Saturday, August 30, 2014

Money Matters: Why A Full, Fair Funding Formula is Essential for Racial Justice in PA | Philadelphia Public School Notebook

 Link: A full, fair funding formula is essential for racial equality in Pa. | Philadelphia Public School Notebook

The following appeared in the  Friday (8/29) edition of the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, an open letter to the PA Legislature written on behalf of POWER by Margaret Ernst, Sheila Armstrong. The text of the letter is below.


Money Matters: Why A Full, Fair Funding Formula is Essential for Racial Justice in PA

by Sheila Armstrong, Drick Boyd, and Margaret Ernst
Last week, several Philadelphia clergy members of the interfaith organization POWER (Pennsylvanians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild) witnessed a powerful movement for racial equality grow in Ferguson, MO following the killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. 
 Travelling to Missouri to call for justice and listen to a community in grief, our clergy marched non-violently with black youth asking for fair treatment from law enforcement – and even more importantly, for a sign from their fellow Americans that their lives matter. 

But as our clergy brothers and sisters returned home last week, they returned to a place where there is no dearth of racial inequality of its own. 

In our own backyards and on our watch, we witness a different kind of violence being done not just to one teenager but to hundreds of thousands of young people across Pennsylvania.  As the only state in the union without a funding formula for public education, severe cuts within the last few years have led to a disproportionate hemorrhaging of school districts with mostly African American and Latino students like Philadelphia, the consequences of which will be felt for generations.  

Sheila Armstrong, a POWER member from North Philadelphia with two boys in Philadelphia public schools, can testify to those consequences and the broken promises that have come with them.  At events in her community in 2010, she witnessed Governor Corbett and other legislators running for state office promise that a new day had come for education in the state.  But after a $1 billion cut to education funding in 2011, one of her son's elementary schools closed down.  In 2012, she wondered whether her son with asthma would be OK on days that no nurse was on duty due to staffing cuts.  This year, she was left unsure whether schools would even open in September.  

Now, school will indeed start on time, but with less cleaning services, security and transportation assistance for children.  Aside from having to worry about whether her boys will get a good education, Sheila and thousands of Philadelphia parents like her will fear every day for their basic health and safety.   

Young people of color in Missouri and across the country have wondered whether they matter in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown.  As we reflect on the circumstances of education funding here in Pennsylvania, we too are left to ask, do Sheila and her sons matter in the eyes of lawmakers?

With Harrisburg’s newly formed Basic Education Commission beginning its work, now is the time for lawmakers to answer that question.  The Commission, which has met twice already and will make recommendations for a funding formula by the end of June, can and must prophetically re-imagine what it takes to fund education in our state.  To do this well, we must be willing to have an open and honest conversation about race as Pennsylvanians. 

As cuts were made at the state level, large, predominantly black, brown, and poor districts across the state such as Philadelphia, Allentown, and Reading have been left drowning without a lifeline.  Unable to make up differences in state spending with local revenue, the disproportionate impact on these students is rooted not merely in recent spending cuts nor in education policy alone.  It rests on, and perpetuates, a much longer history of disinvestment from communities of color that has created today’s dramatic racial wealth gap, and which will continue if left unaddressed.   

But in the case of education spending in PA, a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  While cuts have had severe impact on Philadelphia and other predominantly non-white districts, dwindling state funds have resulted in major cuts in poor, rural districts in predominantly white communities, and soaring property taxes in the suburbs. 

All of our children are worth more.  In addition to being bold enough to talk about the severe “investment gap” in students of color and poor children in our state, the Commission must set goals for increasing education funding levels as a whole.  We must not just fairly divide up a pie that we refuse to grow – we must grow the pie.
Education Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq testified in the Commission’s August meeting that  “money matters” for children to achieve in school.  We cannot think of a better argument for increased funding, and for a fair distribution of those funds that ensures we will not continue to replicate an education system that in spite of other civil rights gains, is woefully still separate and still unequal.  It is the choice of the Basic Education Commission and all us Pennsylvanians whom it represents whether we will continue trends of economic and racial inequality or begin to reverse them.
The discussion about how much our children are worth to us, wherever they were born and whatever the color of their skin, is a sacred one – and has never been a more important.  Let’s have it now, and let’s have it courageously.  

