Violence in the Streets Won’t Help

Wreaking havoc in the streets in the aftermath of George Zimmerman’s acquittal is not wise, smart or needed.

It’s OK to be angry; it’s expected. But engaging in violence on the streets is counter-productive, to those who engage in it and to those who are affected by it.

I remember when, in the height of the Civil Rights Movement, riots broke out all over the country. I lived in Detroit. The riots began after police arrested a group of people who were in an after-hours club, celebrating the return of some men from Vietnam. Police apparently arrested everyone in the club. ( After the police left with those who had been arrested, a couple of people, angry because the club was closed and they now no longer had someplace to go, broke a window at a clothing store which was next to the club. The riot erupted from there and lasted for 5 days. At the end of the riot, 43 people were dead, and close to 1200 were injured and nearly 7000 had been arrested.

The riot began on Clairmount Avenue. Clairmount was clearly in the black section of the city, and I knew the area well. My pediatrician’s office was blocks from there, on Clairemount and Dexter Avenue. What bothered me is that the rioters were angry but were taking their anger out on black folks! It was black business that was affected most. Black neighborhoods were devastated. After the riots were over, my parents took all of us (5 children) into the “war zone,” my father called it. The neighborhood was gone. Everything we had grown up seeing was gone, burned to the ground. It was as though war planes had come and dropped bombs.

It was counter productive then and it’s counter productive now.  What we need, when there is injustice or something we perceive as being unjust, is strategy so that we can “speak truth to power.”   We know that many youth in the streets are brilliant, even if their education has not been good. This is a time where their brilliance could be used to make a difference in the communities in which there is so much injustice. We need to figure out a way to stop black-on-black crime. Although the comments of Robert Zimmerman, George Zimmerman’s brother, sounded arrogant to me, I hated it that he could and did mention that scores of black youth are shot on a daily basis and nobody is ever arrested! That is a sad fact and it is up to us to change it. Anger is not a bad thing. It shouldn’t be suppressed, because suppressed anger converts into depression …We don’t need communities with any more depressed people …but we do need change and the anger that is “out there” now because of the tragic death of Trayvon Martin can be used to bring some real change in the lives of too many kids. I don’t care what the politicians say; there is a need for gun control in this nation, and there is a bigger need for gun control in black, brown and poor communities…and that’s only PART of the work we need to do.

On Sunday, the day after the Zimmerman verdict, I sat in a church service with a predominantly white membership. The occasion was celebration of Freedom Schools, an amazing program begun by Ella Baker in 1974 and taken up by Marian Wright Edelman, head of the Children’s Defense Fund.  The CDF Freedom Schools program is a six-week program which takes kids in, infuses them with a love of  and for themselves, uses college kids to teach them not only to read but to love to learn. Children come in with heads down, often, because of what they cannot do and leave with heads up, because they have learned that they can do more than they ever thought they could.

On Sunday, three of the college kids, teachers to the kids, called “Student Leader Interns,” spoke. All three, two African-American men and one Hispanic woman, spoke about the Zimmerman verdict and how it was a call to action. The Hispanic woman wept as she talked; I wept throughout the service. These three young people called for this to be a time for action, and they are right…not violence in the streets, but action so that those who are children now will have different struggles to deal with, not senseless gun violence in their communities, or laws that work to their detriment.

There is a song the Freedom School students sing, “Something Inside.”  They sing the song every day. The opening words are, “Something inside so strong… I know that I can make it, though you’re doing me wrong, so wrong…” The hope, or my hope, is that those words “take” and become the propulsion for the kids and for those of us who love them …to become the agents for change we need in this world which has not been, let’s face it,  fair when it comes to poor people and people of color.

Get off the streets, guys, and use that anger in a way that is going to produce positive change. Help turn a nation’s mourning …into dancing. It is so needed. Ella Baker said, when she was still alive, “Until the death of black men, black mothers’ sons, is as important as the death of white men, white mothers’  sons, we who believe in freedom cannot rest…” We cannot rest, not yet.  We have to value ourselves and our “sons” and the work needed is immense…and it is needed now…

A candid observation …

Students File Lawsuit Alleging Violation of their Right to Read

Jonathan Kozol
Jonathan Kozol (Photo credit: Steve Rhodes)

A historic lawsuit filed in Michigan against the state and one particular school district claims that teachers have not done their jobs.

