn’t understand, the deal had already been settled. The question was who

would run ETS: Conant via the College Board or Zook, via ACE. Exactly
one week after the Zook report was submitted, ETS was chartered with
Henry Chauncey a Harvard dean, as president, and Conant as chairman of
the Board. The aristocracy was still in charge.

In the aftermath of WWII, in 1948, the nation established universal draft
registration to be administered by the Selective Service System, and debated
the wisdom of draft-deferment tests for college students. Then on June 25,
1950, North Korea invaded South Korea and Henry Chauncey saw the
potential of a Bull Market for his company, ETS, and its products-tests. On
March 19, 1951, the Selective Service System signed a contract with ETS to
test up to one million college students. Chauncy insisted the test not be called
an IQ test: the ability revealed by this test is more properly called “scholastic
aptitude,” he asserted, the ability to do well in school or college. He devised a
scoring system that would bring to mind school grades rather than mental
testing: The median score would be 50 and the deferment cut-off, 70. Secu­
rity at the testing sites matched the life and death matter of the tests. All test­
takers were finger printed and the FBI helped to guard the sites. There was
the slight issue of one low scoring demographic: Southerners: Only 42 per­
cent made the cutoff score of 70 as against 73 percent of New Englanders.
What to do? Establish affirmative action based on regional cut-off scores?
Better to keep quiet and, therefore innocent, about the nation’s educational
line of discrimination and its life and death quota tied to cut-off scores

(Lemann 1999 p. 72-76).

Zook’s vision lost the government did not turn universities into extended
versions of public school-free to all, the same for all. But so did Conant’s
vision lose. Conant had wanted to replace a system of higher education
based on upper class aristocrats with a system based on Jefferson’s “natural
aristocrats.” But for that to work, “It was essential that people accept this
new elite as deserving, selfless, valuable, and dedicated to the public good.”
To Conant “the spectacle of well-to-do college men being deferred from
required military service, to the great resentment of everyone else, under a
transparently trumped-up justification, was deeply disturbing.” But the test­
ing went smoothly; two-thirds of the takers made the cut-off; the Pentagon
found it useful; and soon enough so did universities. The nation set up ETS
and the “project of picking just the right aristocrats” (Lemann p. 346).

In the late fifties, Conant took a close look at the nation’s public high schools,
and in 1961, the same year I retur ned to Mississippi to work for SNCC on


Amzie’s voter registration program, Conant published a book, Slums and
Suburbs, in which he made the following admission:

As I read the history of the U. S., this republic was born with a congenital
defect-Negro slavery. Or, if one prefers another metaphor, w,: started life
under a curse from which we are not yet free. After the victory of the
North … the people of the U. S. through their duly elected representatives
in Congress acquiesced for generations in the establishment of a tight caste
system as a substitute for Kegro slavery. As we now recognize so plainly, but
so belatedly, a caste system finds its clearest manifestation in an educational
system (Conant 1961 p. 8-11 ).

Conant recognized too little too late.

When the first Constitutional Era had lurched to a close, Stephen Douglas,
not Abraham Lincoln, trumpeted “of, by and for the people” in the debate
over popular sovereignty versus slavery. So, here is “We The People, one
man-one vote,” Douglas:

To throw the force of the Federal Government into the issue, either in favor
of the free or the slave states would violate the fundamental principles of
the Constitution and run the risk of civil war. T he only hope of holding the
country together … is to agree to disagree, to respect the right of each state
and each territory to decide these questions for themselves (Lincoln­
Douglas Debates 1858).

And here is “No one has a Right to do Wrong,” Lincoln:

Any man can advocate political neutrality who does not see anything wrong
in slavery, but no man can logically say it who does see a wrong in it …
Douglas contends that whatever community wants slaves has a right to have

them. So they have it if it is not a wrong. But if it is a wrong, he cannot say
people have a right to do wrong” (Debates, 1858).

In 1964, SNCC had no idea how its work, with MFDP to confront the
National Democratic Party and the Nation at the Democratic Convention
that year in Atlantic City, was ‘dead on’ history’s mark. In a twentieth-cen­
rury version of the nineteenth cenrury Lincoln-Douglas debate, Fannie Lou

Hamer rose before the Credentials Committee to emphatically interrogate
her nation: ”I question America! Is this America?” (Brooks 2011 p. 43).

And there, in Atlantic City were PresidentJohnson, Martin Luther KingJr,
Walter Reuther and Bayard Rustin, talking like Stephen Douglass, trumpet­
ing popular sovereignty: To throw the force of the National Democratic
Party into the issue, either in favor of the MFDP or the Mississippi Regulars,
as those four saw it, would violate fundamental principles of the Party and


run the risk of destroying it. Thinking like Douglas, they assumed that the
only hope of holding the party together … was “to agree to disagree, to
respect ‘the right of the people of each state to decide these questions for

Yet here are the MFDP and SNCC talking like Lincoln: Any person can
advocate political neutrality who does not see anything wrong inJim Crow
Politics, slavery by another name. But no person can logically say it, who
does see a wrong in it … They contend that whatever state wants Jim Crow
Politics has a right to work it out in their state. So they have it, if it is not a
wrong. But if it is a wrong they cannot say a state has a right to do wrong.

The 1941 Attorney General Circular 3591, ‘A’WII veterans like Amzie, who
came back to a purpose, the 1954 Supreme Court decision, the Montgomery

bus boycott, the sit-in movement, the full blown Civil Rights Movement, all
signaled an end to America’s second Constirutional Era. Certainly the Mis­
sissippi Theater of that movement rang the curtain on Mississippi’s eighty­
nine year reign, 187 5 to 1964 as a one party white Democratic state.
Moreover, as quiet as it’s kept, that effort rang the curtain on the national
political party arrangements put into play in the years 1875 to 1877 when
Republicans blinked and Democrats winked.

Agriculrure dominated the economic arrangements of the first Constiru­
tional Era, 1787 to 1865, Industrial machine technology dominated the sec­
ond, 1875 to 1954, and Information computer technologies dominate the
third, 1965 and into the twenty-first cenrury.

In the first era, Mississippi whites home schooled their offspring or sent them
to private schools and on to Princeton and/or the University of Virginia;
black slaves learned to read, if at all, on their own dime and at great risk.

In the second era, Conant opened up Harvard and elite Universities to pub­
lic school students, but nothing interrupted sharecropper education. Share­
cropper students, the progeny of slaves, got the education appropriate to
their caste and its pre-assigned work.

In all due time, in 1970, ten years after Conant published Slums and Suburbs, as
the nation transitioned into its third Constitutional Era, the Supreme Court
required Mississippi to begin the integration of its public school system. That
same year the nation began a forty year documentation of education that
included data about four year college graduation. Bad news for Conant and
Jefferson. Their vision of a meritocratic national education system producing
America’s natural aristocrats, had gone South, unless, that is, we agree that
the Universe distributes intelligence disproportionately to the wealthy: In
1970, 40 percent of students from the upper quartile of the nation’s economic

The Pre Amble opens up a constirutional space: “We The People” did not
mean “vle the President, We the Congress, or We the Supreme Court.” It
couldn’t since none existed at the writing of that document. Neither is it “We
the Citizens,” for, there was no nation in 1787 for which allegiance could be
pledged. If the Pre Amble had begun, “We The Citizens of the several
States,” we would have a very different America. But it didn’t. “Vve The Peo­
ple” invites everyone living in America, who takes it as their home, into the

Constirutional Conversation.

Zook’s vision to uplift and universalize into college the reach of Public School
Education is the more appropriate vision for this Constirutional Era, the age
of knowledge work. The Conant-Jefferson vision of a narural elite based on
meritocracy lost out to the Market-based education: Get as much education
as money can buy. Even so, “We the People” lies there, biding its time, waiting
for its insurgents. Let’s lift it up and try to feel its force. Please, say it after me:

“We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union,
establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common
defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to
ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constirution for the
United States of America.”

The presumption of innocence is not just a legal concept. In common sense
terms it depends on that generosity of spirit, which seeks the best, not the
worst, in the stranger.



A new majority research bulletin: Low income students now a majority in
the nation’s public schools (2015). Southern Education Foundati.on. http:/ /www. ies/Research-and-Publicatio ns/
New-Majority-D iverse-Majority-Report-Series/ A-New-Majority-2015-

Baldwin, J. (I 963). My dungeon shook: Letter to my nephew on the one
hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation. Th .foe next New York:
Vintage Books.

Blackmon, D. A. (2008). S/,avery o/ another name: Th re-ensl.avement of Black
Americans.from the Civil Uiir to World War II. New York: Anchor Books, Random

Blumrosen, A. W and Blumrosen, R. G. (2005). Sl.ave nation: How slavery uniJed
the colonies and sparked the American &volution. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks.
Chapter l .

Brooks, M. P. and Hauck, D. (2011 ) . The speeches of Fannie Lo u Hamer: To tell it
like it is.Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.

Carter, S. (1999). Civil�: Manners, Morals and the Etiquette of Democracy (New
York: Harper Press).

Clay, a Negro charged with attempted rape, hanged and burned. ( 1919)
Vicksburg Evening Post, May 17; Vicksburg Dai[y Herald, May 18.