Saturday, August 23, 2014

White Folks and Ferguson

A recent New York Times article on the ongoing events in Ferguson, MO was entitled “Among Whites, Protests Stir a Range of Emotions and a Lot of Perplexity.”  The article points out that while many whites want to be sympathetic to the concerns of the protesters, they do not understand the anger and frustration of the black community in Ferguson and around the country. I read this article with great interest because as I have read the articles and blog postings, and watch the televised news reports and videos of the events in Ferguson, the only whites I see are in police uniforms or riot gear. I kept wondering: where are the white folks like me, who are deeply troubled and horrified by the events of the past few weeks? I know I am not the only one, and yet we seem invisible in the media’s eyes.

Now having said that, I recognize that across the nation support among white folks for the protestors action is far less, only somewhere in the 30-40% range, compared to 80% among African-Americans. (See the Pew Report that reported this). Many well-meaning whites want to believe that we have moved past the violence of the 1950’s and 1960’s that the murders of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and others seem to represent. Whites tend to trust the police and the criminal justice system, and find it difficult to believe the kind of statistics that Michelle Alexander lays out in her book The New Jim Crow that show that blacks and whites committing the same crimes routinely get drastically different sentences when they go thru the court systems. Moreover, whites choose to believe that most of their fellow whites want to think the best of others, and would prefer “not to see skin color” (what Bonilla-Silva calls colorblind racism ) as a way of dealing with racial differences.

Over the past two years I have been writing a book entitled White Allies for Racial Justice, (scheduled to come out Fall 2015, Orbis Books) which chronicles the stories of 18 whites in U.S. history from colonial times to the present, who have worked for racial justice in their time: pre-revolutionary, underground railroad, the abolitionist movement, the anti-lynching campaign, Civil Rights and anti-racist work today. An appendix at the end of the book lists about 50 others who stories could have been told had I more space and time; and these are the ones we know about. Throughout history there has been a committed minority of white folks who chose to stand with their brothers and sisters of color, often at peril to their lives and ostracism from family and friends, because they believed that all people deserved to be treated as human beings worthy of dignity. While these stories don’t deserve the same attention as the stories of those like Martin Luther King, Fannie Lou Hamer, Robert Moses and others, for many people both white and black, this is unknown dimension of the struggle for racial justice in the United States.

So I assume that there many white folks in Ferguson, as well as communities around the country, who are not only sympathetic but also are willing to take the steps necessary  to actively stand with their brothers and sisters of color in this time of crisis. I share this only because all those white folks who seemed perplexed by the events need to know that what is going in Ferguson is not just a “black issue”, but rather a human issue that includes people of all races and cultures. Too often whites, in our of confusion or fear of being considered prejudiced or racist, pull back into silence, and either deliberately or unconsciously make a crisis like Ferguson “their problem” rather than a shared problem.

 Those of us white folks who seek to be allies  not only have the capacity but also the obligation to speak to our fellow whites to help them see that Michael Brown is their son, their brother, and their friend too. While we may not get the media attention (nor necessarily should we), we need to persistently and forcefully make the case that the injustice in Ferguson impacts all. 

There is no way one can deny the anger and angst that the history of injustice and violence in this country has helped create in people of color in our country, particularly African-Americans. What we see on the television screens, YouTube channels and news articles is not some sort of aberration, but rather a simmering cauldron burning beneath the surface that in cases like this erupts like a volcano. We whites need to understand this history and that angst, and those of us who have inkling as to what is going on,  we need to help our fellow whites understand that too.

[Pictures - I am standing in Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, GA (MLK's home church); Anne Braden, ardent civil rights activist in Louisville, KY; Memorial to Viola Liuzzo, killed following the March from Selma to Montgomery, March 1965).

