Integration only works when all voices are heard

From time to time we’ll use this blog space to answer questions that have come to us. This one was submitted at last October’s Nikole Hannah-Jones lecture, but was not answered that night. 

Often the people working on education justice issues are white, or at least they have the most clout and loudest voices, these are liberal white groups. What are your thoughts on uplifting the voices of black parents and black residents?

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Great Schools for All is keenly (painfully, even embarrassingly) aware that we are older and whiter than we would like to be as an organization. We are nowhere nearly as diverse as the schools we propose.

This is a key question we’re focused on this year in a number of new ways. Please, let us know your suggestions for people we should talk to or organizations we should partner with. You can reach us at

Here are some of our plans for 2018:

  • Our new Community Engagement team is planning listening sessions in a variety of places with very different audiences.
  • We’ll be meeting soon with several “community stakeholders” who attended the Nikole Hannah-Jones event and expressed willingness to help us refine our message and strategy.
  • Similarly, we’ll meet with African-American leaders who will help us connect to parents and residents whose voices we need to hear.
  • We’re also hoping to encourage interested groups to begin offering magnet school design ideas that would make our goals a little more tangible.

There are many reasons (not excuses) why we are not as diverse as we’d like. In part, I think, we’ve experienced the effects of the segregation that is so real in our community, not just in our schools. We live in our own bubbles with too little interaction with people not like ourselves. We don’t fully understand each other because our paths rarely cross and because we struggle to make the connections and have the conversations we need.

Again, that’s not an excuse, just an observation.

As the questioner suggests, it is critical that we hear and empower the “voices of black parents and black residents.”

At GS4A we often hear from African-Americans (and others) that our proposal is naïve and elitist. America, and Rochester, these folks say, is not interested in ending segregation. We never even discuss it; instead, we’ve all made our peace with segregation. Shameful, but true.

Better, these critics say, that we advocate changes that can improve education for the poorest kids right now—not sometime in the distant future. That means more money for the poorest schools. It could mean longer school days, outreach to parents, a more culturally responsive curriculum, recruiting more minority teachers and bringing a whole range of community services into our schools—medical and dental care, for example, that can improve the health of the entire neighborhood.

Of course, we support all of those things. We support anything that improves the educational experience of poor kids. We know that education is far more relational that many people think.  A gifted teacher or principal—who also cares deeply and personally for students—can transform a child’s life.

We know, not just from common sense, but from the accumulated evidence amassed by scholars, that minority teachers can radically alter the educational path of poor black students. It just makes sense to provide incentives to draw more young men and women of color into teaching and to hire them ASAP.

We know, too, that calls for integration can be heard as a belief that poor and minority students can’t learn unless they sit next to white affluent children. That’s not at all what we believe, but the offensive and mistaken notion—that black children will only learn when they are in white classrooms—did not come from nowhere. It is baked into the language used to discuss integration, and is rooted in the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which ruled that there is no such thing as “separate but equal” education.

The court went well beyond granting the plaintiffs’ demands. Oliver and Leola Brown joined the NAACP lawsuit against the Topeka, Kansas, board of education when they were denied (because of their race) the opportunity to transfer their daughter Linda from an all-black school that was several blocks from their home to a predominantly white school one block away. They felt the black school was too far for Linda to walk when it was cold, snowing or raining. They were not unhappy with her school.

In his podcast, Revisionist History (Season 2 episode, “Miss Buchanan’s Period of Adjustment”), author Malcolm Gladwell included clips from an archival interview with Leola Brown. “We were getting a quality education at Monroe (the black school)…We had fantastic teachers,” she says. “It was more like an extended family. They took an interest in you.”

But the court did more than agree with the Browns, Gladwell says. The decision said, “segregation with the sanction of law has a tendency to retard the educational and mental development of Negro children.” That sounds to Gladwell (and many others) like the court concluded that black children are inevitably scarred for life in black schools and that only by moving to white schools can they avoid psychological damage.

Segregation is wrong, but not because black children cannot learn without white children next to them. It would have been better and more accurate, Gladwell says, if the court had said instead: “Schools are the places where people make the connections that allow them to get ahead in the world. You cannot lock black people out of the place where social power and opportunity reside.”

We agree with Gladwell. That’s the point. And we’ve made integration (socioeconomic diversity) our prime directive, not because none of the other strategies we’ve mentioned is of value, but because the evidence shows that economic and racial diversity can dramatically change the equation—and represents the most effective and least costly way to improve the odds for the kids most at risk of not graduating.

We formed Great Schools to be sure that diverse schools—and all the advantages they portend for us—are on the table. We believe that, even though integrated schools sometimes feels like an impossible goal, that the goal is within reach. Our role is to keep it front and center.