Organizers, advocates, and movement builders can learn valuable lessons from the words of Ella Baker. Ella Baker was known as the "Godmother of SNCC" and was well respected in many circles of the Civil Rights Movement. The Algebra Project and the Baltimore Algebra Project have held on to the teachings of Ella and has applied them to their educational advocacy.
Radical: Understanding the Root Cause
Bob Moses, founder of the Algebra Project, wrote an inspiring book called Radical Equations. In this first chapter of his book, Bob opens with a quote from Ella Baker. It is as follows:
In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become part of a society that is meaningful, the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed. This means we have to learn to think in radical terms. I use the word radical in its original meaning—getting down to and understanding the root cause. It means facing a system that does not lend itself to your needs and devising means by which you change that system. That is easier said than done. But one of the things that has to be faced is, in process of wanting to change that system, how much have we got to do to find out who we are, where we come from and we where we are going… I am saying as you must say, too, in order to see where we are going, we not only have to remember where we have been, but we must understand where we have been. -Ella Baker
These words teach a valuable lesson about organizing. When applied to education, we can see that many educational advocates are focusing on the surface of the educational crisis. Note that Ella said that radical is getting down to and understanding the root cause. When leaders (organizers, congressmen, presidents, and others) sit down to solve any issue, do they start with this premise? In terms of education, do we really try to find the root cause to this educational disparity? Do we sit down and discuss our individual theories of the root cause? If the end goal is to create a more equitable education system, shouldn’t we all sit down to discover the root cause?
In addition getting down to and understanding the root cause, Ella explains that radical means facing a system that does not lend itself to your needs and devising the means by which you change that system. This statement is directed to those who are oppressed or ignored by a particular system. This means those who are oppressed or ignored should be at the forefront of changing a system. In the case of education, I believe those who live in major urbanized regions and large industrialized zones should lead the charge of changing education. The students in these areas are the ones suffering the most especially in terms of funding streams. Public school systems are largely funded by property tax. Considering the fact that many urban areas have hundreds (some thousands) of vacant homes. Some cities even have large regions that are owned by non-profit organizations and foundations. This means that these regions do not generate as much funding as other areas.
As I mentioned in other diaries, the individuals mentioned above are all too often excluded from the conversations about fixing the public education system. Despite this fact, many who claim to represent the underrepresented will also make the claim that they are bringing radical ideas to the table. This does not coincide with the thoughts of Ella Baker. (I happen to believe she’s right). If you’re not experiencing the reality of a system that does not lend itself to your needs, how will you be able to devise the means in which to change that system? This is not to exclude others from helping those who have first-hand experience; however, it is irrational to believe you can solve an issue for someone you haven’t engaged in a dialogue about the issue at hand.
Understanding Where We Have Been
The last point Ella makes in that quote is the most critical. She explains that this step in radical change must be done in the process of wanting to change the system of interest. This implies that this step must be done before the actual changing to takes place. Let’s at this part of the quote again:
“But one of the things that has to be faced is, in process of wanting to change that system, how much have we got to do to find out who we are, where we come from and we where we are going… I am saying as you must say, too, in order to see where we are going, we not only have to remember where we have been, but we must understand where we have been.”
Ella says we have the face the following things (in the process of change):
1. How much we have to do to find out:
a. Who we are
b. Where we come from
c. Where we are going
2. Remember where we have been
3. Understand where we have been
Point three is the most important. It is absolutely necessary to understand where we have been. In my last diary, I go through some of the history of federal funding for education. This is just a small portion of our education history. Many education advocates recount the history starting with the integration of schools. I urge that we look back further than that to REALLY understand where we have been.
In order to radically change the public education system as it exists now, I think we need to take the advice of Ella Baker and apply it thoroughly. Before deciding any person, group, or organization has the right ides, let us search the history of the public education system in America.
-by Bryant Muldrew