Clayton, C. W. The Supply and Demand Sides of Judicial Policy-Making
(Or, Why Be so Positive about the Judicialization of Politics?) Law and
Conumporary Problems Vol. 65, No. 3, The Law of Politics (Summer 2002),
pp. 69-85. Published by: Duke University School of Law. Stable URL:
http:/ hV¼ 1192403 Page Count: 17

Conant,J. B. (1961). Slums and Suburbs. New York: Signet Books. (p. 8-11)

Constitution. Transcript. exhibits/ charters/

Corwin, E. S. (1953). The Steel Seizure Case: A Judicial Brick without
Straw. Columhia Law Reuiew (Columbia Law Review Association, Inc.) 53 (!):

Lincoln, A. “House Divided Speech.” June, 16, 1858. Abraham Lincoln
H istorical Society.
and http:/ / aia/part4/ 4h2934t.html


Lemann, N. (2006). Redemption: The last battle of /Ju Civil War. New York:
Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Lemann, N. (1991). Tiu Promised Land: The Great Blm:k Migration and how it
changed America. New York: Vmtage Books.

Lemann, N. (1999). The Big Test: The Secret History of tlu American Meritocrag.
New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Lofrus,J. Court is Uncertain of Truman’s Power to Take over Steel. New York
Times. April 25, 1952.

Margolick, D. (2000) Strange Fruit· Billie Holuiay, Cqfl Society, and an Ear[y Cry for
Ciuil Rights. Philadelphia: Running Press pp. 25-27.

Mortenson, Thomas. (2014). Unequal Family Income and Unequal Higher
Education Opportunity, 1970 to 2013. Postsecondary Eduauional Opportuni/y.
no. 267, Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education,
Washington DC, September. http:/ /

Moses, R. P. (2010). Constitutional property v. constitutional people. Quality
Education as a Constitutional Right: Creating a grassroots movement to
transform public schools. Theresa Perry, Bob Moses, Joan VVynne, Lisa
Delpit, Ernie Cortez (Eds). Boston: Beacon Press.

The Lincoln Douglas Debates of 1858. Lincoln Home: National Historic

Chapter 3

Time and time again, we arc told by prophets and sages that the ocean of bliss for us is not
somewhere else, rather within our hearts. The obstacles and impediments arc all the delusions and
illusions that we create and hold, that take us away from seeking within. These blockages,
however, are not curses to fight against, but gifts which call out to us to awaken and surrender to
the grace of the present moment, a grace possible to find even when feeling lost
i n the noise of hegemony.


Berry, W. (2011 ). Standing by words: Essqys. San Francisco: Counterpoint Press
(p. 97).

Nature as home •••

antidote to war

by Matthew Rubenstein

eing rooted to me isn’t as easy as naming a person or talking about the
house where I was raised. For me, roots are both physical and blood
related. From the giant oak trees penetrating the limestone founda­

tion to the mangroves that soak their roots in the crystal clear waters of Flor­
ida Bay, my roots lie within the South Florida wilderness and the people with
whom I share it. From the hiking and camping, to sight fishing and lobster­
ing, there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t drift back “home.” Over my 30
years, breathtaking scenery, adrenaline-filled moments, and hard lessons
learned from long tired nights have washed inside me. Along the way, I’ve
shared those soulful saturations with the people whose passions are the same
as mine, creating life-long friendships and memories.

From as long as I can remember, I have always been different. I wasn’t like

most kids. I didn’t want to play video games; and as I got older, I didn’t want
to fill my nights with drinking and the club scene. I was always drawn to

– –

adventure and the o utdoors, exploring the Everglades and the expanses of
untouched wilderness. It’s where I first learned a significant lesson in life,
Respect! Like all of life, Nature deserves respect. It is delicate and needs to
be taken care of-from the animals that call it home to the plants to the
weather. If I take care of it, it seems to find ways to take care of me. In a
time when technology has taken over, and all emotion is received in an emoji,
left to decipher in an email or text, Nature is real. It teaches me to pay atten­
tion to all the little details, how to read it, and how to approach its multitude
of species. In the everglades if I misjudge something or disrespect it, I will
end up paying for it, for nature makes me accountable for my actions. Today,
people often don’t reprimand or give honest feedback for transgressions. But
Nature does, if we stop to listen.

T he family I have built around this outdoor haven of mine always seems to
last. Many of us have some friends that come and go, but I enjoy the few



special ones, who are the staples in my life, who seem to have developed from
my experiences in the “great outdoors.” From father figures, to brothers and

sisters, to my love life, I have found everything I need in the outdoors.

My father left my family when I was nine years old, and my mother gave it
her all. She worked hard and provided my sister and me with everything we
needed . I never really had a father, but my best friend’s father was kind
enough to provide me some opportunities and life lessons in the outdoors,
experiences that led me to become bonded with animals, trees, plants, water,
rocks, other people who share the same values. The bonds of Nature and of
those human relationships inextricably bound me to a joy and sometimes to
a solitude that keeps me alive.

The roots of the outdoors has such a deep hold on me; I have often turned to

it for healing. At the age of 19, I joined the Army and got the opportunity to
travel and see the world. Yet I was also deployed to Afghanistan, to an area
where I conducted mission after mission to ensure, the Army claims, that our
freedoms are kept, and that my family never has to worry about terror step­
ping foot on our soil. With this responsibility came great sacrifice, and the
first place I went each time I came home was straight back where I really am
free, the natural world.

While deployed in Afghanistan, I lost my best friend. Every time we had
shared some “down time” together, we had shared stories of hunting and
fishing. It was our way to escape and dream of the days when we would be
back home and wake up to the fall breezes and the crisp air-all the signs

– – –
that hunting season would be upon us once again. We shared stories and

pictures and planned future trips. Neither one of us knew that our last
evening together would be his last evening. I longed then for those Everglades,
for them to soothe my soul.

Every year there will be a day in a hunt when I just sit back and reflect on the
days my friend, my comrade in arms, and I shared together. Each memory
brings me a desire to be living my life to his expectations. And I reach back
to family and the outdoors. They are the constant in my healing process-a
healing demanded by war, its memories, its losses, and its aftermath. And
anytime I need to step back and slow things down, and see the world from a
different perspective, I go straight back to my roots.

Those roots ground me in what matters most in life. It’s often easy to get
caught up in day to day struggles, and forget to slow down and live. Working,
seeking a degree, taking care of relationships–! can sometimes lose my foot­
ing, shake my roots. Growing up in nature helps me see that as fast as we
come into this world, we can just as easily be removed from it. I also learned
that lesson serving in Afghanistan. We can spend most of our time trying to


hide from life, yet in reality life, both vicious and gentle, will find us. Neither
does Nature hide reality. If observed closely, listened tu attent.ivdy, it can offer
wisdom, solace, terror, and joy. Hopefully, when it is my time to go, I can
retreat back to my roots and watch the sun set for the last time. But if I can’t,
like most of us, I hope I will have lived my life to the fullest and will take my
last breath with no regrets.


Develop the genius within the young

A teacher seeks to develop the genius within the young
so that each can arrive at his or her destination-the

sharing of one’s gifts within the community.

-TM H•aling Wisdom of Afr/u,

Despite the rhetoric,

teachers and students
are succeeding

by Eric Cooper1

n his important new book, Dog Whistle Rl/iJics: How Codtd RaeiaJ APfitals
HtJJJt Reuwmltd Racism and l#tcktd /ht Middle Class, author Ian Haney
Lopez defines “dog whistle politics” as veiled references meant to “care­

fully manipulate hostility toward nonwhites” rather than deal honestly with
the racial issues of our time.

American public education is full of these high-pitched battles. Privatizing
schools because too many (poor minority) children “fail” to be educated by
public systems is one. Another “failure” is that urban (read: “minority”)
parents are not interest ed in their children’s e ducation. Frankly, having
spent sign ificant time working with urban schools and parents, I have never
met a parent (whether in Harlem, Chicago, Boston, Seattle, Newark, D.C.,
San Francisco, or Los Angeles) who is not passionately concerned about
the success of a child. Instead, I’ve met single-parent mothers who hold
two or three jobs, worlcing six or sometimes seven days a week just to stay
slightly above the poverty level. They are some of my heroes, but in spite
of their relentless perseverance, they remain untapped resources in a move•
ment for change.

Teachers are demonized as ”failures” in the classroom. Fortunately for all of
us, more and more are banding together as agents for justice by believing in
the inherent capacity of all students, and seeking strategies and instructional
pathways to improve student performance through professional development
and collaborative lcarnin&


To add to this narrative, I share an experience from Newark through the
words of Dr. Alexis Leitgeb2, a superintendent in a small Midwest school

community and a consulting mentor at the National Urban Alliance (NUA)
for Effective Education:

In one of the K-8 schools, I wa.s in charge of teacher proflssumal devewpment. On one
particular dqy, a teacher asked me to come to her classroom because she was struggling with
classroom management. In her classroom was an African-American middle-school student
named Amos. I observed immediate{y that the students Wert not focused on the teacher’s
presentation and a lot of teaching was lost. The teacher is very hard working, capable
and passionate, bui, at the time, did not have the help needed to be effective with this partic­
ular class of students. As a consequence, with every visit to that school, I taught the class to
demonstrate for the teacher how to engage students through lessons I modeled.

The students started out unengaged in the learning process and chaos was the order of the
day, even with the best efforts of the school staff Througlwut the year, more and more
teachers began to engage in the proflssional development we offered, and were always
surprised when their students were focused on the suqject matter I demonstrated and
mod£ledfor their teachers.

Amos, in the back of the classroom, consistent{y struggled with writing and speaking.

A student mentor program was implemented, and it wa.s here that I became cwse to Amos.
He was a natural for NUA’s student-voice initiative, where students become teachers awng
with their teachers. Amos sww{y rose to the top as the leader of the student project. He
became so enthusiastic over time that he asked if he could create a website so teachers could

read what wa.s taUPht duriTUJ mv sessions. brainstorm id£as for strUP11liTIP students. and find

– . .

a ca/,endar whoe they could sign up to have a student menlbr demonstrate pedagogi,cal strat-
egies in their classroom. J,1,e received approval.from the school and administratwn and Amos
took off on his own. J1t7ien he did not flel enough teachers had signed up, Amos took the
cal.endar around to teachers, asking when his group could come in and teach.