Monday, August 18, 2014

From Ferguson to Philly to Williamsport

Over the past week or so I have been holding four seemingly unrelated events together in my mind because in a strange way they seem to capture the essence of racial politics in our country today: the ongoing conflict and grief in Ferguson, MO over the shooting of an unarmed African-American boy Michael Brown by a  local white police officer; the shooting of a seventeen year old African American boy  by another African American young man as the former was coming out of a concert for peace on Wednesday, August 13 in Philadelphia; the ongoing financial crisis facing the Philadelphia public schools due to the Pennsylvania State Legislature cold-hearted unwillingness to give the schools  the funding they need; and finally the Taney Dragons Little League team from Philadelphia who are currently playing in the Little League World Series in Williamsport, PA.

In  Ferguson, the more information that comes out, the more it appears that the death of Michael Brown was a case of a policeman venting his racial hatred at an innocent young man. Not that Brown was without fault; he can be seen on video tape from a store where he brazenly took something without paying. Yet when confronted by the police he was unarmed and the autopsy indicates he was killed execution style. Were this an isolated incident, the reaction might seem out of proportion, but the rage and anguish in the black community of Ferguson and across the country speaks to legacy of slavery, lynching and racial violence that continues to afflict and murder young black men in this nation.

Yet as my friend Gwen Ragsdale, curator of the Lest WeForget Slavery Holocaust Museum, an institution dedicated to telling the story of African slavery and its continuing effects on communities today, has always told the groups I have brought to the museum, “While the white man for centuries committed violence against us, now we are doing to ourselves.” That is why the shooting at the peace conference is so horrific. Not only is there tragic irony in the event, but it demonstrates yet again how poverty, racism and violence mixed together create a volatile mix that leads young black men killing each other in so many communities across the nation. The legacy of racial hatred seen in Ferguson has now been internalized such that statistically speaking I as a white man am safer in many black communities than black and Latino men who live there.

Yet the ongoing financial crisis facing the Philadelphia Public schools illustrates how this legacy of racism is not only seen in horrific acts such as mentioned in Ferguson and Philly, but is also seen in laws and policies of a government that promises fairness and equality for all and yet in reality practices equity for some and injustice for others. Were the children and grandchildren of the legislators assigned to the Philadelphia public schools, in one week sufficient funding and more would be provided. Yet hiding behind the veil of seeking a “balanced budget” that balances itself on the backs of the poor to serve the needs of the corporate elites and the wealthy, these legislators allow the city schools to languish with insufficient funds. This is institutional racism in action, a legacy that goes back to the era of Jim Crow, redlining and educational segregation. Moreover, the inadequacy of the educational system contributes to a 50% dropout rate, many of whom end up involved in street violence as was seen at the peace conference. The “school-to-prison-pipeline” is alive and well, and not coincidentally in Pennsylvania, the prisons get financial increases while the schools get little more than crumbs.

It is a pretty bleak picture, but that is why I need to bring into focus the Taney Dragons, a team from Philadelphia playing in Williamsport at the Little League World Series. The Dragons are a multi-racial, cross-city collection of kids who love baseball, play it well and in so doing have captured the heart of the city and to a degree a nation.  When I watch the Dragons, I think therein lies our hope. The hope is in the fact that despite the violence on their streets and the stress in their school system, these kids have come together to play some high quality baseball. More than that, they embody what a truly equitable, democratic, multiracial, multicultural society should be. According to Little League rules, every player on a team must play and have at least one at bat in every game; and at least in the Dragons case, all seem to have contributed to the team’s success. While the media has focused on Mone Davis, a thirteen year old girl with a 70+ mph fastball, what has impressed me is how well these kids play together. And Mone herself, when she is asked a question, always refers back to the team, and not herself as an individual.