According to an article which appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, about 1000 students who are reading below grade level have filed the class action suit.

And I say, “hooray.”

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the students by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), claims that the state and the school district in question have violated the students’ right to read. It cites conditions which have contributed to the situation, including “a lack of books, terrible record keeping on individual student achievement, inadequate heat in the classrooms, and bathrooms in a state of filth and disrepair.” (

Such horrible conditions of public schools attended primarily by black, brown and poor children have long existed. Author Jonathan Kozol‘s works have graphically described the state of America‘s public schools, calling the situation the “shame” of America.

Indeed it is.

The Michigan city from which this lawsuit was filed is Highland Park, which is immediately adjacent to Detroit. I grew up not far from Highland Park. When I was young, the state of Highland Park schools and of Detroit schools was not as dire. I received a quality education in Detroit public schools.

But as the economy has worsened, and, thus, has poverty, the conditions of not only Highland Park and Detroit public schools but of public schools all over the country have deteriorated. According to Kozol, legislators in many cities have argued against putting more money in poor, urban schools, and even against reducing class size, arguing that such measures would be ineffective.

They are in effect saying that black, brown and poor children cannot learn…and that simply is not true.

I daresay that if any child, whatever his or her ethnicity, had to sit in schools that are far too common in America’s cities, he or she would have trouble learning.  Black, brown and poor children are treated as objects, not human beings, in that they are seen as not needing assistance or as being incapable of benefiting from such assistance. Meanwhile, students in more affluent areas have schools which are awarded more funds to do a quality job and boast of smaller class size.

In Michigan, the Christian Science Monitor article states, “two-thirds of 4th graders and  three-quarters of 7th graders are not proficient on state reading tests, and 90 percent of 12th graders fail the reading portion of the final state test.”

My church is operating a Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School this summer. The Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools Program® concentrates on improving literacy of children, especially black, brown and poor children. Class size is 10-1. Books are culturally relevant. The program uses what is called an integrated reading curriculum, designed for each grade level…and the program operates on the premise that all children, including black, brown, and poor children, are capable of learning.

The state of  schools in Highland Park, Michigan, and in so many urban areas is a reality not because the children served are incapable of learning, but because the people who are charged with teaching them or making sure they get a quality education, i.e., legislators, are not doing their jobs. These children are looked upon as objects, not subjects, human beings, worthy and deserving of “the best.”

I hope the 1000 students of Highland Park who have filed the lawsuit win, and I hope if they win that similar lawsuits will be filed all over the country. Frederick Douglass said “power concedes nothing without a demand.” My hope is that more and more students and parents in poor urban areas, where schools are in shamefully horribly condition, will likewise make a demand on behalf of the children who have no voice. Though poor, black, and brown…they are still deserving of a quality public education.

A candid observation …

Evil, Challenged

Cover of "Savage Inequalities: Children i...
Cover via Amazon

James Cone wrote “to avoid suffering is to avoid resistance, and that leaves evil unchallenged” in his book , God of the Oppressed.

His point was that the quest for social justice is not an easy one;  much of what is wrong in the world is wrong because we as humans do not have the energy or the will to resist it. The powers that be know that, and are able to “wait out” most resistance which comes to challenge the status quo.

Ironically, the truth of the matter is that if we do not resist power we continue to suffer. We stand the risk and real possibility that our unwillingness to resist will in fact bring more suffering into our lives.

Among the problems that we have as humans is that we like being comfortable. Though we suffer, we are comfortable suffering because it is a state of being with which we are familiar. Resisting that which makes us suffer takes us away from our cocoons, and puts us on roads we not only have never seen, but also in contact with challenges we would rather just not deal with.

And so we suffer.