Some of the students began to develop ideas on how to use strategies far reading, vocabul.ary
and math.

Toward the end of my final year in the Newark initiative, Amos expl.ained that he and se1>­
eral students were going to attend another school. He indicated that the students who were
part of the student-voice Jm!ject would be speaking to their new principal to bring lessons
learned to their new schools.

Right before summer break, when I was leaving and Amos was mouing to his new school, I
asked to meet his mother. She came qfler school, and I gave Amos a laptop computer, printer
and digital camera so this amazing young student could work at home on schoolwork,

2 Permission granted by Alexis Leitgeb on e-mail to Eric Cooper on 6/ 11 / I 5 for use of



creative artwork and design, and uideos. I did not want his lack of financial means le pre­
vent himfiom having the equipment I lcmw would help him meet his.fall potential.

Amos went on le the Poelry Out Loud 2015 competition. He made it all the way le the
stai,e finals at Princewn and IIJok second pflue. Amos discovered his stnngths—leadmhip

and speaking-while engaged in the studmt-voice project of the J{UA.

There are tens of thousands of stories just like this one, starring teachers
who move from being ‘1ust a teacher” to justice in teaching, due to their per­
sonal commitment to student potential, and, at times, thanks to the profes­
sional development and teamwork in which they take part. They don’t give
up on their students, nor do they give up on each other as they move toward
school transformation. In spite of the politics of education, they find a com­
mon pathway that leads to improved achievement and social justice.

Let’s allow these stories to be told, so that the success Amos has can be taken
to scale, and the doomsday cacophony-those dog-whistle politics-about
education in America is muted.

Courts to play on

by Omo Moses

W:en I volunteered to go to Mississippi, I was signing up to get
myself together. I followed my younger brother, Taha, cousin,
Khari, and father, Bob Moses, to the Sam M. Brinkley Middle

School in May 1995, after an unremarkable college basketball career ground
to a halt when the George Washington Colonials lost to the Ohio University
Bobcats in the Big Apple NIT Classic. I had spent the last decade pursuing
the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the accumulation of material
things important to most 20 year olds; failing, for the first time, to become
the person I imagined. The disappointment arrived at sunrise each morning
as I sat, out of habit, on my mother’s porch in Cambridge, MA, a ball under
my armpit, returning to the street to dribble between passing cars, past phan­
tom opponents. W hat had been a throne became a coffin. I wouldn’t be
paraded in the streets like Patrick Ewing after he won his first Olympic gold

medal. I wouldn’t declare, as Rumeal Robinson had, that I wanted to
become as big as the moon to a field house full of high school students. A

sign on a pole on a corner wouldn’t bear my name as it did his after winning
the national championship at the University of Michigan.

Fragments of glory could be gathered from the cracked asphalt of Corporal

Burns Park, on the courts at the bank of the Charles River opposite Har­
vard’s Business School, where generation after generation of black and
brown-colored boys came to mold themselves into basketball players. I could
have competed for status among them (pounding dreams of teenagers; bitter
men still looking for a reputation) and the legends (without legs) clinging to
the fence, until the debris from bones pestling concrete consigned me to the
mob, loitering (seated and standing; their backs to the water) on the curb

running the sideline, until it was their turn to claw at the next young player
who earned the right to be king of the court.



The burial of my self-portrait-a benevolent, albeit, envied hero, strapped
with enough cash, cars, jewels, and eye candy to scatter throughout the
neighborhood-was protracted. The possibility continued to arrive at night,
soldering desire and fear-that I had one year of college eligibility,
another moment to live before a million eyes. My redemption began with the
pain burrowed in ankles already fractured and sprained irreparably In a rare
unmasked moment, I shared with my dad that I would no longer be a basket­
ball player. He offered, America is jilted with courls !hat you can pl� ball on.

Without purpose or clear direction, I asked if I could spend the next year
working in his classroom. He was surprised. He had spent the better part of
the last 10 recruiting his children to work with the Algebra Project (which he
characterized as the family’s business). I was the last one he expected to sign
up. But, I needed the desolate Mississippi Delta roads which stitched rectan­
gular and .square patches of cotton fields, the blues from sharecropper to
sharecropper; the obscurity of a classroom punctuated with the infectious
curiosity of 7th graders searching for images to attach to themselves; the
anonymity of Southern hospitality-to reimagine who I could be. Unlike
most of the boys who traveled to Corporal Burns to become Dr.J, my family
was stable, my parents made the public schools work, wrapping us in love
and the type of experiences that continually expanded what we thought was
possible. I left high school with the belief coded in my DNA, that if I put the
time in, I would be successful at whatever I put my mind to. Failure, no mat­
ter how painful, was just another beginning.

Within a week of my arrival in Mississippi, my dad began declaring, “The
young people need to get their act together.” There was a sense of urgency
in his voice that we didn’t share. He talked about jail, saying that if young
people didn’t do well in math, they were going to end up in jail. The cover of
the February 21, 1993 edition of the New York Times Magazine had a picture
of him with children from the Mississippi Delta beneath the title, “We Shall
Overcome This Time with Algebra: Bob Moses and Mississippi Children
Focus on a Plastic Learning Screen-A Path out of Modern Bondage.” It’s
difficult to make the connection between success in algebra and serfdom (Sil­
ver 2008; NYT, 1993). 1 When I was playing at George Washington, my dad
came to town to give a speech to a bunch of mathematicians. A decade
before Google and Facebook, he told them that whether they liked it or not
they were the leaders of the planet. It was difficult for them to imagine the

1 There is a very high correlation between success in Algebra in high school, gradua­
tion from four-year colleges, and work. Students who complete Algebra II in high
school more than double their chances of earning a four-year college degree. In Los
Angeles, like in most urban districts, 65 percent of the students who didn’t pass Alge­
bra by their freshman year dropped out.


role history and the evolution of technology had conceived for them, harder
still to enlist them in a struggle for freedom and democracy.

Taha, Khari, and I worked to create a Math Lab out of an unused science
classroom: arranging tables laminated with primary colors, building a net­
work with a dozen Macintosh computers, clearing the walls of chipped paint
before covering them with affirming words (math is what you make i◊ and
images. Taha found a pair of college students (male and female artists) who
showed up like Panthers (bobbing afro, black leather jacket, tight jaws) and
began sketching with him on the bare primer, first a colored boy standing
with a number in his hand before strips of wood patterned into a path
extending into a universe of stars and planets and brown, yellow and red
children exploring it. A jungle of animals covered a wall. A sketch of my dad
was quickly erased as he huffed and puffed at our (affectionate) attempt to
memorialize him. Khari—cocky scowl, dreadlocks pointing toward each
corner of the room-was immortalized next to the light switch by the door.

Always conscious of how and where he stood in relationship to the people he
led and organized, my dad encouraged us to join, from the classroom and
school building, the struggle where he and students our age participated on the
streets of America during the Civil Rights Movement, confronting the nation
on paper and in practice, as they removedJim Crow from public accommoda­
tions and the democratic political apparatus.Jim Crow was the specter drifting
through the pages my parents left open in the living room: a crowd of white­
colored faces bearing witness to black-colored bodies burning at their feet, Ross

Barnett, then Governor of Mississippi, standing in the doorway of a school to
prevent black-<:olored boys and girls from entering, canine teeth extending a
white arm’s length into black thighs, a pig-<:olored sheriff struggling to rip the
American flag from a five-year-old brown-colored boy as he clutched with two
hands his right to be among the “I’ve” that gave birth to the nation. 2

“It was easier when it was obvious,” lamented a veteran of the civil rights
movement-to confront the persistent pernicious shove of black-colored
people outside the ”We” and into a per manent under-caste. l’vho would
deny the contiguous line from slavery, convict leasing, chain gangs,Jim Crow
laws, Rockefeller drug laws, stop and frisk and three strikes policies? l’vhat is
the cumulative impact of this from black generation to generation? How
does it show up in the body, mind, and spirit of every black child and the
environment that he or she inherits? l’vhat is the work that each subsequent
generation must recognize and embrace to lift itself up?

2 � hold tmse truJhs IJJ be IL!feuidmt, tha1 all men are creatbi equm and � 1k Ptopk ef 1k Um!Ld
StaJes begin the preambles to The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution;

those sacred documents that prophesize America’s promise and possibility.


For Taha, Khari, and me-camouflaged in gold herringbone, diamond ear­
rings, nugget pinky ring, shorts sagging toward Timberland boots-the work
was discovering the obvious parading in and out of the Math Lab and
through the halls and classrooms of Brinkley Middle School. There was n o
epiphany, just a gradual realization o f the connections between the conflict
and contradictions that rose from the pages left open in my parent’s living
room, what Brinkley was preparing most of the 99 percent black student
body to do, and what we had experienced in the self-proclaimed People’s
Republic of Cambridge-where, confounding the city’s vanguard liberalism
the Advanced Placement and honors classes at the high school remained seg­
regated. (Khari and I were the only two brown-colored boys in our honors
classes for four years.) What became clearer to me was that the Nation’s
native conundrum transcended generation, region, class, and politics.

