Tonya Allen: Finding inspiration in ... Howard Fuller's truths
Inspiration Moment 2: Howard Fuller speaks truth to power
This blog is a part of Chief Operating Officer and Vice President of Programs Tonya Allen's new blog series about the things that inspire her. This is the third in the series. Read previous installations here: Part 1 | Part 2
I sat in the audience with baited breath and tears in my eyes, moved to my core by the sheer truth that Howard Fuller spoke.
"My grandmother walked to and from work to save pennies. My grandmother took in white men's shirts. After working a full day, she cleaned them on a washboard, dried them and ironed them through the night so that her grandson could have a better life. How can we turn our backs on the things we need to do today in order for us to guarantee that our grandchildren will have better lives than we did?"
A civil rights activist, former superintendent of Milwaukee Public schools and former head of the state's Department of Human Services, Howard Fuller has a way with words. He speaks so poignantly, that he roots me in my experiences, stirs my remembrance and stokes my commitment to continue the civil rights fight of African Americans, Latinos and other disenfranchised people. And in my opinion, the biggest civil rights issue today is how to ensure poor children and children of color obtain a high-quality education that will enable them to fairly compete in the world.
Howard Fuller has made an indelible impression on me and others across the country because of his unique way of speaking truth to power with candidness and authenticity.
He doesn't romanticize the problems nor the solutions. He openly takes on race and class. He slaughters sacred cows:
"Detroit Public Schools is not public education. It is a delivery system for public education. Unless this or other districts were created by God, we have the right to create a different delivery system. Public education is a concept, and we have a right and responsibility to deliver it so that all children learn."
Fuller’s truth might not be my truth or your truth. But it should inspire us all to speak our own truths. We need to stop being so polite about ugly issues and blatant facts. As comedian Moms Mabley would say, "If you always do what you always done, you will always get what you always got."
The unvarnished truth is this: We have far too many poorly performing schools producing unprepared students, and many of us are complicit in keeping them around. Because of the self interests of many adults, young peoples’ lives are being limited or, in some cases, sentenced to a lifetime of poverty. If a young person does not graduate from high school, he or she is unlikely to be able to earn middle-class wages. Currently, 63 percent of high school drop-outs live below the poverty line. And if that youth graduates from high school, it doesn't get much better for her or him. The true differential is that young person has access to college or technical-career training. Yet many leave high schools in Detroit every day without the capacity to do either. It is time for us to name the problem, and it is not youth. It is our school systems -- public, charter and private. They have not changed to meet the social needs of students and the economic realities of the marketplace.
Let’s be explicit about what is wrong in education. Let’s use the challenge as an opportunity to do better and develop solutions like Michigan Future Schools, a high school incubator helping to start college-preparatory schools, or United Way of Southeast Michigan's Venture Fund, which is transforming traditional high schools. We can't assume that failing schools share our implicit values that all children can learn and all children deserve a shot to compete despite their backgrounds or zip codes. When we are quiet, we are complicit with the status quo that isn't serving children well.
This week, I challenge you to be more like Howard Fuller: Be truthful, be bold and be a change agent. Be emboldened to speak truth to power.