By Tomeka Hart, Vice President of African American Community Partnerships, Teach For America
Nationwide (BlackNews.com) — In the African American community, we know all too well that we cannot be complacent when being overlooked. Whether through first-hand experience or the pages of a textbook, we’ve all in some way witnessed the struggles and triumphs of our underserved lineage in pursuit of equal rights. And while it’s widely known that no civil rights movement has ever succeeded without involvement from the disenfranchised group, what’s less talked about is that they have never succeeded without partnerships.
Black History Month invites us to reflect on our country’s past – when we do, we see that every major victory for marginalized populations has been hard-won by people working alongside others of the same convictions. Compelled by the injustices to their fellow man, Abolitionists and Suffragettes united to help end slavery and to give African Americans the right to vote. Freedom Riders and the NAACP supported each other in their challenge of Jim Crow laws, leading to the defeat of those policies.
It can be easy to believe these struggles are behind us; that in an age of 44 black members of congress and the first black president, equal opportunities are finally available to all. The truth is, the greatest civil rights issue of our time is happening in our own backyards: the inexcusable educational inequity that disproportionately affects students of color and low-income students. According to the Urban Institute’s Low-Income Working Families Project, one-third of low-income African American youth won’t complete high school, and only a third will consistently connect with work or school between ages 18-24. This has nothing to do with these children’s inherent abilities, and everything to do with the educational opportunities presented to them. Our youth deserve an education that prepares them to be anything and everything they can dream of.
As vice president of African American community partnerships for Teach For America, I’m committed to furthering the powerful and lasting alliances we’re rooted in throughout the African American community to ensure more kids have access to the life opportunities afforded by a good education. We’re inspired to see and be part of the incredible work the United Negro College Fund, Thurgood Marshall College Fund, Rob Brown Scholar Program, Jackie Robinson Foundation, Sponsors For Educational Opportunity, and others have invested in providing options that will put our kids on different life paths.
We believe educational inequity is a solvable problem, and dedicated teachers across the country are showing us that demographics aren’t destiny. 2011 Mississippi Teacher-of-the-Year Birdie Hughey, a Teach For America alumnus, led her high school algebra class to become the highest scoring students in the district, and among the highest in the state. Kenneth Robinson, also an alumnus, has spent the last twenty-years as a teacher at D.C.’s Hendley Elementary School, investing in the success of both his students and the Hendley community – in 2012, the district honored him with the Rubenstein Award for Highly Effective Educators. Both Birdie and Kenneth would be the first to say that these results were due to the collective effort of countless students, parents, teachers, administrators, neighborhood organizations, and invested citizens.
While what’s possible for young African American people today was unfathomable 50 years ago, such opportunities still aren’t reaching every child in every corner of our country. We need to make sure that they do. It will take a lot of hard work and collaboration to ensure that every child lives up to their full potential, but it can be done. Only by working together will the educational playing field finally be leveled.
Tomeka Hart is the vice president of African-American community partnerships at Teach For America.