I thought about that as I thought about the CDF Freedom Schools®  program. The program is more than that; it is a movement to reverse the lives of at-risk kids. It is a movement dedicated to resisting the commonly held belief that poor and minority children cannot learn.

The idea is as preposterous as it is representative of the arrogance that more privileged people have in the way they think about people who are poor or less privileged. Freedom schools look at at-risk children not as objects, but as human beings. The relationships Freedom Schools foster are “I-thou” relationships, as opposed to “I-it” which is the way the powerful too often regard the less powerful.

Enter the notion that teaching literacy, one child at a time, can change not only that child, but his or family, his or her community, and this country. Consider the audacity of resisting a system which has all but spurned much public education, leaving scores of children, precious children though poor, at the mercy of environments in which nobody could learn, no matter his or her color or privilege.

The resistance causes some suffering, because some in power resist…the resistance. Those who push for a better life for children too often neglected run up against hardened spirits – spirits that are “psychosclerotic,” as William Sloan Coffin said – spirits that refuse to believe that “anything good can come out of Nazareth.”

Those who resist, then, suffer from the frustration of skepticism, the unwillingness of  some people to help support the program, and from other less obvious methods the powerful use to try to keep things as they are and as they would like them to remain.

I was moved to tears reading one of Jonathan Kozol‘s books, Savage Inequalities, where the physical environments of some of our nation’s public schools he described were shameful in a nation which boasts of being the richest and most powerful in the world. Public schools described by Kozol included rooms where ceilings leaked, where there was no heat in the winter and no air in the summer; where multiple classes were held in one big room, making it virtually impossible for teachers to teach and for students to learn. Kozol describes the gradual loss of hope he has seen over and over in the eyes of little black, brown and poor children who begin school with great expectations, only to learn by third grade that nobody, not even their schools, thinks much of them.

As the children lose hope, as they are more ” its” in their classrooms, objects to be managed rather than students to be taught, they back away, first emotionally, and then physically, out of school. Many wind up in prison, entering what has come to be known as the “cradle to prison pipeline.” The powers that be seem not to care; the Prison Industrial Complex is one of the fastest-growing industries in our nation –  a nation which, by the way, incarcerates more people than any other developed nation in the world.

Those who resist what I’ve just described opt into a process that can deplete their capacity to hope for better …and yet, they resist, they agree to suffer because the suffering of the children they see is so much greater. The refuse to let evil go unchallenged.

My daughter and the college and post-college students who will teach children in our Freedom school are in training all this week – being prepared for much more than they realize. They are involved, are a part of a movement, which refuses to STOP challenging evil.  Whether they know it or not, they are engaging in a program of social change. They suffer some (the training is intense) so that they can alleviate, or help alleviate the suffering of so many more.

Every single day, I wake up thinking about how to get the funds to make our school all that it can be, and I find that in spite of the setbacks, the passion that drives this movement also drives me: we who can do better on behalf of  others simple must do so.  It seems to be a no-brainer that it is necessary to fight myths that keep so much of our population down and out, but simultaneously prepares them to keep states and individuals wealthy by providing new prisons with new inmates.

There is no excuse for the wealthiest nation in the world to be so willing to ignore the cries of children who happened to be born poor to be heard and loved and taught. It seems to be a national shame that little children who enter school in kindergarten in first grade are too often completely despondent and frustrated by third grade – just because we who could do better didn’t.

CDF Freedom Schools are not about giving any child a handout. It is about giving children hope and pushing them to dream and to see the power in themselves. A nation cannot go wrong if its so-called “dispossessed” are treated as human beings and not as chattel. Freedom schools embrace children other entities chew up and spit out.

It is evil for a nation that can do better to not do better for children who deserve a good education.  It is evil to make sure the affluent are taken care of using dollars that could be more equitably shared between affluent and poor communities. Sharing those funds would not be socialism, as some, I imagine, would proffer.

It would be fair.

