Two Cheers for Diversity and the Unfinished Work of America: Stronger Together

The NAIS Annual People Of Color Conference opens this week in Atlanta. It will draw independent educators from across the country. They will gather in groups small and large; renew friendships and make new connections; listen to speakers and attend, participate in, and lead workshops and meetings.

I am sure it will all be a necessary time of re-dedication, renewal and affinity. They will return to their schools with much to share

Love, Change, Power, Dignity, Forward, Purpose, Hope

The conference logo has as sub header Advancing Human and Civil Rights: Fulfilling the Dream Together.

When the planners were preparing for this conference few of them would have had in mind the place where we now find ourselves politically. Martin Luther King spoke of the arc of history that bends toward justice. While I believe that remains true, that arc has taken a big dent with the outcome of the election. The change those planners had in mind was probably not the one we now see unfolding in Washington and Trump Tower.

Suddenly we are  in a radically altered political and social landscape. And educators will need all the solidarity, support and inspiration they can find to navigate a way forward. The impact on schools and on the lives of children is already being felt. There are alarming reports of outbreaks of hate speech and bullying in schools. And independent schools are not immune. Educators stand at the fault lines of how we must respond. They will be the difference makers in children’s lives – at least while they are in school. The stand they take will be a part of the resistance to a tide of regressive thinking and bad practice.  Educators of good will – and especially those of color – now have even bigger challenges before them. They will need to summon all the courage they can muster for the hard, heartbreaking, heartening and heroic work ahead.

The opening speaker is the extraordinary Bryan Stevenson. He’s the civil rights lawyer whose address to the NAIS annual conference last year brought a ballroom of people to tears and whose book Just Mercy should be required reading. Read Beat the Drum for Justice here.

Not everything has changed. Many of the  same old challenges are still with us – founded as they are on unresolved shadows that continue to bedevil us.

Those long  murky shadows of genocide and slavery have been met with neither truth nor reconciliation and haunt us still. But now – suddenly – the edges seem sharper and more threatening. Voices muted for decades are now heard loud and clear. The rhetoric is harsher.  And the veneer of civility is broken laying bare an unashamed racism, anti-immigrant fever, misogyny and white supremacy. The KKK has taken its hood off and is now on the edges of power together with an unsavory mix of those who dwell in the land of conspiracy theories, fake news and flirt with fascism.

Just this week we saw the mistrial in the case of the killer of Walter Scott who was videotaped being shot multiple times in the back while running away. A muslim transit worker was assaulted in New York City. The examples multiply and are everywhere. Hate crimes large and small across the country are not new but the upsurge in volume is alarming.  Reports of bullying in schools run the gamut from scrawled messages of hate to taunts, chants and physical attacks. The microaggressions that are the daily scourge of life for anyone perceived as less-than, exotic or an outsider are now the least of it. Suddenly we are living in even uglier times. “Lock her up”, “Deport them” and “Build the wall.”

“Taking our country back”  is code

The lid is well and truly off the collective id and it is ugly. The Make America Great Again/ America First movement is fueled by fear and resentment. It is about the perception of some that America is under threat and this is the last chance to “take the country back”. Back to where exactly was never made quite explicit. It didn’t need to be. The election season signals – not so much dog whistles as air raid sirens – were clear.

The fact that many African-Americans (and all Native Americans) can trace their lineage back for generations beyond the great European immigrant waves of the 19th and 20th centuries is irrelevant. The fact the majority of recent immigrants arrive as believers in the land of opportunity and Constitutional freedom is dismissed.  The fact that places with a diverse population and high immigration tend to thrive economically means nothing.

Post-election analysis of the vote has been revealing.  A perfect storm conspired to affect the outcome –  GOP voter suppression measures; the weakening of the full protection of the Voting Rights Act; partisan Wikileaks and interference by Russia all contributed. The national media with its insistent false narratives played a key role. In a coup de gras, James Comey and the FBI kneecapped Hillary Clinton eleven days before the election, and that tipped the balance to Trump.

Nevertheless –  and in the face of all that – Hillary Clinton emerges as a clear winner of the popular vote with a margin of close to 3 million. Just yesterday we got the news that she won in Dutchess County, NY.  When all the county’s votes were tallied – including all absentee and affidavit ballots – the election night loss of 2000 was erased. It raises the question: “How much bigger would the popular vote be nationwide if every US county followed this procedure and no voter suppression had occurred?”

And now let’s take a look at who voted for Hillary. The demographics are really interesting, and hopeful. Hillary assembled a winning and inclusive coalition of women and men including people of color, immigrants and LGBT people. Not only does her support represent the best of America it is also its hope and its future.

Hillary got this right. She won the popular vote decisively with a carefully crafted progressive policy platform that was inclusive, forward-looking and optimistic. In Hillary’s coalition all the groups marginalized by Trump can say – “We too belong”. They can say out loud with Langston Hughes “I, too, am America”.

Hillary Clinton voters came together, found common ground and voted against the politics of fear and grievance. They turned away from the extremes of right and left and the raw appeals of populism and demagoguery.

Now we must build on that achievement and fight for the values that bring us together – issues of justice and equity, what is forward-looking and fair. And continue to push back on appeals from whatever quarter to anger and resentment.

Let’s find a common dream based on what connects us rather than fall for the rhetoric of what divides us.

President LBJ expressed the ploy of divide and conquer well.

 “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” -Lyndon B. Johnson

It’s an old story.

I’ve been reading Life in A Railway Factory. It’s from 1915 and by Alfred Williams who worked as a rivet-hotter, furnace boy and drop stamper for twenty three hot, grueling and physically demanding years in the stamping shop at Swindon railway works.

This opening sentence – at right – provides a version of the same concept.

So I wish all attendees at NAISPoCC in Atlanta a wonderful coming together this week. May you all find solace, comfort, inspiration and renewed energy for the work ahead. We are now living in a shifted reality. The old problems are unresolved and now we have a whole new set to manage. I look forward to the tweets and links you share at #NAISPoCC and #NAISSDLC.

We are stronger together. We must resolve to continue to forge common ground, renew our commitment to inclusion and celebrate our diversity.


Life in a Railway Factory

This book, which sold well and has been in and out of print for a century, covers every aspect of life in the railway factory.

Williams knew it all and he doesn’t mince words in his description of the appalling working conditions of the foundries, blast furnaces shop floors and engine sheds of this sprawling factory that employed 12,000 men.

And should there be any of you out there interested in how steam trains were built and want to know how every rivet, nut and bolt came together to create the living breathing steam engine, then – read this book.

1 Comment

  1. How eloquently you put it all. ‘Hard, heartbreaking, heartening and heroic work ahead’ indeed. And thank you for the Langston Hughes poem which I didn’t know – so strong and simple.

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