Less than two weeks ago I sat in a room in Portland, Oregon, with my Stand for Children colleagues from across the country—all 127 of us from 11 different states, and all of us from vastly different backgrounds, to celebrate the impact our organization has made in the past 20 years to ensure every child graduates high school prepared for and with access to college and career training.
I’ll admit, I was less than thrilled to be attending the three-day retreat because my Oklahoma staff is knee deep in a fight to provide a once-in-a-generation opportunity to invest in Oklahoma’s public schools. I was fearful the time away would be a distraction from the difficult work that lies ahead for us at home.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
In each of the joint sessions of the retreat we were reminded of the importance of the work we are doing to close the opportunity gap for poor children and kids of color. Marian Wright Edelman, a courageous civil rights leader, shared firsthand accounts of the struggle to bring change to this country through the civil rights movement of the sixties. We were also privileged to hear of a recent tour of the South from our CEO Jonah Edelman, son of Mrs. Edelman. He spent the week prior to the retreat taking his two twin boys and nieces on a tour of significant places in our country where black Americans risked their lives to create a just and equal nation for people of color.
What stuck out to me most about the all-staff retreat were two things. First, the warning from Marian Wright Edelman that the progress those civil rights pioneers made in the sixties isn’t a given and must be protected and fought for every single day by people just as committed today as those who came before us. And second, the reminder from Jonah that we stand on the shoulders of giants, and our fight to ensure a quality education for all children is paramount to continuing the progress made during the civil rights movement.
The tragic events that have unfolded this week in Baton Rouge, Falcon Heights and Dallas have made crystal clear that for all the progress we’ve seen in our country when it comes to race, we have so far to go.
I cannot accept and I refuse to accept a reality where black and brown children come to school every day worried their mommies and daddies may not make it home from work because of a busted tail light. I will not accept a reality where those who serve to protect us are gunned down in anger and frustration over races relations. If I accept either of these, the march from Selma, the sit-ins at lunch counters across the south, the freedom rides, the struggle to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 will have been in vain.
I have an obligation to understand and evaluate the privilege I was born into because of the color my skin. And, I have an obligation to make certain that I use that privilege for good to ensure every child—regardless of background, skin color, or zip code—has the same opportunities that my privilege has afforded me.
The path forward to make that happen is through a quality public education. Every child must have access to a quality school, no matter the city or neighborhood they call home. Every child must have a quality teacher guiding their learning. And every school must have the tools and resources needed to provide a quality education to every single child.
As I sat in silence this week, trying to process Baton Rouge, Falcon Heights, and Dallas, and what I could do to stand up and say, “This is not okay”, I thought back to the week before in Portland, and I remembered Jonah’s sense of urgency for the staff at Stand for Children to commit to having better focus and greater impact. That commitment is needed now more than ever.
Jonah couldn’t have been more right—we really do stand on the shoulders of giants whose struggle to bring progress to a nation must not be forgotten, but whose work through peaceful and nonviolent organizing shows us what’s possible.