A candid observation …

A Personal Story of Crazy Faith

English: en:Mary McLeod Bethune
English: en:Mary McLeod Bethune (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am in the midst of my own “crazy faith” experience, and it is so intense that I thought I’d better write about it!

For those of you who do not know, I wrote a book called Crazy Faith: Ordinary People; Extraordinary Lives. In the book, I talk about people, including Moses, Mother Teresa, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Washington and Emily Roebling, who built the Brooklyn Bridge. I talked about their amazing, crazy faith, believing that something most people deemed crazy and impossible to be absolutely possible.

It was their crazy faith, I wrote, that drove them.

The image that sticks with me this day is that of Moses, standing at the Red Sea, having only his faith that is telling him that somehow, he and the Israelites will get to the other side before they are trounced upon by the Egyptians. And I am thinking of the crazy faith that Mother Teresa had as she worked and lived amongst the poor, believing that all she needed would be provided and that she and her nuns would be not only all right, but taken care of by this God who had given the vision.

Well, it seems God has jokes. I am living my own “crazy faith” experience, as I just wrote. We are doing a CDF Freedom Schools® program and we don’t have near the money we need to do it! All we have is God …and crazy faith.

Being in this situation is making me understand, not from an intellectual point of view, but from a visceral place, what “crazy faith” is.  I see the stares people give me, the ones who know how little money we have. I see the doubt in their eyes; I can imagine the conversations they have when I am not around. I can only imagine what kinds of stares Moses got, or Mother Teresa, or Emily Roebling as she took over the brass tacks of getting that Brooklyn Bridge built as her husband lay ill. I can imagine how Mary McLeod’s stomach must have turned as she baked sweet potato pies to get money to give to a man for a piece of land she knew was to be hers, in order to build a school for kids that nobody wanted or believed in.

I think the skin must have peeled from their knuckles, figuratively speaking, as they looked “impossible” in the face, and yet they kept going.

My knuckles are skinless, but I have not heard God say anything like, “Oops! I told you the wrong thing.” No, what stirs in my soul is the plight and condition of too many black, brown and poor children, in public schools that are not really serving them well. I see little kids, pre-third grade, with eyes wide open, expectant and eager to learn, only to be disappointed by their educational experience and the fact that they feel, that early, this thing that circulates in our society that tells them that they are inferior, second-class citizens. I see their faces, and I hear God saying, “keep moving.”

CDF Freedom Schools have a track record of producing children who, no matter how poor, learn to read and learn to love to learn. In its literature, the program says that the program has been called “a curriculum of hope.” The Freedom School environment is one where children who have lived with neglect from home and society feel a safe, warm, nurturing place, interacting with people who believe in them and who remind them that they really can do anything they want. The integrated reading curriculum, the culturally relevant books …the entire program is a testament to what real investment in black, brown and poor children can do.

It has been shown that if children do not learn how to read, they begin to “act out” by third grade, and many face lives of, as Thoreau said, “quiet desperation,” trying to find their way, their voice, in the world. Many simply end up on a path of destruction; CDF has identified the “cradle to prison” pipeline, which too many children wind up in …largely because they cannot read.

Freedom Schools challenge the notion that these children cannot learn, and they have statistics to show that they are on the right track. About 65 percent of all children who participate in these schools show dramatically improved reading scores. Hooray for the proof…

If nothing else, I have a passion for our children, for any child who is left to the side and neglected. I hate it when reports come out saying how poorly African-American children do in school, because I know that our children are just as capable as other children. They are just working from a different paradigm… I so desperately want to have a foot in the door of making a difference for these children. Last year, over 12,800 attended Freedom Schools, nationally. This year, our 50 students will be among the number. That is the goal…

And so God whispers to me, “keep going.” Tears roll down my face, I get so nervous. I wonder if Moses cried, or if Mary McLeod Bethune cried? If they didn’t, I cry for them…because if they felt this pull, this pressure, that comes before God acts, I’m sure they wanted to cry, even if they didn’t. At the end of the day, it was their faith in God that made them stay the course.

They are my role models, and the God who has jokes …is forever my guide.

A candid observation