The question, What to do about the slaves and their descendants, was alive and well
in contemporary form: What to do about black boys, whether sons of sharecrop­
pers or 2nd generation doctors, in both 6,000 and 20,000 dollar per pupil
public school systems, above and below the Mason-Dixon line.3 I’ve been

wrestling with this question for as long as I’ve been aware of being black. My
take on it is that there is either an implicit assumption or explicit accusation
that we are complicit in our failure. As a kid, the basketball court and the
corner were two places we could go without that burden-w e were supposed
to be good at hanging on rims and hanging out. In the Math Lab, we con­
fronted with other people’s children what was buried in our psyches as kids­
“Be good at this? Pay attention to that.” I learned quickly about the
significance of attention-you can’t teach someone without it. Because we
looked like East Coast rappers, we had a small window of opportunity to
earn the trust and respect of the students by demonstrating that we appreci­
ated who they were and where they were coming from.

They arrived with a teacher or deputized classmate, in single file or defiantly
breaking rank. They sat in groups of five or six on wooden stools pulled from
slots underneath the table tops, some erect in anticipation, others wilting.
The lessons were structured like a Student Non-violent Coordinating
Committee (SNCC) meeting, organized to unleash the energy of the stu­
dents by creating space for them to have a stake in what we were learning
(Moses & Cobb, 2001; S CC). My dad usually facilitated while we worked
at the tables, helping them reflect on an experience or build consensus about
mathematical ideas like equivalence or equality. Eventually I began to facili-

– – –

tate activities. I would begin with a hand in the air and a request for the stu-
dent’s attention, relying on the leaders at each table to help their classmates

3 My mom says that in the 60’s we struggled in color, but not in kind-referring to
the class divide that persists in black and all colored communities.


turn their eyes toward me. T he students I relied on weren’t necessarily the
ones their teachers anointed; they were generally the ones we shot ball with
during gym, hung out with during lunch, or in their neighborhood after
school. Regardless of the content, the goal was the same–to have a collab­
orative conversation based on shared experiences. This required that each

student exercise leadership as an individual, as a member of a small group
and classroom community. More important than paying attention to me was
that they pay attention to each other and what was going on around them.

I would watch the students in the marching band parade home after school:
plastic Tuba wrapped around a waist, trumpets to lips, snare and base drums,
clarinet and sax, boys and girls shedding rigid notes, uniform steps in the
parking lot between the school and a row of shotgun shacks as they marched
up Ridgeway Street, past St Peters Missionary Baptist Church, an aban­

doned bar, the parking lot of the adjacent Laundromat and candy store,
stopping at each other’s stoop until the last instrument arrived in its front
yard. Noisy at first, by the time they approached Shady Grove Church on the
corner of Ridgeway and California, they were making music. Good days in
the Math Lab looked and felt like that.

As my dad pushed us to do more, we began to organize ourselves, partially in
response to him, partially in response to a desire to do something that extended
beyond the school building and into the crux of our lives. I began to count the
students in each class I was able to reach and imagine how many we could reach
if we turned our energy and attention toward each other. Dave Dennis, a Free­
dom Rider out of New Orleans and the Director of the Southern Initiative of
the Algebra Project, encouraged us to meet at his office in the Standard Life
Building: built in 1929 to attract more business into what was then an industrial
city, it had been the largest reinforced concrete building in the world and
remained the tallest inJackson; standing like a decayed minaret beside the King
Edwards Hotel (empty since 1967), casting its shadow among the abandoned
downtown streets. Dave would bring food, we’d bring students from Brinkley,
and talk about how we could take what we were learning in the Math Lab on
the road and turn it into a business. The power embedded in the relationships
and learning experiences we shared with the students emboldened us to imagine
that w�like Curtis, Hollis, Chuck, Charlie,June,Judy, Margaret: the students
whose names and faces, bodies, were deserted in the chapters my parents left
open-could do something to push America to become America (Banks, 2008).


4 It was only after the Civil War that the United States became America the nation­

state. There was a shift there in terminology, too, moving from being the United

States of America to ”rnerica,” from being a fairly loose consortium of separate but

united states, pulled apart at times, pulling together at others, into something that

was a single word: America.


That’s my teacher! Mummy, that’s my teacher! I’ve heard the story a number of
times. Stizz the rapper, two years from high school graduation, animated in a
polo shirt and skinny jeans, brings it to life as he describes walking through
his neighborhood and the pride he felt when an elementary student he
taught introduced him to their mom. T here’s another story the students I
work with often share about the rush they feel when they are able to help
another student understand a concept or solve a problem. In 1996, Taba,
Khari, 8th-grade Algebra Project students from Brinkley, and I , founded The
Young People’s Project (YPP). YPP is a Math Lab on wheels. Our first enter­
prise was conducting graphing calculator workshops for teachers and then
students in Jackson and the Mississippi Delta to prepare them for the state­
wide Algebra 1 exam. Over the last 16 years, we have successfully unleashed
the energy of thousands of high school students in urban and rural commu­
nities across America to work to ensure that mathematics isn’t a barrier to
high school graduation, college entry, or career. YPP trains and employs

teams of high school students, coached and mentored by college students, to
conduct math-based workshops for 3rd-8th graders in community and
school-based after school programs. We call this math literacy work; enlisting

the very students expected to fail (and whose failure is exploited economi­
cally) to be resources to their communities (YPP website).5 Through this
experience, they are developing competencies critical to their future success,
like teamwork and cooperation, self-confidence, achievement, relationship
building, and conceptual and analytical thinking.

W hen we dribbled from sun up to sun down at Corporal Burns Park, we
weren’t thinking about our character or the skills we were developing that
would enable us to be successful in life. We were all in, NBA or bust. In Mis­
sissippi, I began reflecting on the thousands of hours we spent for mally and
informally training to become basketball players, and how that experience
helped shape who I am, how I do things, and what I’m able to do off the
court. The pressure to perform, encountered in real time-a man guarding
me, the clock winding down before a million eyes-wasn’t limited to those
moments. My ability and inability to overcome fear in a gymnasium or arena
became reference points for how I approach success. As a teenager, I didn’t
attach these experiences to a future self, other than the image of Michaeljor­
dan spanning the width of my wall fmger-tip to fmger-tip, or the one of him
tilted on a 45 degree angle, ball palmed, tongue out, suspended between the
rim and floor. It wasn’t until I was much older that I began to intentionally
translate and apply what I learned on the basketball court to other areas of
mv life and other irnal!’es of mvself. It’s a lot. but necessarv. to tell teenal!’ers.

5 YPP currently operates programs in IO cities, employing 400 high school and

college students who work with 1,600 elementary students annually.


particularly black- and brown-colored youth to “Pay attention to what you’re
learning while dribbling a basketball or marching home from school.”

When my brother and I were eight and ten, my dad moved us from the cam­
pus of Harvard University, where he was finishing a Ph.D., to the street
across from the Newtown Court housing projects; conscientiously placing us
among the children whose failure is predictable and profitable for American
business (Whitehead, 2012).6 It wasn’t clear then where the choices our 10-,
11-, and 12-year-old selves made were coming from and where they would
lead. Now, at the median of our lives, the various outcomes include: dead; 15
years in jail for murder; school committee member; jail for assault and bat­
tery; general contractor; jail for selling drugs; jail for drug use; meter maid;
homeless; IT technician; nonprofit executive director; and financial man­
ager. In the shadows of institutions like Harvard and MIT, most of us
couldn’t see beyond what was in front of us, couldn’t imagine making other

choices, and had no clue as to how they became available.

For the last 15 years, we have worked to build a healthy organization with the
young people who have inherited the corners and courts; a rapper’s persona.
The “We” now includes my sister Maisha, with whom I share leadership as
YPP National Co-directors, and the young people who have grown with the
organization (all beginning as elementary, high school, or college students),
who now comprise the overwhelming majority of our central and local lead­
ership and participate on the national board of directors (Khari is an advisor
to the board). As we strive to grow as human beings and as an organization,
we have spent a lot of time thinking about success at an individual level (stu­
dents and stafl), organizational, and community level.

Many of the questions we’ve been confronted with relate to the work of the
Leadership & Sustainability Institute (LSI), which will provide member orga­
nizations with access to resources that build their capacity to make tangible
progress on issues such as expanding work opportunities, strengthening fam­
ily structures, and increasing educational equity. In the last three years, we
have had the opportunity to work with Root Cause-the nonprofit research
and consulting firm based in Cambridge, MA that worked in partnership

6 Between 1900 and 19 75, the nation’s incarceration rate remained at about 110
prison inmates for every I 00,000 people. In 1973 the first drug laws with mandatory
sentencing guidelines were enacted and incarceration rates climbed immediately,
doubling in the 1980s and 1990s. As of 20 IO the rate was 731 per I 00,000; among
Black and Hispanic adult men 4,347 and 1,755 inmates per 100,000. Private prisons
have grown from a billion dollar industry in 1984 to over 30 billion in 20 IO; its
forecasts for expansion influenced by 3rd grade reading and math test scores and the
passing of three strikes laws.


with the Campaign for Black Male Achievement at the Open Society
Foundations to develop the plan for the LSI-to develop a business plan, and
David Hunter to develop an organizational logic model and blueprint
(Growth Plans, 2012). This work has clarified how we think about student,
staff, and organizational success. As we build central capacity and local lead­
ership, we seek to accelerate our ability to ensure quality programming,
achieve targeted outcomes, and meet existing demand. When we began in
the Math Lab a decade and a half ago, the Algebra Project provided the
space, wisdom, connections, encouragement, and love for us to grow. The
work that the LSI is preparing to do is invaluable in that regard. There is a
need for black founded and led organizational equivalents to a City Year,
Youth Build, Year Up, or Citizen Schools in both scale and ambition that are
working to improve the quality of life for black-colored children in America
(Black Male, 2012).

