After 72 hours of poster printing, social media updating, and shameless “plugs” made in all classes, the day of the UpliftED Rally had arrived. 5 of us climbed aboard an idling yellow school bus –rubbing our hands together in the Minnesota cold. The turnout was low, but we were getting good at the “maybe next time” hope-filled line.
Throughout the month of October, I watched as SFER chapter leaders from colleges across Minnesota came together to organize one event to inspire action. Featuring congressman Keith Ellison and CEO of the Northside Achievement Zone Sondra Samuels, it was an afternoon designed to attract attention. Two news crews signed up to watch the action unfold. There were bright blue T-shirts, free sandwiches, and amplified microphones. The spotlighted community organizers, student stories, and hope-filled children would be heard.
With a handful of particularly dedicated SFER St. Olaf members in tow, I greeted friends I’d seen a month ago in Boston for a national summit. We hugged and put our arms through the extra-large sleeves of shirts with white lettering: UpliftED Rally for the Kids.
We were scattered across a lawn in front of a picturesque Union at the University of Minnesota. The background of collegiate red brick buildings and students weighed down by backpacks as they crossed the formed the perfect backdrop to a conversation about opportunities in higher education.
This event was designed to trigger emotion. From the moment Keith Ellison was introduced, we knew this. Anger, brotherhood, a village to raise a child–all were unfurled in the sweeping speeches given beneath a white tent.
On Congressman Keith Ellison’s website keithellison.org, the slogan “Everybody Counts, Everybody Matters,” pops in a green color scheme. Ellison believes that equal opportunity in education is the key to a healthy economy. From his perspective, empowering Minnesota’s youth by preparing them for college is a political priority. “Regardless of age, income, or background, Keith believes that we must support children, families, teachers, and communities in the development of high quality educational opportunities” (keithellison.org.) He has defended Head Start programs and worked to curb hunger in Minnesota schools through his support for the federal school lunch program.
When Keith Ellison took the SFER stage, he took a moment to pull a t-shirt over his business-appropriate attire. He called it a uniform for change.
Outlining the position presented by his website, Ellison took the time to emphasize voice. “Do you want to know the most important part of politics?” he asked a small but captive crowd. “Showing up…if you don’t show up, nothing gets done.” Pointing to a smiling and shivering Sondra Samuels, he said “You see that woman over there? She knows how to show up. ” Keith regaled his audience with stories of Sondra’s success. Her dedication to showing up at the capitol or the courthouse or a classroom on the North side–always advocating “for the kids.” She is an example of what can come from aggressive follow-up–of 2nd and 3rd and 4th meetings.
Framed as “showing up,” social change seems almost easy. Intuitive at the least. And yet it isn’t. And yet we only had 4 people board the bus to attend this rally about the importance of “showing up.” Of the hundreds of students who saw the posters in the cafeteria as they ate lunch or checked their PO boxes, only 4 stood outside of student commons doors and waited for free transportation to a politically charged rally. I was disappointed, but at the same time I didn’t blame the hoards who didn’t show. How many times have I skipped an event I “should” attend? How many times have I been lulled by never ending to-do lists or the temptation of an hour of TV after a hard week?
We are raised to exist in “MeWorld”–taught early on to pay attention to what we each need to do to succeed. It’s true, I’ve been academically successful largely because of my ability to compose and cross off lists. I sit in this library on a hill because I was driven by competition and because I took so many of the offered opportunities.
Fist pumping in the direction of our huddled bodies, Keith Ellison demanded that we continue to show up. He reminded us that “being informed” is not enough.
As college students, we need to spend hours in the library with our noses buried in books. But we also need to come up for air. We need to read the paper at breakfast, see the city when we walk through it on the weekends, and learn to be good citizens. Like Ellison said, showing up is the first step. You can only advertise on so many platforms. When we are constantly bombarded with information broadcast on Facebook and Twitter and hallway walls, it’s too easy to tune out. Ignorance becomes a way to stay sane. We can’t possibly pay attention to it all, so we block most of it out. We need to work on changing that habit. We need to see what’s going on in our own backyards.
Many of my collegiate peers across the country experienced the injustices of the education system first hand. At this rally, we heard their stories.
