I have to admit I am a serial note-taker and that probably has a lot to do with getting older and not wanting to forget something someone told me five minutes earlier. Recently I found myself reviewing a vast score of notes from a conversation with educator friends of mine, and while several phrases were typed on my phone, or scribbled on my hand (yep, still do that), the word advocacy kept popping up.
The topic we were discussing was outside perceptions that negatively affect the reputation of Prince George’s County Public Schools. Specifically, I wondered whether Prince George’s County residents advocated enough for Prince George’s County Public Schools. First let me say I know there are a lot of hard working groups within the jurisdiction, working tirelessly for young people and education. Do they get enough support, however, from community members, specifically, middle class black families? I’m not naive to think I have that answer, but it is something I think about a lot.
History is Critical
It is natural to talk about education based upon current experiences. What is more difficult, and quite frankly uncomfortable for some, is the consideration of history. Jim Crow policies in the United States produced a myriad of devastating impacts on the African American community that still exist today. Numerous books such as Rothstein’s Color of Law detail intentional strategies used throughout U.S. history to deny African Americans wealth, delegitimize our education systems, and segregate neighborhoods and schools. Simply put, neighborhoods and schools weren’t meant to be equal, and these facts of course are nothing new.
I wonder, however, about the psychological devastations that stem from the atrocities of our country’s past, as well as those that still exist today (such as mass media’s subtle and not so subtle promulgation of negative stereotypes). These forces affect us, and we’d be foolish to think they don’t impact decision-making, especially when it comes to education.
As opportunities have improved for African American families, parents are weighing more options when it comes to choosing schools. I wonder, however, whether we have been impacted more than we realize by messaging that tells us what is right or good. Have we been conditioned to believe success looks a certain way? Have we been conditioned to believe a good school or a safe community looks a certain way? When we live in majority-minority communities, do we abandon public schools in our backyard too quickly? Do we nitpick every mistake instead of celebrating the successes? If so, why? I don’t pretend to know the answers to all these questions, but I think it is a conversation African Americans should have amongst ourselves, and be honest and transparent in our analysis.
Communities can’t afford to neglect advocacy for one another, especially the African American community who, historically, have had few true advocates outside of us. According to The Bureau of Labor Statistics, Black unemployment stood at 6.8% as of January, 2019. While the numbers are trending in a good direction, African Americans (even those with college degrees) are nearly twice as likely to be unemployed compared to their White, Asian, and Hispanic counterparts. Furthermore, African Americans with graduate level degrees trail counterparts from other races as well, and are often woefully underemployed when they do find a job. Except for ourselves, advocacy for African Americans has not existed on a broad scale, and one could argue that still remains the case today. Which brings me back to the education issue.
Articles abound about the rising number of black middle class families who have opted out of their neighborhood public schools and enrolled children in parochial, private, or charters. How big a problem that is for majority-minority counties like Prince George’s is hard to ascertain, and I won’t ever criticize a parent for doing what they feel is best for their child. I can’t help but wonder though, instead of advocating harder for neighborhood public schools, are too many middle class African American families giving up too soon on public school education in their communities? If so, why? I believe African Americans who choose to live in majority-minority communities should support public schools in their neighborhoods, and give them the benefit of the doubt before leaving. After all, unemployment statistics prove African Americans will struggle to get hired regardless of where they attended school.
There isn’t a more important resource in a community than its school district; it impacts migration patterns, economic and transportation development, and property values. History tells us communities and school districts were never set up to be equal in this country, and I believe they still aren’t designed to be equal. In the heavily populated Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, maximizing property values takes a chess-like approach, not checkers. Schools are often the key factor.
If you read enough news you’ll find bad stories about schools everywhere. Bullying, racist actions, test scores, fights, corruption, you name it. Bad things happen everywhere, and so do good things. That said, it perplexes me when I have conversations with people about school districts, and I often hear verbiage like “oh that’s a good school district, or that’s a bad school district.” Isn’t the truth more nuanced than that, or are we simply trying to justify our own biased opinions with information that supports it?
Administrations and its stakeholders have to be mindful at all times of the relationship between schools, economic development, and property values. In my opinion, this is why advocacy matters more than ever in Prince George’s County, Maryland even if you don’t have children in the school system. Prince George’s County has one of the largest populations of black wealth in the United States. Wealth, however, is useless if it is not advocating for something larger than itself. I’m not suggesting black Prince Georgians are complacent. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’m simply asking, are Prince Georgians advocating enough for our public schools? In everything we do, are we connecting the dots between the school system, transportation, and economic development? Or are we just complaining about school closings on a cold day.
People have a right to live, work, and send their kids to school wherever they want. But we should also make sure we advocate for our own. History tells us, nobody else will do it for us.
What Advocacy is Not
True advocacy is different from self promoting for the media, or ranting on twitter feeds. Advocacy is attending PTSA meetings even if our kids don’t go to that school anymore. Advocacy is asking school leaders how can I help, or what can I do? Advocacy is making a pledge to work with school leaders to solve problems (even if it means agreeing to disagree) rather than running to a reporter first and complaining? The former is subtle and even sometimes thankless, but it renders change. The latter, if wielded carelessly, is carnival-barking and hurtful to the overall mission of the community at large.
Subconsciously Falling in Line
Implicit bias can brow beat you if you let it. It can condition you to prematurely complain about slow service at a restaurant because messaging has told you certain kinds of restaurants always have slow service whether that is true or not. Implicit bias can also condition you to abandon something as soon as you find a fact (not even all the facts, just one fact) that supports your conditioned thinking. African Americans, more than any other race in the United States have to be damn certain we don’t fall prey to this type of thinking, especially when it involves our own organizations.
So I pose this question, are we as African Americans in Prince George’s County pushing back enough in the face of negative stereotypes about our school system? Or are we just following the crowd? When we attend our dinner parties and someone makes a snide remark about Prince George’s County Public Schools, are we telling them about the Gwynn Park students who recently won the Congressional App Challenge, or the Crossland trade students who have helped build houses in the community? If we aren’t pushing back, why not? Who else will?
Finally, I can understand why adults would scoff at the notion their precious children’s education is simply part of some large economic equation, but in my opinion it is. It is also my opinion that parents and school leaders have to know the chessboard was never set up to be fair for all the players. I think if some stakeholders thought that way more regularly, some of their behaviors might change. They might be more careful about what they tweeted. They might be more willing to empower the whole unit, rather than fulfilling a personal agenda. They might take one more moment and try to solve problems internally for the good of the whole, rather than voice complaints for the satisfaction of the few.
Dave Owens is the owner of Visionary Media Productions, a graduate of the United States Naval Academy, military veteran, and an adjunct professor of communications and journalism.