In recent discussions with students, success was described as: happiness, always
growing, having a vision and working hard to get there, overcoming obstades, helping others
on the way to success, and the ability to rise afler failure. I asked a childhood friend to

join our conversation about institutional obstacles. He sat on the edge of the
circle as I hesitated, unsure how to introduce him. He has been Fat Daddy or
Fats for as long as I’ve known him and I felt awkward referring to him by his
legal name. A year out of a 15-year prison sentence, he hasn’t had a job his
entire life. As we began talking about barriers to success, the students strug­
gled to define “institution.” Some of the ideas they came up with were institu­
tions have rules and expectations, they are bigger than you and impact how your life plays
out whether negative or positive, sometimes they can be control/,ed and sometimes not. Fat
Daddy wanted to know why I had invited him to join our conversation. In
his mind, these students weren’t the young people confronted with the
choices he had faced growing up.

He and I sat on the steps of the brick apartments his grandfather had pur­
chased (and where his parents now live) across the street from the Washing­
ton Elms projects, a few blocks from where I grew up. They ain’t … but they
are, was my response. In my mind we’ve all inherited an equivalent margin
for error. “When your dad was trying to get us to go to do math at the King
School on Saturdays I wasn’t trying to hear it. I had already made up my
mind to go this way.” He pointed away from me. “What about the ones who
don’t wanna join YPP and already made up their minds to go this way?”

A couple weeks ago I had lunch with him, Alex (another childhood friend
who made similar choices and also ended up incarcerated) and Barbara Best
who lives in Cambridge and works for the national office of the Children’s
Defense Fund on their Cradle to Prison Pipeline initiative. I thought they
should meet. At some point the conversation became me, Alex, and Fats


talking about the choices we’d made, where they’d led us, and kids facing
similar challenges. We seemed to agree on the need to build relationships
with them, particularly the young people who are influential in our neigh­
borhood and in their peer groups, and see if we can get them to experience
and think about some other things.

A kid approached on his bike while Fat Daddy and I sat on the steps. He
wore a Harvard jersey and shorts. They began talking shit about their game
against each other the day before. The kid is wiry, approaching six feet and
seemed comfortable confronting adults.

”You play for the high school?” He pointed to the bracelet on his ankle.

“How’d you get that?” He shrugged his shoulders. He’d spent the better part
of the last year in jail or on house arrest. Fats tells him to bring five and we’ll
bring five and play on Sunday. Fat’s Uncle Donny pulls up while the kid is
riding away. Donny used to take us around the state when we were IO and 11
to play in tournaments. I asked Fats, “How’d you get a bracelet at 15?”

“I don’t know.” He was in Billerica. How do you get sent to Billerica, a men’s
correctional facility, at 15?

Donny said he’d been watching the kid since he was waist high. “He can
play; there hasn’t been one in 20 years-he was the next you.”

I show up early that Sunday to stretch and get some shots in. We are playing
at The Terrace, on a court across from the apartments where the Puerto
Ricans and Dominicans used to live. The park has been renovated. The
neighborhood has gentrified. You get a ticket for smoking weed: the white
black brown-colored arms and legs hang in clouds, listlessly from the
benches. The court is empty except for a handful of boys whose shots barely
touch the rim. There is no evidence of Pat and his heroic deeds. The street
sign a block away with Rumeal’s name has been torn down (Saslow, 2012).
Fats shows up late. He brings Alex and a couple others. The kid comes with
his five-three played for the high school. The ball goes up as the afternoon
service at the Pentecostal Tabernacle Church on the corner concludes-Dip
arrives unannounced in a two-piece suit. He watches from the fence. He had
been drafted in the 1980s, led the Big East in scoring and graduated from
Providence College. He played in Turkey and got hooked on drugs. When I
was a kid he was the king of the court. When I was seventeen he told me I
could play in the league. I believed him. Every summer I brought a jersey

back for him from college; even then he would school me. 50, his knees are
shot. Happy to see him I reach through the fence for his hand.

The kid can play. He can shoot, can handle, has a mid-range game, can stop
and pop and get to the rim. He has the talent, skills, and heart to command


this generation of black- and brown-colored bodies lured to the chain link,
below the nets, attached to the three-point line on Columbia St. We didn’t let

them win. We played five games, two full-court and refused to let them win. I
played well enough for them to ask who I was.

T h e kid lives across the street from the park. I went to see him a couple days
later; he was watching his son who is almost a year old. I told him I was
expecting my first any day now; he seemed happy to hear that. We talked
about Tommy Amaker’s basketball camp at Harvard (I could try to get him
in), about Lew Zuchman, a Freedom Rider, member of YPP’s board and
Executive Director of SCAN, an organization based in New York City that
has the best Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) Boys Basketball teams in the
country and gets its players into New England prep schools and Ivy League
colleges (NY Post, 2012). I told him a little about where I was coming from

he seemed to know about YPP. I asked him about his plans: “What are you

gonna do in September when you get the bracelet off?”


Banks, R. (2008). Dreaming Up America. New York, NY: Seven Stories Press.

Black Male Achievement Fellowship. (2012). &Jwing Green. Retrieved from
http:/ /

Braziller, Z. (2012). Tight-knit Team SCAN enjoys summer of national success.
New York Post. August 8. Retrieved from

Growth Plans. (2012). The Young Peopl.e’s Project. Retrieved from http:/ /www. growthplans

Moses, R. &Cobb, C. (2001). Radical equations: Civil rights from Mississippi
to the Algebra Project. Boston: Beacon Press.

Saslow, E. (2012). Bringing down the house. ESPN The Magazine. Retrieved from ske tball/ story/ _I id/ 7649638/

Silver, D., Saunders, M., & Zarate, E. (2008). What Factors Predict High
School Graduation in the Los Angeles Unified School District? California
Dropout Research Project. Report #14June. UC Santa Barbara: Gevirt:z Graduate
School of Education.

Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee (


We shall overcome this time with algebra: Bob Moses and Mississippi
children focus on a plastic learning screen – A path out of modern bondage.

(February 21, 1993). New Y1JTk Times Magazine.

Whitehead,]. W (2012).Jailing Americans for Profit: The Rise of the Prison
Industrial Complex. Hujjingt,on Fbst B/JJg. Retrieved from http://www. l 414467 .html

Can I Write This?

by Laurel Nakanishi

“Ms. Nakanishi, can I write: ‘You are like a bird?”
“Okay,” I say, “why is your mom like a bird?”
“No, no, no. You are like my alarm clock … ”
“Mmm hmm.”
“Because my mom is always waking me up in the morning.”
”Yes,” I say, “that sounds like a great simile.”
Jamy A smiles and begins to write .

r the last month, I have been teaching poetry to 3rd graders at Orchard
Villa Elementary School in Liberty City. These classes are part of the 0,
Miami Poetry Festival. 0, Miami’s goal is for everyone in Miami-Dade

County to encounter a poem in the month of April. Mrs. Finch’s 3rd-grade
class has been encountering me.

It is good to be a resident poet in an elementary school. The kids are always
excited to see me. I am not constrained by the demands of state testing. I
don’t have to get caught up in the bureaucracy of the public school system,
but I do get to work with public school kids. And thanks to the presence of
the classroom teacher, I don’t need to spend so much time doing classroom
management. And best of all, I get to share my passion for poetry with chil­
dren. It is, pretty much, the best job ever.


From a WLRN radio broadcast:

“This is my first time knowing about poetry, and it is fun. And I get to
write my own poetry stories and we could talk about our family,” said Kin­
dra Oriental, a 3rd grader.



Oriental is one of the students in the 3rd-grade class learning from poet
Laurel Nakanishi.

“Sometimes they’ll be like ‘ls it ok to write this?’ And I’ll say ‘Yes! Write
that,”‘ said Nakanishi. “Because they aren’t sure if they have permis­

sion to get that creative or to write about their personal experience in
that way.”

Nakanishi received her Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in poetry from the
University of Montana and is currently studying at Florida International

Isaiah Bell is another one of Nakanishi’s students.

”When Miss Nakanishi came here I’m like, ‘Yes! We need poetry!’ Because
sometimes in life you have to write yourself a poetry or someone else that
needs help cheering up,” Bell said.


Isaiah sits at the back of the class smiling knowingly. He is one of the stu­
dents who has taken quickly to poetry writing.

Angel raises her hand. “Can I write: ‘In the evening my mom clips my toe­
nails while screaming into the phone’?”

Yes, yes.


I have taught poetry to children in Hawaii, Montana, Nicaragua, and
now Miami. Each of these geographical locations and the children who
live there, pose dilferent dynamics and opportunities for creativity.

Out of all these places, I am least familiar with Miami. When I moved
here nine months ago, I was warned to stay out of Liberty City. “You’ll
get your car stolen!” a friend half-joked. When I watched the local news,
Liberty City is often the background for shoots or hit-and-run car acci­
dents. I walked into Orchard Villa Elementary School with these stories in
mind. Sitting in the front office waiting area on my 1st day of class, a little
girl stared, bemused, at me. She was too young to have learned to look
away like her mother did. The adults in the office were extra friendly to
me-the only White face in a school where almost everyone else is Black.

Good, I thought, and I tried to be grateful for the discomfort. I am
half:Japanese, but few know it from looking at me. My last name is a


further mystery: “Nakaskisi?” Not exactly. We practiced pronouncing it
on that 1st day of class. “Nakanishi. Nakanishi.”

Jokira is worried. “Ms. Nakanisi, I don’t know how to start.”

“Okay, start with what’s around you. What do you see?”

“My hand,” saysJokira.

“Okay, I want you to describe your hand.”

A few minutes later,Jokira is raising that hand.

“Is this okay, Ms. Nakanisi?”

I read:


My hand,


it can write words.


At first, they were hesitant. Even after an explanation, examples from profes­
sionals and kids, a group brainstorm and a suggested format, the students
were still uncertain.