This vibrant young man received an award in high school for testing in the top group of African Americans the year he took the SAT. He was pleased at first by the recognition, then angered. He hadn’t been particularly happy with his score–believing that he could do better. His expectations weren’t met. He toyed with the idea of taking the test again. Why had he been rewarded? Why had he been held to such different standards because of the color of his skin? A white student likely wouldn’t have been recognized for the same score.
I listened to his story and thought of the halls of my own high school–of the white students I knew who scored in 98th percentile on the ACT and talked about it as if it were normal. I thought of the students of color– bused in from the inner city and largely expected to fail.
We took the same standardized tests and we went to the same school, but our experiences and our standards did not match. What would it have looked like if we had been held to the same expectations? What if I had been forced to step out of my comfort zone?
Sondra Samuels had the crowd leaning into her every word. Next to me, a woman with beautiful dreadlocks scribbled away on an envelope pulled from her vest pocket. She wanted to remember these words. She would use them.
“I refuse to let our babies burn,” Samuels stated again and again. “We are killing our kids.” Recognizing that so much of a child’s education is impacted by the world he or she experiences outside of the classroom, Samuels’ vision of education reform and “Uplifting Ed” combines housing, afterschool programming, and a longer school day. “They need time,” Samuels said of the students she has seen uprooted month after month as desperate parents searched for affordable housing–forced to switch classrooms and teachers and friend groups. How can these children succeed when they don’t know where they’ll be in two weeks?
Samuels worked for a year to provide affordable housing to 30 out of 40 families struggling to make ends meet in her district. She stressed that though this is a step in the right direction, it is nowhere near satisfactory. To level the playing field, we need to up the ante. These kids need to be given all of the right tools and expected to succeed.
Continuing her theme of systems thinking, Samuels told the story of a teacher who was rated one of the best educators in the nation. She was a young and vibrant black woman working in the heart of the Twin Cities. After being recognized for her influence in the classroom and the community, this teacher was let go…due to budget cuts. She had not been in the district long enough to compete with the seniority of her peers. She went on to work in a high-achieving suburban school.
“We needed that teacher here,” lamented Samuels. “We needed a teacher who the students could look up to. Someone who looks like them.”
In the end, Sondra presented us with a call to action. She presented education as the cause our generation must fight for. This is a matter of transforming the “cradle to prison pipeline” to a “cradle to college” pipeline. It is up to us to rise to this cause she said–to fulfill it and play a role in the civil rights movement of our generation. We will fulfill it, or let it destroy us.
We spent the afternoon listening to these voices and brainstorming spaces to broadcast them. A motivated mother of two and dedicated community college student told us about the day-to-day struggles of childcare. In Minnesota, only a half-day of kindergarten is covered by the State for her four-year old. What will happen, she wondered, when her daughter reaches first grade? Will she already be behind all of those kids whose parents could afford full-day schooling?
Where do we go from here? How do we really make sure that no child gets left behind? How do we make room for universally accessible pre-K and kindergarten while refusing to give up on the kids who have already suffered through the disparities of elementary education from first grade onward?
It’s easy to be overwhelmed. It’s also easy to be inspired. Changing things happens somewhere in between.
For now, SFER St. Olaf will focus on locating the organizations in our local Northfield community that are already doing great work to close the achievement gap. We will advocate for these groups through postcards to congressmen and op-ed pieces in newspapers. We will do everything possible to make sure they receive the support necessary to continue the groundwork they’ve already laid. We will continue to have conversations about the conflicting meanings of “education reform.”
As both Sondra and Keith expressed in their moving speeches, there are plenty of good people out there working toward education reform. One of the biggest issues is that they’re trying to do everything at once, independently, and with competing agendas. Just as we see in the microcosm of activist-minded student organizations on the St. Olaf campus, everyone wants to be the leader of the next big thing. We all want our events to be well attended, and we fail to show up to events put on by other groups because we’re so busy organizing our own. I get it. I’ve been one of those people (in a lot of ways, I still am.)
What if we stopped reinventing the wheel? What if we took the model of organization it took to put this UpliftED rally together and applied it to collaboration in the “real world” of ed reform? What if teachers and unions and politicians and parents and students all talked to one another and shared their stories on a regular basis? Sure, this happens on the campaign trail, but is it genuine? Could communities built by coalitions trump politicized agendas in the end?
Like Keith Ellison said; “Don’t let them tell you that you can’t. They are wrong.” For now, let’s all just show up.