Education emerged as a chief concern among a group of Madison’s black leaders in a candid discussion earlier this month. To be sure, many other issues in the African-American community came up as well, but education was a dominant thread that touched on many of the other problems, including a lack of job opportunities and the threat of incarceration.
Invited by the Rev. Alex Gee of Fountain of Life Covenant Church, the group of nine leaders came together on Jan. 16 for what was nearly a two-hour discussion. The gathering was a follow-up to Gee’s “Justified Anger” essay, which The Cap Times ran in December, and has since generated enormous response.
In the essay, Gee lays out his frustrations with Madison for a collective indifference toward African-Americans who live here despite strong evidence that their quality of life is as bad here as it is anywhere else, in a city that prides itself on fair-mindedness.
In the weeks since, Editor Paul Fanlund laid out The Cap Times’ plans to make race relations a key focus for us in the coming year, but an important step was to hear first from a larger group of local black leaders, which we did with Gee’s guidance.
We plan to publish an excerpted version of that discussion online and in print on Wednesday, but over the past week we have already posted nine video segments from the discussion (linked on this page) thanks to Todd Milewski, who shot the video.
Urban League of Greater Madison CEO Kaleem Caire says in the first posted video that “we’re in a desperate state to save our children,” and that sense of urgency was present throughout the discussion. Caire, who was the prime mover behind a rejected effort to open a charter school geared toward minorities, called on Madison to view reform proposals like his from an African-American perspective, but the subject of education came up in other ways as well.
The Rev. David Smith and Bishop Harold Rayford spoke about the importance of families being involved in their children's educations, both as advocates and motivators, and Rayford in particular said it's crucial for the community to send a message to black families that their children can succeed in school despite obstacles.
The Rev. Lilada Gee said she wants to see the black community take ownership of finding education solutions, and others echoed that theme as well, but there was much discussion about obstacles to success connected to school personnel: low expectations for African-American students and a fast track for them toward special education, medication and punishment.
Smith and Rayford talked about how those concerns are a problem in neighboring suburban school districts as well as Madison, and Patrick Yates drew a connection between low expectations in school and a lack of job opportunities later, which puts huge pressure on families.
Anthony Cooper’s tale brought that dynamic into sharp relief. Now the director of employment services at the Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development (headed by Gee), Cooper told the group about how he turned to selling drugs as a young man to support his family.
Despite his mother’s best efforts, she was unable to make ends meet, Cooper said, and the typical employment opportunities open to him as a young man didn’t generate the kind of money it takes to keep the lights on and to buy groceries.
Cooper went to prison, but he described how getting an education was the first step on his trip back, to “make it harder for someone to tell me ‘no.’” His job now is to help place people, many of them ex-offenders, into jobs, and he sees how the barriers to employment make it so easy to turn back to selling drugs.
“We face that so much,” he said. “We face that way too much.”