“Can I write this?” They would ask. “Is this okay?”
“Can I write about cat poop?”
“Can I write about a square, squishy monster?”
“Yes,” I would say. “That is brilliant!” “Yes, yes, yes, write it.”

I think that one of the reasons that my students enjoyed poetry class is
because I am so positive. I love them. I love what they write. I love how they
see the world. What is most important to me is that they express themselves.
I want them to take risks.

They still hold their papers up to me and ask, “Is this okay?”

I am not sure why this class in particular was so hesitant to express them­
selves. Thinking back to teaching in Montana, I remembered that those kids


rarely asked, “Can I write this?” Was that because they were more comfort­
able with poetry? The Missoula Writing Collaborative has been sending pro­

fessional writers to public schools for the past 15 years-perhaps they are
more used to poetry writing.

Or is it privilege? Do these, mostly White, kids feel entitled to self-expres­
sion? Are they more confident because society tells them-these White,
mostly middle-class kids-that their ideas matter? I do not know.

My students in Nicaragua began by copying the examples. I would read a
poem about birthday cake, and then receive 21 imitations of that same birth­
day cake. It took about a month to really emphasize that they could have
their own ideas. As the students became more and more comfortable, I
began receiving poems about solar explosions, giant brains, and wind blow­

ing through the windows. One of my students wrote: “When my mother
sweats, it is like the rain in summer.”

My students in Hawaii were the most similar to these Liberty City 3rd grad­
ers. They were uncertain how to start. They would ask permission before
each poem. “Is this okay?” I wonder if this need for reassurance is somehow
tied to the way that we test children. In a test there is only ever one correct
answer. Students must learn how to block out all of the other ideas and con­
nections in their mind so that they may give the right response. What is the
main idea of this text? What is the definition of simile? What is the setting of
the story? They must recall and present just that one correct answer.

So how baflling it must be when this White lady with a strange last name
walks into your classroom and tells you to write whatever you want. Any
answer is correct. Any idea that you have is brilliant. I am affrrmative of
these students to a fault. I praise them because I want them to gain confi­
dence in their own voice and experience. This sort of confidence is essential
to writing. If you do not believe that what you have to say matters, you can
never write something that will resonate with readers.

I give my students permission to be weird or silly. I want them to write about
the everyday details of their lives. Once they gain this confidence, then we
can start working on shaping words into art. Dut if they are always looking
for a “right answer” in their writing, it will never be a poem.


lreanna asks, “Can I write that the stars are tickling?”


We are writing about place. I explain that I want them to describe their
neighborhood, their house, their room-anywhere they feel at home. I give
them examples from my students in Hawaii: “Is your street busy with herds
of rusty cars? Is your home quiet as the library?”


Vincent raises his hand. “My neighborhood is loud. They are always shoot­
ing guns.”

“Okay, write that in your poem,” I say. “What do the guns sound like?”

”Pah! Pah!” he says. “Last night there were these boys shooting in front of
my house. They were shooting on the street and then some of them ran
behind our house. We don’t have a gate, that’s why. They ran behind and
went over the fence.”

Suddenly all the words in my head are gone. What can I say to that?

“They’re always shooting by my house too. I’m scared of guns,” says Katron.

I tell Vincent that his story would make a great poem-”Write it down.”

He writes:


My city is very loud with the sound of pistols.
I smell the stink of the garbage.
At school, I see Ms. Finch and my paper.
At home, I love to eat crab.
It is so good, I’d eat it 24/7.

It is easy to pigeonhole these kids, to see them only as survivors of their vio­
lent neighborhood. But, as Vincent reminds us, there are many other things
going on . Yes, there are guns and stinky garbage, but there is also the struc-

ture and stability of Mrs. Finch’s classroom. There are also delicious crab
feasts. There are loving families and wildly fun times riding bikes and

Jamy A writes:

Five Things I Love
The hug of my little sister­
she is very special and beautiful.

The strawberry and vanilla ice cream

w ith a cherry on top that my mom and I share.
The pink diamond sheets on my bed
that sparkle so cute.
The candle burning on the dresser
flickering and casting shadows.
The basketball bouncing up and down
baug, baug, back.


I am new to Miami. I moved here nine months ago and I am still trying to
figure out this city. Like every other place I have lived and visited, I am find­
ing that it is full of complexity. These young poets are my teachers and I am
learning that, unlike a test question, there is no one answer.

Miami is many different things: It is the sound of a basketball and chocolate
chip cookies fresh from the oven and gunfire. It is these shining, expectant
faces asking “Is this okay? Read this.” Maybe, in addition to permission, my
students also just want co share their poem. “Ms. Nakanishi, read mine!”
They want to share their thoughts and perspective and world with me. How
lucky I am to be help in such confidence .

Mrs. Finch’s 3rd-grade classroom is packed with people-parents, grandpar­
ents, sisters, brothers, aunts, and teachers. One by one my students stand up
and read their poems:

“I remember when I first started walking.
I was small and everything looked big … ”

“In the middle of the night
I hear my sister in the kitchen
getting a night snack … ”

“Ms. Nakanishi’s glasses are popping
just like Sienna’s hair … ”

“I remember when I was in a body cast.
My auntie called me Mr. Broke-Down … ”

“I hear people laughing

at people who are poor
because of their shoes … ”

“Gazing up at the sky
at night
Stars are tickling … ”

“My brother snoring with little tears
dropping down like rain … ”

“Your hugs fill me up with love
like a balloon and spits out all the hate.”

A roaring applause!

Breaking silence

by Carlos Gonzalez

ear Students, I want to break the silence between us and ralk to you
directly. This will be a rambling piece, but one that I offer as a
means to help you navigate through what is probably going to be a

couple of years of more institutional education. I do this after 21 years or so
of teaching in one place, of loving what I do, and hating with every fiber of
my body what happens to many, if not most students, as they weave in and
through the many obstacles called college.

Silence and Storytelling

My dad asked me to go with him to the store to pick something up. I sat in

the car silently, thinking of the other things I wanted to do. I sat silently
because at 18, I had no idea who my dad was or what I would ask him. I felt
like a stranger to him. We had not spent much time together. Having fled
Cuba with no money and little formal education, he was on a continuous
survival mode, and work was priority number one.

That absence early in my childhood and my own quiet personality allowed
me to make good friends with silence. Yet it’s more complicated than that. It
always is. As I look back at that ride now, I would do just about anything to
have changed the dynamic of the situation and broken the quiet in that car.
There was genuine love between my dad and me, but somehow we could not
break through to one another, not at that time.

A couple of months later, toward the end of my freshman semester in
college, my dad was killed in a terrible work accident. I can still recall the
phone call at about 10:15 am on a clear Monday in early December 1984.
I can hear my mom wailing as she came to terms with losing the man she



loved. I can feel my heart turning numb, knowing that I would never get 10

see him walk through our front door covered in the bagasse from the sugar

mill. Losing him left a gaping hole in my heart that somewhat healed (but
the gaps left by our losses never quite fill in) many years later when I became
a father myself. It was then as a grown man that I started 10 understand my
dad and 10 realize how difficult it is 10 sometimes let those closest 10 me into
the sounds and rhythms of my heart and mind. We receive from our fathers
and mothers what they received from their fathers and mothers. The gener­

ational passing down of all that is good in us and the burdens we carry,

leave us vulnerable 10 the very opportunities that call us 10 be our true
selves. By the time my three kids reached their teens, I became aware of
how hard it is 10 be a father and also 10 be a son. I saw many of the same

struggles I faced manifested in my own children as t11ey wrestled with their
own voices, with their own souls, and with the challenge of relating 10 me. (I
was 1101 my father, but was psychically one with him.) So I entered into a fel­

lowship of love with my children that included tl1e girts and flaws that make
us so fully ourselves.

Over the years I came to know t11a1 the people closest 10 us often present the
strongest challenges 10 our own constructed worlds. Unfortunately, we often
place on these struggling relationships the burden of our own happiness and

well-being. We often think the false syllogism: !f I on/y had a belier relationship
with . … then. ff the struggles are as intense as mine were and are, they often
distract us from 1.he very joy and pleasure of the moment in front of us and
move us away from the work of consciously walking down our own creative

. . –

paths. We too often spend our time looking back and licking wounds than on
taking a step forward in fulfilling what is our own song. (Have I mentioned
already that life is short?)

If we look carefully at these and the many sources of our own wounds, we
may find that these strong d1allenges can become our best teachers, leading
us LO find life’s purpose and mission. Yet, when I look back at my own life
and, in particular, my academic journey, I also know that nowhere in my

schooling did I ever find an invitation to really explore these experiences, to
look at these values and events with the same curiosity and rigor of a text
that held in1portant keys LO my own well-being.

Schooling for Silence and Conformity

In schools, hean and mind rarely came together for me. Even when studying
poetry and literature, the notion of the personal entering tJ1e realm of me
academic never quite intersected. For me, being in school meant turning


away from a pan of myself that did not belong. May be tl,is was dictated by
my own outsider status as a recent immigrant. ,Vhen I started college, I had

only been living IO years in tl1is country, and my parenL5 were not fluent in
English. My parents, altl10ugh intelligent and gifted in so many areas, had
little formal education. �faybe this and my own introverted personality were
factors in my feeling so alienated. But tl1e realities seem more complex and
intertwined. Kevertheless, I hold tl1e adults around me, tl1ose who attempted
to teach me; tJ,e schools I auended; tl,e whole educational enterprise respon­

sible for a large part of my inability to break through. After 20 years of
teaching, I now realize tJiat I was never invited to share, to look into my own
life st0ry as a source of knowledge, wisdom, and guidance for what I was
supposed to do “itl1 my academic efforts. I know now that tJiis was a loss, a
lost connection, but not an anomaly.