I am saddened and sickened by the events in Ferguson, I grieve the young men of color who see their lives only ending either in death or prison, I am outraged at the intransigence of the Pennsylvania legislators who will not release the funds to assure Philadelphia school children have a quality education; but I revel in the hope provided by the Taney Dragons. Just like the beloved community that Dr. King often spoke of, the Dragons remind me of what it is we struggle and pray for – a world free of hatred, racism, violence and injustice – a world where all contribute and all are equally part of the team we call society.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

A Walk in the Woods (with apologies to Bill Bryson)

Every summer I try to climb a mountain. Some years it is questionable that what I have climbed can actually be called a “mountain” but most years I do get to some sort of high place that has a “Mount” in front of it or “Mountain” behind it. I am what my college roommate Keith McCafferty likes to call an “oh wow, the mountain” kind of guy. While most the people in my area of the East Coast like to flock to the beach for R&R, I would much prefer the rugged terrain of the wooded high places. There is something about mountains that inspires, challenges, and renews me. This a throwback to a legacy of mountain-top experiences – the Ten Commandments were delivered on Mt. Sinai; Jesus was transfigured on a mountain; the Dalai Lama first ruled in the mountain country of Tibet; even my high school song hero, John Denver, sang about a “Rocky Mountain High”. One of my favorite passages from the Bible is Psalm 121 which says “I look to the hills, where does my help come from, it comes for the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” Yes, there is something about mountains that energizes and refreshes me.

For me hiking in the mountains calls to something deep in my spirit. First, there is the physical task of
climbing over rocks and roots to get to an outcropping where I can see the valleys below and the hills beyond. Second, there is the mental challenge of fighting the urge to quit, when the physical challenge becomes too much. A few years ago I was climbing a steep boulder field on an ascent to Mt. Katahdin in northern Maine, and I thought I couldn’t go any further; it seemed too difficult, but I pushed on thru and made it to the summit. Finally, there is the spiritual clarity that comes when you realize that it is just you and nature going at it in some sort of primordial way; it as if the Spirit of the mountain connects with my inner being. I can understand why so often the Native American vision quest occurs in a high and remote place; you meet yourself in a way that is not possible many other places.

So this summer, while on vacation in Maine, I decided to tackle Ragged Mountain, a small outcropping on a ridge outside of Rockport, ME; not exactly the Rockies or the Alps or Mt. Kathadin, but a sometimes steep 2.5 mile climb that beckoned to me. I like to go with others if I can, but this year I had no takers, so this was a solo trek. After about a 30 minute drive from the Maine shore where we had been staying, I came to the trailhead, and entered into a tree-covered path that led over a stream and eventually began to climb at a fairly steep incline. Fortunately, the ascent was not too long or arduous and  I made the five mile round trip in about 3 hours (with time for some good views and lunch on the peak). I did not see any other person or wild life but was treated by wild blueberries near the summit.  To top it off it was a perfect day for hiking: temperature in the 70’s, low humidity, and partly cloudy; warm enough to work up a sweat, but not wear you out.

While most think of the ascent as the challenging part of a mountain hike, for me it is the trek down that I have always found most difficult. I have twisted more ankles and gotten blisters on toes more often on the descent than the climb up. That was definitely the case on this time. My weak ankles (having sprained each about 20 times over the course of several decades) and pre-arthritic knees,  made each step down more painful than all the steps going up. Furthermore, for some reason, I find following the path down more difficult than going up, so I am always indebted to the markers and cairns that my way; without them I might get hopelessly lost.   My old roommate, Keith, sees them as an unnecessary crutch, but crutch or not, I would still be wandering in the wilderness were it not for those markers. Despite these mental and physical challenges , I made it down safe and sound;  it was a day well spent and my spirit was revived.

Each year the climb gets a little more difficult, particularly the descent, but each summer I set out again to find my mountain.  If the opportunity presents itself I may go find a mountain again this summer or fall, and certainly again next year. There is just something about the mountains that draws me on.

Bill Bryson chronicled his attempt to hike the Appalachian trail in A Walk in the Woods. For Bryson, like me, it was what happened along the journey that was more significant than the destination itself.  While reaching a summit is rewarding, the blessing comes in the process of climbing. Several years ago while hiking around Mt. Washington in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, I met a 70+ old woman hiking that rugged terrain. I decided then and there, I wanted to still be hiking the mountains when I got to be her age. I am a lot closer to that point today than I was back then, and God-willing I still be able to walk the hills, and continue to be renewed by their unique calling to my spirit.