On Thursday night, December 5, 2013, we lost Nelson Mandela at the age of 95. His legacy of activism, truth, love, imprisonment, forgiveness, and transformation will always be remembered. In light of the recent and continuous battle surrounding public education, I posed the following question: What would Mandela do? What would he say and what would he recommend? His advice would be derived from living in and fighting against apartheid. What would he say to the ongoing push for competition over collaboration? What would he say to the corporate agenda in public education? What would he say to crumbling communities mired in deep set poverty What would he say to the children who continue to be in the line of fire?
Nelson Mandela believed, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Many of our children will never see this to fruition because they are not being educated to change the world; they are being educated to take a test. They are not being fed at the table of access; they are starving in the shelters and halfway homes. In Philadelphia alone, 1out of 4 people live in poverty and nationally the number is 1 out of 6. 32.9% of children in Philadelphia County live in poverty. The median income for Philadelphia families is approximately $37,000 and the majority affected is African-American children. What would Mandela do?
According to the 60 cities that participated in the Day of Action on Monday, December 9, “Strong public schools create strong communities.” How long have public schools been failing all of our children? How long has the public been ignoring public schools and the children in them? What would Mandela do? Take responsibility for the poor decisions on both sides of the debate by acknowledging them and educating new individuals in the fight what happened in the past and how we can work towards making it better.
First, all the stakeholders involved in this battle need to recognize that public schools inherently were a flawed idea created by individuals who did not believe that it would work or be effective. Secondly, the presence of poverty and racism needs to be on the forefront of the discussion. Lastly, and most important we all need to understand the history of this process by reading the research and words of those who have come before. Practice what we preach. Education and knowledge are powerful tools. This is what Mandela would do.
He did not eradicate apartheid by simply not talking about it and moving past it, which is what we continue to do when it comes to the issues of racism and poverty. He encouraged and forced the victims and the oppressors to sit across from each other and have a conversation. There were many tears, pain, and hurtful feelings. The truth is not always blissful or easy. In the end, forgiveness was sought and achieved because no one pretended that the unfair laws of apartheid did not exist. And that people did not lose their lives and their dignity as a result of their enactment. What would you do if this had been your challenge?
We are constantly waiting for someone or something to change the course of history? We are screaming at the top of our lungs for those who cannot? We are immobilized at times by fear, exhaustion, and debate? Can we really have open and honest conversations with those who have created and currently control the agenda to destroy public education? We already have an educational system based on class because we can pay money for something better. Would Mandela get rid of these options to provide a level playing field for all? What would Mandela do? What would you do?
I want stakeholders to remember that Brown vs Board of Education recognized the inequality in schools and provided a means for integration. In the same decision, nearly 50,000 African American teachers lost their jobs. This is directly correlated to the low number of minority teachers in Philadelphia alone and other urban areas. I want stakeholders to recognize the connection between poverty and the need for effective community development. I want stakeholders to recognize that there are teachers in traditional public schools and charters who want to provide children a better education. This infighting creates low morale and poor distribution of information. What would Mandela do? He would have all of us to sit at the table, admit our sins, and then work together towards a future that works for everyone.
Stop saying that the past is not important! Stop saying that we can learn nothing from admitting to the flaws in the system and in our own decision making! Stop being blinded by idealism masked in ignorance and self-selective memories!
What would Mandela do?
“Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.” Mandela.
What would Mandela do? He would not limit his work to words and ideas. He would take action and make sure that we were very aware of the ills that plague our fight. Racism and poverty are inherently and inextricably connected to the battle for public education and the attack on union workers. Keep ignoring their presence and this fight will continue to be an uphill battle leaving young casualties in its midst.
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Pictures from the Philadelphia Day of Action sponsored by PCAPS