For the most part, school was a place where I studied important subjects, the
ideas of inlponant people (mostly dead white men), and never quite broke
tJirough to realize that within me, I had an important treasure trove of infor­
mation that might be essential for my own survival and well-being; tJiat read­
ing my life was essential. That I did not have at the time were mentors tJiat
could show me how this was done; people “�tJ, the courage to model tl,e act
of looking deep within, not so much for the sake of introspection for intro­

spection’s sake, but for the purpose of freedom and liberation. It wasn’t until
I left college and began teaching that I realized how tJie significance of
allowing tl,e personal into the academy. I remember reading tl,e work of bell
hooks and being electrified at the notion that one’s inner life needed to be

accessed, honored, and shared with others in order to tap into the full experi­
ence of transformative learning experiences.

Cracks in the System

Hooks’ words were transformativc for me. For the first time in my life, I read
someone’s work that actually expressed what was muddled within my own
mind, that ” … any radical pedagogy must insist that everyone’s presence is
acknowledged” (1994, p. 8). But how can everyone’s presence be acknowl­
edged if her story or his story is not 1.he ground and source of that space?
How can we acknowledge presence, when everywhere the academy iisclf is
all about efficiency and producti,�ty? Ever,’One is a number, an object: stu­
dentS, teachers, administrators.

The challenges of turning away from the process of transforming humans
imo objectS are monumental. No instituti on where I’ve been has engaged in
this process. On the contra•”) from the start of my educational experience,


I was encouraged to cut out the personal and embrace the objective voice of
the academy. The process for most starts in kindergarten, and by the time we

finish college, most people have thoroughly been indoctrinated to believe
that one’s personal life belongs deep within, and that if one is to be profes­
sional, the personal has to be cut out and left out.

If we look carefully at the process of excluding the personal, for a society like
ours to demand efficiency and maximizing profits would make total sense.
With those goals, our educational journey must be built on a foundation of
de-personalization. We can’t possibly honor the quirkiness of the individual;
more significantly, we can’t possibly let young people believe that their lives,
their stories are the source of wisdom and guidance because if we do, how
could we control them? Acknowledging their individuality, their power to
resist, their self-assertions, their digging for their lived truths clogs the wheels

of efficiency.

The funding for schools is not set up for individual meanderings. W hen we
look closely, we see a factory model where everyone who comes through the
doors of an institution of higher learning is expected to come out shaped
and marked, “ready to consume,” and “ready to support production,” a
model that has served some people really well, while leaving millions without
the abiJjty to support even basic needs. 1 I can still recall President Bush’s
injunction two weeks after the 911 Attacks: “Go down to Disney World!”
(CNN, 2004).

And although computer technology has exploded in the past 20 years, the
tools created hav,e moved us no closer to a personalized approach to learn­

ing. Schools buy the latest hardware and implement the most recent soft­
ware, but the educational model is fundamentally unchanged. We continue
to have for the most part what the Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, (1996)
called a banking model, one where students are seen as passive repositories
where knowledge is deposited by those in control. Instead of creating a
new paradigm where we can relate to one another in human-sized rela­
tionships, we create larger, so-called more productive classrooms and tout
them as the next best thing that will save ourselves from irrelevance. We
initiate online courses that enroll hundreds at a time. We design online
degrees where one never has to meet another person. We have developed
online K-12 state certifications, where a child for 12 years never has to see
an instructor nor another student. We have prostituted education to
support corporate greed.

1 45.8 million people in U.S. live in poverty. 19.9 percent of children go to bed hungry
every night.


Yet, all is not lost and all is not terrible. The fact that I can look
back and see the deficiencies of my student experience, and
understand as a teacher how caught we are in a system, that by
its nature de-spirits rather than inspires, means that there are
gaps within that monolithic system. Crevices can open where we
connect with others and raise our voices, read and write our
sto­ries, and learn from our experiences. Part of the challenge
that we face is finding that wiggle room within our places of
learning or employment, and do the kind of work that is
invisible to most, unrewarded, and, sometimes,
misconstrued-and may I say, dangerous.

Bad Advice

The greatest danger, however, is not from anything or anyone outside of
our­selves. It is from within. There’s no guarantee where the process of
self­exploration will take us and how much it will move us away from the
beaten oaths exoected of us bv those who e:enuinelv love us and those
who don’t.

– – – .

Both groups have very little sense of what is really going on within because
they are operating in a world where those personal stories, desires, urgings,
and callings are ignored or silenced. Lines from Mary Oliver’s poem “The
Journey” (Oliver, 1986) capture this dilemma:

One day you finally knew

what you had to do, and began,

though the voices around you

kept shouting

their bad advice-

though the whole house

began to tremble

and you felt the old tug

at your ankles (p. 38).

The bad advice is not always intended to be so. It sometimes comes from the
best hearts and intentions. Everything that I have said here about schools and
classrooms, though, is not meant as a condemnation of those who are in educa-

tion. We are all caught one way or another in a very powerful web that wants us
to stay asleep. It is a web that refuses credence to the voice within that is whisper­
ing sweet pleasure, love, and liberation. That web refuses any promise to trans­
form our path ahead. But as Mary Oliver says in her poem, one day we finally
know what we have to do. Walk away. Step outside. The house is trembling.



Bush, G. W (2004). Go down to Disney World in F lorida, take your families …
Retrieved May 11, 2013 from

Freire, P. ( 1996). Pedagogy ef the Oppressed, 2nd ed. CA: Pen guin Group.

hooks, bell. ( I 994). Teaching to Transgress: Educati.on as the Practice ef Freedom.
New York: Routled ge. p. 8.

Oliver, M. ( 1986). Dream Wirk. Boston, MA: Atlantic Monthly Press. p. 38.

U.S. Census Bureau (2014). Poverty. Retrieved March 15, 2015 from http:// /poverty/ about/ overview/

The autonomy of the

teacher/developer or

by Mario Eraso

A;ter teaching mathematics education courses for three years at a uni­
versity in Texas, I was hired by a private middle school in south Flor­
da to teach mathematics and robotics. During the 18 months I

worked as a teacher, I saw myself as a teacher/developer, and at times desir­
ing to mold my position into a teacher/researcher. T hese two terms I am
referring to, a teacher who does more than just teach, were introduced to me
by Bob Moses, founder and president of the Algebra Project, Inc., a national

nonprofit organization that uses mathematics as an organizing tool to ensure



of practicing as a teacher/ developer or researcher if there is little time for added roles in the
profession? T h is is where the respect for the teacher as a professional and transformative
education come into play.

Teaching is a complex and difficult job because it presupposes rich interac­tions between
humans: student to student, student to teacher, and student to community. Research has shown
that students have very distinct learning styles and thus teaching needs, and that the strategies
to fulfill these needs vary depending on the subject. Making learning happen requires more than
subject knowledge, skills, and competence. An effective teacher must be adaptable, ethical,
accountable, and have the ability to assess and communi­cate well-all of which are
characteristics of a true professional. All these teacher characteristics, that when put to use
effect learning, I summarize with one word: autonomy. If a teacher has autonomy, the teacher
can make decisions on selecting the appropriate methodology for a particular curricu­lum topic.
Likewise, an autonomous teacher who is free from external con­trol or influence can assess best
her current students’ needs to determine the duration of a learning unit, or whether a re-teach
session is needed. However, in the literature on teacher professionalism, teacher autonomy has
been associated with a teacher’s free will to decide how to teach, what to teach, and how to assess
without concern to standards and often acting ran­domly. Autonomy has been coupled also with
uniformity, a consequence of salary schedules and the credentialing process that does not let the
effective teachers be differentiated from the ineffective teachers. Finally, autonomy has been
associated with a teacher’s lack of support. A teacher working in isolation and without assistance is
said to have the autonomy of modifying the curriculum at random, for example. If we define
autonomy in this man­ner, the term acquires a negative connotation. Rather than perceiving the
autonomous teacher as someone who works separately from others, we should understand this
quality of the teacher as self-directing and not sub­jected to the “mis-direction” by others.
Now, transformative education environments such as those created by the Algebra Project, allow
the space for teachers to grow and develop profession­ally. It is in these environments where
school-based, university-affiliated pro­grams flourish and allow children’s learning to accelerate.
In these programs, teachers are part of a collaborative effort in which they interact with other
teachers in the nation, with mathematics educators and mathematicians, counselors, and the
communitv at large. Since the collaboration is intense

However, in the literature on teacher professionalism, teacher autonomy has
been associated with a teacher’s free will to decide how to teach, what to
teach, and how to assess without concern to standards and often acting
ran­domly. Autonomy has been coupled also with uniformity, a consequence of
salary schedules and the credentialing process that does not let the effective
teachers be differentiated from the ineffe ctive teachers. Finally, autonomy has
been associated with a teacher’s lack of support. A teacher working in
isolation and without assistance is said to have the autonomy of modifying the
curriculum at random, for example. If we define autonomy in this man­ner, the
term acquires a negative connotation. Rather than perceiving the autonomous
teacher as someone who works separately from others, we should
understand this quality of the teacher as self-directing and not sub­jected to
the “mis-direction” by others.

Now, transformative education environments such as those created by the
Algebra Project, allow the space for teachers to grow and develop profession­
ally. It is in these environments where school-based, university-affi liated pro­
grams flourish and allow children’s learning to accelerate. In these programs,
teachers are part of a collaborative effort in which they interact with other
teachers in the nation, with mathematics educators and mathematicians,
counselors, and the communitv at large. Since the collaboration is intense


can find the time to be teacher/developers or researchers, which in turn
effects meaningful, deep, and long-lasting learning.

