Amina R. Merritt
Speech to the Black Parallel School Board
Second Year Anniversary Celebration
February 6, 2010
Good Morning. First let me say that I am honored and humbled to have been selected as your guest speaker today. CONGRATULATIONS are due to the Executive Board of the Black Parallel School Board on this day, the 2nd Anniversary of your creation. It is appropriate to celebrate during Black History Month, since much of our past struggle has surrounded the right of blacks to obtain a quality education or to be educated at all. Even before the cases of Plessy vs. Fergueson and Brown v. Board of Education were decided, Africans were striving to learn a new language and have the right to have a book and read it. Remember that it was after Africans arrived in America and owned land and property that the first Negro Act was passed making it illegal for us to read, be educated and even assemble for fear that we would rebel against whites.
Kudos to BPSB for taking on the arduous task of representing the community that makes up Sacramento City School Districts. SCUSD has been difficult. I say that because although there are similar alternative Board organizations elsewhere around the State, the school system in Sacramento is probably one of the most resistant and difficult Districts to deal with. It has a history of ignoring the needs of our children and it has a structure and administration that does not accept criticism or change, and frankly did not readily embrace this organization as a good thing.
With that said, the leadership of the BPSB has done tremendous things over its 2yr existence, without much help and without many resources. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said in a speech in 1967 entitled “Where do we go from here: Chaos or Community” that “a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus”. The BPSB has molded consensus by clearly framing the issues that need to be addressed to improve education for black children in this City. About leadership, Henry Kissinger said in his book on the White House Years that “Leaders are responsible not for running public opinion polls but for the consequences of their actions”. He also said that “a leader does not deserve the name unless he is willing occasionally to stand alone.” Well, the BPSB has done a fantastic job while standing alone. And it is important that we recognize some of the milestones accomplished by the Board over its 2 short years in existence.
The Board has been a fervent advocate for black children. They have done an excellent job in documenting the achievement gap and have continually asserted the need to address and close that gap for African-American school children. They have also been an advocate for African-American school personnel and administrators within the District, understanding that our children not only need effective, quality education, but that the education they do receive is delivered by at least some people who look like them. BPSB has watched and worked with a change in Superintendents and School Board members. They were instrumental in the community’s ability to meet and address issues with the new Superintendent Jonathan Raymond, and they facilitated a meeting with the past Board President to discuss issues of concern. They were finally able to appear before the Board for a presentation. That was not an easy task. In short, they demanded recognition by the SCUSD School Board and finally achieved that recognition. The BPSB also took a bold step to encourage the grand jury to look into matters affecting the black community, and I understand that matter is proceeding through investigation as we speak. Holding the District accountable has been extremely important. So once again Congratulations BPSB for being here, taking a stand and getting the work done.
In my work with BPSB and my work at the Merritt Law Clinic, which represents about 105 children in the foster care system in Juvenile Dependency Court, and which also represents members of the Association of California School Administrators as a panel attorney, I have been in a position to see what is happening in educational settings around the state. I have seen firsthand what happens when CPS moves children from placement to placement and therefore school to school. I’ve seen the effects on education for children who have been abused and neglected. Those things create and foster failure. I’ve seen what happens when parents are not involved in the educational plans for their children—benign neglect sets in. I’ve seen the devastation of communities when there is school closure or reduced staff due to budget deficits or under-funding of particular schools within a district. It is clear that what affects children & schools in general disproportionately affects our children & community doubly. I myself was the product of a public school system that did not prepare me to compete with kids who went to prep school though I was an honor roll student. When I entered Amherst College in the first class of women as one of the first black women at that College, I got to see in stark relief the difference between public and private school and what quality of education really means.
Despite all this, I have also seen that black students often achieve by hook or by crook. They really do have an intense desire to succeed. And many of them do succeed with or without the help of individuals, systems, resources or funds. Our children are manifesting the same great resiliency which brought our people out of slavery, through the civil rights movement and into the 21st century. Many of them are technologically savvy and able to compete with children who have the best resources, schools and funding. African-American parents do also yearn to see their children achieve. They set high goals for their children, just like any other parents. I’ve also seen many interested persons and interesting programs seeking to assist our children to improve achievement and meet high goals. This year in particular, we did see the achievement gap close slightly at a few schools. We also saw schools that are considered “ghetto schools” have high math achievement and actually win awards for their achievements. There has been much done, but much remains to be done. The struggle continues.
So we, as members of the African-American community of Sacramento must answer the Call to Action. We must not grow weary in well-doing. It does take a village to raise a child, and all of us must be responsible for improving our lot in life. I suggest to you that each of us knows someone involved in the educational system. We should continue to dialogue about education in Sacramento. Just as President Obama did in his State of the Union Address last week, we should continue to urge legislators and Board members to care about our children by creating laws, applying funds and taking actions which are geared to their success. Because children are our future. We must continue to urge parents to participate in their children’s education. When parents are absent, some other people think they can do anything with and to our children. Each of us should be encouraging any parents we know to attend school meetings, to demand school meetings, and to attend an occasional Board meeting. We need to continue to educate our community about how to advocate for the children. We need to educate ourselves in how to access complaint processes and gain access to the halls of justice for our children. This reminds me of a fact I recently discovered about my great grandfather—nine generations removed—named Venture Smith. I learned that my grandfather had to sue his slave master six times for breach of contract in the New London CT Court of Justice. He had contracted to purchase his freedom and had actually paid enormous amounts of money to the master, only to remain in bondage. On the 7th go round, he won his case and became a free man. This had been a process and a yearning my grandfather had for at least 15 years. The point is that if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again. If the school does not hear your petition, go to the next higher level with your complaint. If you are not heard at the Superintendent level, go to the Board; if redress is not found there, go to the California Department of Education; remember, there is also the U.S. Department of Education too. It is critical that we continue to let our voices be heard and that we continue to be seen in the places, halls and meetings that matter. People fought and died for us to be at this place at this time with these struggles. It is critical to the success of our children that we continue to fight for them and their rights. Education is a civil right, but as with any rights, they mean nothing if we don’t exercise them. And in doing all that we do, we must remember who we are representing and who we are fighting for. As stated by the French revolutionary leader Alexandre Ledru-Rolin “There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.” Let’s follow the children and lead them to success together. Thank you Black Parallel School Board for being a follower and a leader!!!BPSB has been a leader in making their motto “A Call to Action”. As MLK, Jr. said “No social advance rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.” BPSB has been tireless, passionate and dedicated.