White Education Reformers, I Don't Want Your Job. I Want Change.

White Education Reformers, I Don't Want Your Job. I Want Change.
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This photo taken July 21, 2014 shows students in Jane Cornell's summer school class learn story telling skills at Mary D. Lang Kindergarten Center in Kennett Square, Pa. For the first time ever, U.S. public schools were projected to have more minority students enrolled than white, a shift largely fueled by growth in the numbers of Hispanic children. White students are still expected to be the largest racial group in the public schools this year at 49.8 percent, but according to the National Center for Education Statistics, minority students, when added together, now make up the majority. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

RCEd Commentary

Marilyn Rhames makes the case not for replacing white reformers with minorities, but for hiring effective minority thought leaders to run organizations aimed at improving learning outcomes for mostly black and brown students.

Dearest Robert Pondiscio,

I was shocked to see my name in the opening line [of your “Reform Leaders: You’re Fired” piece in Education Next] and then to read your suggestion that I run Education Post instead of Peter Cunningham. I mean, I was floored.  I literally cried…. I wasn't expecting you--considering our brief and contentious exchanges about the NewSchools Summit--to so publicly acknowledge my worth. For that I give a big THANK YOU. I truly appreciate your kind words, and I want you to know that they are a strong wind beneath my tired wings.

I sent you this email moments after reading your story. I viewed it as an unsolicited, unconventional letter of recommendation. You boldly said what so many black education leaders dared only to say to one another: Many of our top bosses are white, less qualified, and less directly touched by the work than we are.  

But as much as I wanted to bask in your compliments, something just wouldn’t sit right with me. I re-read your essay and began to pray and meditate on it. Slowly the sweetness of your words turned sour. I actually became a bit saddened by it all.   

At first glance your piece appeared to be a rallying cry for more diversity within education reform leadership. But a closer read showed signs to the contrary. It began to feel like a cloaked warning to all the white liberal ed reformers who had signed Justin Cohen’s open letter, telling them to have buyer’s remorse because the personal stakes are too high.

At first I was astonished that you, a proud white conservative who had sparred with me in the past over my support of aspects of the Black Lives Matter movement, would call your white liberal counterparts out on their hypocrisy for saying that they wanted more black leadership but were doing virtually nothing to groom leaders of color for such roles. Then I remembered that on Twitter you mocked Cohen’s pledge for diversity, even calling it a “suicide note.”

I wanted very much to believe that you had moved closer to acknowledging the racist paternalism that exists in reform circles after you lauded my “stellar” resume. But in highlighting my genius, you subtly sounded the alarm: Marilyn Anderson Rhames is a major black talent who could very well take your job, Peter Cunningham (and other white ed leaders who signed the diversity pledge). What a way to endorse multiculturalism!  

My Ivy League educated, teacher-journalist-mother African American self has the potential to make a seismic shift in the systemic injustice that blocks black and brown children from a quality education, so why didn’t your piece frame me in that light? Instead, you positioned me as a threat. In your piece, I was the “other” in an us-versus-them fight for limited, high-paying ed reform jobs. Your title says it all: “Reform Leaders: You’re Fired.”

Ain’t I a reformer? In light of all my brilliance, your title should have been, “Black Reform Leaders: You’re Finally Hired!”

Your piece states that my ex-boss Peter Cunningham, and the many other middle-aged, privileged, non-educator white men who manage the education reform agenda that impacts millions of black and brown children living in poverty, need to step down from their six-figure salaries and let the “foot soldiers,” like me take their place. Why stop at Cunningham? You could have offered your nice-paying job at the Fordham Institute to me. I just may be more qualified than you to do your job, too!

Oh, I forgot, that to you would be “suicide."

I don’t want to be too hard on you, Pondiscio. I actually enjoy our intellectual brawls in which we both find the courage to voice the taboo. I have a great deal of respect for you.

But it’s important that you understand that wars and holocausts have resulted from the logic you presented in your piece. It’s not okay to incite white people to fear that the “others” (in this case, smart black reformers like me) will usurp their jobs and power if they support diversity. There are more than enough poor, under-resourced black and brown children out here to keep education reformers of all races gainfully employed.  

I agree with you 100 percent: those liberal white reformers who signed Cohen’s pledge to groom and elevate Black and Brown leaders of color should not just talk about it, but be about it.

But what about conservative white reformers like yourself? Do you get to point the finger at those who you say are hypocrites while walking away from any moral obligation to personally support racial diversity? Aren’t we all -- black and white, liberal and conservative -- in education reform to fight for education equity for children? Are we not then obligated to model such equality amongst ourselves in our workplaces? Is the root of our fight for what’s in the best interest of all children, or is it for power and positions?

When the conversation centers on our job security instead of the students, the reform community will lose the last drop of moral authority it has left. Reformers are then no better than the teachers unions that some try to dismantle, accusing them of selfishness and greed.

I would hope that white ed reformers (conservative or liberal) would support black leadership without fear of it “destroying” their careers or committing economic “suicide.” They should not be intimidated by my excellence and strength. I am not Nat Turner, conspiring with other insubordinate blacks to overthrow the plantation and slay all the masters. Remember my first line in my open letter to white conservative reformers? “I come in peace.”

Hiring high quality black and brown thought leaders to run organizations aimed at improving learning outcomes for mostly black and brown students is just the right thing to do. These kids are entitled to have role models in education that look like them and understand their culture.

I don’t stay up at night wishing for a more lucrative, glamorous job. I stay up at night praying I could do more to serve more low-income Black kids, many who are getting shot and killed in my Chicago neighborhood.

So, no, I do not want Peter Cunningham to donate his Ed Post job to me. I dream of the day when my own brand of reform is used to transform public schools across this nation, and I work myself out of a job.

Most sincerely,

Yours truly,

Marilyn Rhames

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