According to my definition of autonomy above, I was able to teach math and
robotics autonomously at the middle school. For example, I decided to use the
Geometer’s Sketchpad (GSP) software as frequently as possible to teach a high
school geometry course for middle school students. With this software, the
static presentation of geometry given in the textbook, was supported with
dynamic activities. In order to use GSP effectively, I created my own discovery
activities and dynamic application projects, and rubrics, thus showing the
characteristics of the teacher/developer. As a strategy for deep conceptual
learning, I used classroom discussions in which students were taught explicitly
how to listen to their peers and how to respond with comments or questions
Lo oLher studenLs’ remarks. To insert these modules into the existing cwTicu­
lum required autonomy and independence, but mostly self-determination
and assurance to invest time on the prerequisite development of students’
attitudes and behaviors necessary to do mathematics through communicating.
I used my own criteria also to assess how to do this in the best manner. For

example, I would know that a student had understood a concept if he or she
could synthesize in a couple of sentences a class discussion in which at least
four students participated. More importantly, I was fortunate to have the
support of the principal and the friendship of the social sturues teacher, a
veteran with over 40 years of teaching experience, who found the time to
discuss and suggest room for improvement in the different implementations I
was introducing in my classes.

As in the Algebra Project’s curriculum, I used drawings, icons, and symbols
to support students’ learning in a pre-algebra course. Specifically, I used
these tools for learning integer adrution and subtraction. These tools allowed
me to introduce methodologies that left behind the “take away” pararugm of
elementary subtraction and embraced the “compare” pararugm that leads to
huge learning milestones needed in college, such as distinguishing between
distance and displacement. Also, when teaching percentages, ratios, and dec­
imals comparatively, I introduced language development strategies that I was
borrowing from the Algebra Project curricular model. The idea of straitjack­
eting language and moving from “people talk” to “feature talk” was a partic­
ular strategy I used to assist students in learning how to communicate using
scientific language (Moses and Cobb, 2001 ).

But it was teaching the robotics course at the middle school that most
clearly exemplified my autonomy as a teacher and my role as a teacher/
developer. Although for the robotics course, which was offered for one
semester, there was a curriculum to follow and a methodology to be used, I
let the students suggest what activities to perform, and, thereby, allowed


myself to modny the curriculum. I would vet the suggestions and approve
them once the students acknowledged that they had to insert certain learn­

ing objectives that I had in mind and that would align well with the original
curriculum. Additionally, I used the project-based learning methodology in
the robotics class because I wanted to make emphasis on students’ creativity
to design and program the robots. The original curriculum had several
activities in which a kit of equipment and its instructions were used to build
robots. In my class, every robot was different and in some way represented
qualities that the students valued. For instance, one robot was slender and
slow because the student wanted it to conserve energy; and another one was
stocky and heavy because the student wanted it to portray power. The stu­
dents designed a construction tower with three articulations, a scorpion
with two claws, an elevator, a backhoe, and multiple car-like robots. It was
the Heisenberg robot, inspired in the T.V. series Breaking Bad, that became
an icon over the four semesters I taught the course. This robot was even

used by the school administration during open house and parent nights to
showcase the robotics course.

The students who built the Heisenberg robot started the idea when they were
in level 3 during their first semester. Four of the students who wanted to
repeat the course the second semester asked me if they could build a robot
that would have all the sensors, switches, and attributes of all the robots they
had seen their classmates design during the first semester. With the idea
approved, the Heisenberg flourished as a robot with a linetracker sensor at
the bottom, a distance sensor on its front, a bumper switch on its back, two
articulated arms with shoulders and claws and mounted on tank tracks. The
Heisenberg looked like a sphinx, the body of a sturdy tank-like robot and a
human head. The students brought from home sunglasses and a black
Fedora hat, and designed a goatee to decorate the head. But my friend and
colleague, the social studies teacher veteran, would not be satisfied until
someone could make the Heisenberg speak! The students responded to the
challenge and used a phone application that would emit sound from a cell
phone in the body of the robot that in turn was activated by another cell
phone from where the students would speak. The Heisenberg was used also
by the students in my colleague’s social studies course on civics, government,
and citizenship to begin a session in which the students interacted with
younger elementary students promoting positive community behaviors. Even
a rumor was started in the school that one day the Heisenberg would lead a
daily morning session conducted at the school chapel.

During the fourth semester, a student brought from home pistons his parents
had bought after the student had attended a robotics competition during a
weekend fieldtrip our school organized. The student and his team members
wanted to dismantle the arms of the Heisenberg and use pistons rather than


articulated arms. These students learned how to program code to activate
solenoid valves to control the pistons, learned about pressure units in the air
chamber, and how to cut and connect pneumatic tubing. What they ended
programming was the ability of the Heisenberg to jab at an opponent by
inserting the pistons along the arms of the robot. My role was solely to push
these students further by asking them to use what they had learned the previ­
ous semester, not necessarily to teach them anything new. I suggested that
they should program jabs in a pattern that would reflect a hidden message
like you do when using Morse code. So, for example, a sequence of three
short, three long, and three short jabs would encode the message S.O.S. The
students usually enjoyed my challenges and, as I had hoped for, were getting
out of control, in the positive sense of the term. Most students who excelled
exhibited positive behaviors by helping the newer students in the class. That
had been the original plan of letting students retake the course. The princi­
pal and I believed that peer-to-peer role modeling was powerful and would

allow us to learn from having a leadership program within the robotics class.
Some of the students worked in a particular station where they kept their

own materials in boxes that they found in the classroom closet. They had
customized the boxes with inner compartments to store dilferent pieces of
equipment. I let them do that because it was a form of showing pride and
style during the planning stages of their projects. I even put a label on the

wall over the table that served as their station: Heisenberg Research Station.

Finally, my role as a teacher/ developer allowed me to define and design my
own levels of assessing student progress. Level I had the objective of pro­

gramming a robot to perform a particular elementary task for a specific
duration. For example, in level 1, a student could write a program to start a
motor moving forward for 5 seconds, stop for 2 seconds, and move back­
ward for 5 seconds also, but at a lower speed. Level 2 was set for students to
program a robot to perform a task if a condition was met. At this level, stu­
dents learned about truth tables and were able to use switches that, depend­
ing on whether they were on or off, the robot would perform one of two

outcomes. Level 3 exposed students to the more complex problem of hav­
ing a robot perform multiple tasks depending on setting threshold levels for

several sensors.

Finally, level 4 was for the students who had decided to take the course again
the following semester. In this level, robots were remotely guided with a joy­
stick and the coding syntax and commands necessary to program the joystick

were dilferent to those of levels I through 3. Because of the project-based

learning environment, students were encouraged to create their own activi­
ties and projects for which they had to solve problems to make the robot do
exactly what was intended in the coded. The task performed by the robot,
the code programmed by the student, and the words used by the student in


both an oral proposal and oral evaluation needed to exactly match each
other. The students went further and asked me if I could institute a fifth level
of performance. Once approved, level 5 became building, wiring and pro­
gramming a robot using pistons.

During the last semester, students showed me how much their interest had
grown. They brought from home air pumps, pistons, arduinos, raspberry pis,
miniature quadcopters, fancy keyboards with screens, and cameras. They
also were approved to order internally at the school an adaptor, use an old
monitor, and change the settings of a keyboard to build a computer using the
raspberry pi kit a student had brought from home. The ultimate evidence of
how exciting the class was for students and the community was when a par­
ent donated to the school $1000 to buy a 3D printer. The 3D printer
revamped students’ interest in using Autodesk Inventor 3D software to
design small objects that were later printed by the students. Their interest in
the course was such that most students, about IO of 15 in the class, had
achieved the teaching assistant status after having completed the first three
levels and having designed two objects in the inventor software. A student

one day asked me, “Some TAs say I am not a TA. Could you print us certifi­
cates of completion?” Another student asked, “What will happen when
everybody becomes a TA? Would you be interested in developing activities

towards us becoming master TAs?” T he original idea I had with the princi­
pal was to exhibit behaviors of leadership and mentorship, but what was also
happening was that the students were becoming avid learners.

To summarize, I want to say that in my robotics class, which obviously was
not mine but theirs, I exercised teacher autonomy as I have defined it in this
paper. I strongly believe not even one-third of the outcomes I have described
would have happened if I had not had the autonomy, principal’s approval,
and my friend and colleague’s feedback. Teachers today, I believe, need to
have more collaboration opportunities between parents and the classroom,
between students, between teacher and student, should provide assessment
continuity from year to year, and use multiple levels of assessment that pro­

vide students with different times for completion. So, in addition to the
teacher/developer or researcher, I suggest teachers become teacher/writers
as well. And I am sure many teachers already do that today and have biogs
where they share their teaching successes. If a teacher can teach with auton­
omy and create learning excitement, why is it that society wants teachers to
turn into test-driven automatons? o wonder policymakers with the percep-

tions that teachers should be controlled are driving talent from the profes­
sion. And some schools have clearly gone overboard in adopting “drill and
kill” strategies, devaluing the teacher profession. In response to the demands
of the No Child Left Behind Act, some districts have instituted “teacher
proof” curricula that are scripted and, obviously, leave no room for the


teacher/ developer, researcher or writer. The system’s oppressively rigid

structures and its obsession with control of students and teachers shuts down
the creativity of instructors, of students, of the entire schooling experience.
Let us as teachers and learners “raise our voices in the noise of this hege­
mony.” Let us speak for intellectual, imaginative justice inside and outside
our classrooms.


Moses, R. P. & Cobb, C.(2001). Radical Equations: Ciuil Rights.from Mississippi to
the Algebra Project. Boston: Beacon Press.

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