John Lewis is a force of nature. When we met with him, he couldn’t have been more low-key about his extraordinary role in the civil rights movement. We just sat there listening to him as if we were inside a documentary as it unfolded.
ABOVE: Dr. Caesar Mickens, Dr. Robert Green, and me.
ABOVE: At the end of our meeting with Andrew Young.
Martin Luther King Day 2015
Word of the day: humbled.
Living an average white person’s life in a city of living color coming back like a sleeping giant waking up.
“Resurgit cineribus– it will rise from the ashes.”
Living a charmed life in Detroit these days means doing meaningful work along the way that I believe supports the greatest civil rights issue of this new Millenium– making education accessible to everyone. What happens with education in our time will shape our history as told by our grandchildren. Sure we had our milestone moments, touching more students this year, students who said at their graduation that their lives had been changed, and they were changed because this was just the start– a new start– for them. And with a knowing laugh realizing too, we were just getting started.
But first, how could I not pay tribute for the intellectual debts incurred by two mentors– Dr. Howard Liebman and Dr. Caesar Mickens?
A decade ago Caesar challenged me with his simple question in his packed Detroit Public Schools office next to the Fischer Building when he asked me– no, challenged me– if we don’t do something BIG, aren’t we perpetuating a form of educational apartheid, where the gifts owed to many are hoarded and doled out to a select few? If Brown versus Board of Education is ever going to mean something, we need to use technology to level the playing field, reach millions, and erase the performance gap among students once and for all. I had never understood it so clearly before nor realized until then that some of the most important questions in this life are either naive or rhetorical, often times both.
And then meeting Howard and recognizing his innovative work with high school drop outs and seeing–yes, it can be done. We can help many who haven’t previously been academically successful by simply recognizing that their previous failure might not have been theirs alone. Simple, really if not easy.
Just like attacking poverty instead of the poor, we needed to attack the problem not the people behind it. Just as they say at NASA all the time and specifically when retrieving Apollo 13 where many thought it a lost cause, “People, let’s work the problem!”
Along the way this year, it was a banner year for telling our story and finding many receptive ears. We met with so many wielding far more abundant talents– Andrew Young who told us the story of how medical breakthroughs happened because doctors sacrificed themselves for their calling. And Robert Green who talked about how different Detroit was in his day, powerfully different. And Louis Stokes who told us over coffee how he looked up to his older brother Carl for doing the right thing, and the next thing he knew his brother was mayor of Cleveland and he was headed to Congress. And John Lewis– well he just started talking and we just listened intently, as if history were happening right before our eyes. And years from now, we will say it did. And so when Kari and I sat with Mike Nutter from Philly, he said it was going to be all about education in the next round. And we knew we were getting somewhere if not all the way there. So that’s the kind of year we had together in 2014, meeting this great living cloud of witnesses. Breakthroughs beset by humbling failures in Ferguson and Cleveland and back again in Detroit.
That’s why it’s so easy to be humbled on this day. We can only watch the movie Selma with tears, only imagine the suffering, embrace the harsh truth or know the struggle. Only you can know your own pain. But we all can take up the cause together, and pursue it until the work is done.
So we beat on, borne back ceaselessly into our past. Onward!