What Kind of Ancestor Do You Want to Be?
By Samara Crawford Herrera, Director of Community Partnerships
Framed in my mother’s home is an Alice Walker quote:
“To acknowledge our ancestors means we are aware that we did not make ourselves, that the line stretches all the way back, perhaps to God; or to Gods. We remember them because it is an easy thing to forget: that we are not the first to suffer, rebel, fight, love and die.”
I’ve thought a lot about that quote over the years as it has graced a wall in every childhood home since I was ten years old. Today, the quote resonates from the reality that I am my grandmother’s wildest dream and that in our “line,” I am not the first (nor likely the last) to believe in the power of transformative public education or to demand that its quality be extended to the marginalized, the unlikely, the overlooked, and the undervalued.
My grandmother only graduated from the eighth grade and, as a maid and mother of seven in rural Georgia, found herself unexpectedly widowed at age 27. The odds were overwhelmingly stacked against those seven children. To be clear, this isn’t a “bootstraps” story, but one in which all seven of those children went on to college, with five achieving advanced degrees, because my grandmother demanded quality…not from her children, but from the system charged with educating them. My 5’1” grandmother did not stand on the hood of a car with a bullhorn, but instead believed in a simple methodology focused on extracting the highest quality education for her children. And it’s an equation I believe to still be incredibly relevant for today.
SchoolSmartKC believes that all students should have access to high-quality schools, regardless of race, home neighborhood, socioeconomic status or disability. Unfortunately, too many Kansas City students attend schools that are failing to prepare them for a successful future and there is far too great of a variance in the quality of education accessible to students and families of color.
Consider this: within the Kansas City Public School System which includes district and charter schools, white students are 2.5 times more likely to read on grade level than their black counterparts. In math, white students are nearly 3 times more likely to be on grade level than their black counterparts. And in Kansas City, the average ACT composite score is 14.4 for Black students compared to 22.8 for white students.
But just like my grandmother, the team at SchoolSmartKC believes we can demand better. Our organization was founded to ensure every student in Kansas City has access to a high-quality school by empowering parents and community members to advocate for better schools and increasing the capacity of local advocacy organizations who represent those communities. We are fueled by the belief that access to high-quality schools can change the trajectory of students’ lives and transform a community, and we are always looking for allies and partners in this work.
From my experience working in our education system, there are important reminders we should not lose sight of as we embark upon an uncertain 2021. My grandmother knew these principles and it became the methodology she used for her family which, I believe, are still useful today:
- Quality Takes Time: We must begin today with a long-term mindset. There are no quick fixes or short cuts. It requires patience and renewable commitment to pursuing, implementing, evaluating, and correcting the paths where we seek success.
- Quality Needs Attention: History and common sense teach us that what remains hidden and shrouded in darkness, remains unchanged. For our children, we must be willing to demand that spotlights be shined on the darkest corners of our education system. The purpose of this attention isn’t about “calling out” what is broken, but “calling in” that which needs repair.
- Quality Requires Intention: In order to pursue the highest quality outcomes for students, we must have a vision and a plan. While there’s room for innovation and discovery, you will need a plan for achieving quality. You must first know what you want to achieve, then you must create a strategy for attempting it.
My grandmother lived these values. She eventually quit her job as a maid to become a cook at the school where her seven children attended. She knew she would need to be physically close to ensure she gave her Time, Attention, and Intention to her children’s education. So she toiled, alongside her children, their teachers and administrators, and broader community to pursue the highest quality outcomes; overseeing homework she didn’t understand, attending school board meetings still in her cook’s uniform and selling pies so student groups could visit colleges beyond a 100 mile radius. My life is a testament to her tenacity. And for most of us, our “line” can be traced to a similarly committed ancestor that demanded the very best of a system on our behalf and was willing to roll up their sleeves to go to work with, or sometimes against, that system to achieve it.
So, with all the conviction of my proud, Southern Black grandmother I ask: “What kind of ancestor do you want to be?”