A challenge to 'Teach for America' on diversity

OPINION - There is no teacher-student race ratio that’s perfect...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

This past weekend, black staff members of Teach for America (TFA) convened in Washington D.C. as part of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Caucus. “The Gathering: Our Community, Our Roots,” brought together a dissimilar cast of outside experts for analysis, input and critique as to how to best serve black and brown families in urban communities.

TFA’s mission is to “recruit a diverse group of leaders with a record of achievement who work to expand educational opportunity, starting by teaching for two years in a low-income community.”  TFA effectively and meticulously recruits students from some the most prestigious, selective-admissions colleges and universities in the country.  Historically, that meticulousness has resulted in an under-representation of blacks and Latinos. Numbers are improving.  But approximately 75 percent of all “corps members” are white and Asian.  This contrasts dramatically from the low-income schools in which these teachers serve. Predominately white teacher are in predominately black and brown schools all throughout the country.

There is no teacher-student race ratio that’s perfect. However, teachers of color generally are more culturally competent; have higher expectations around a range of life outcomes; provide explicit role models and establish the numeric diversity required for higher levels of equity. In addition, a predominately white faculty and staff reveal implicit biases of who should teach and who should not.

From the Freedman’s Bureau to TFA, effete, “progressive” movements have squelched the opportunities for economic advancement and self-sufficiency for others throughout history. Well intended movements have often contributed to social inequality. Gladly, the Gathering addressed the proverbial elephant in the room: how can a predominately white organization best serve black communities? What role should TFA’s black staff play in creating a more community-centered organization and educational agenda?

Phillip Agnew of Dream Defenders, Roy Jones of Call Me Mister, Camika Royal of Arcadia University, others and myself spoke candidly to the ostensible dilemma that black TFAers face. In spite of creating a pipeline of talented teachers and educational leaders, TFA has been used conveniently (sometimes too conveniently to give benefit of doubt) to unnecessarily usurp labor and advance a broader agenda that presumably has more to do with privatizing public schooling than placing content experts in classrooms. Sadly, turning a blind eye to these lesser altruistic objectives has correlated to the organization’s rise.

‘Who do you represent?’

TFA’s “human capital” replaces many of the teachers and leaders that educated its black corps members. Because of that reality, black TFAers must live in the existential question of “Who do you represent?”

If a group of young talented teachers can signify progress, it’s the prominence and proliferation of black TFA professionals within the reform movement. It doesn’t take long to see that black corps members and staff of TFA represent some of the brightest minds in the country. In addition whereas test score growth provides relatively unreliable proxies of progress, TFA’s hiring of people from communities they serve evidences real change.  Black TFA corps members embody progress.

Supporters of TFA will point to test score growth. Critics will point to teacher turnover and cost. The reality is that communities and districts can’t sustain itinerant workforces. New ideas and people are always needed, especially in times of crises. However, if those strangers don’t become members of communities and if the people who were supposed to be helped can’t lead their own lives, then what was the point.

It would behoove communities for TFA to recruit higher percentages of people of color in their organization particularly to those “chocolate cities.” In Bowen and Bok’s classic, Shape of the River, the authors demonstrated statistically why high achieving people of color are needed in fields critical for urban renewal. Black and brown high achievers are more likely to live and work durably in communities with intense socioeconomic disparities. Our cities need educational experts, and they need to improve unemployment rates for people of color. Reform can walk and chew gum at the same time.

School districts should hire people who are dedicated to becoming members of the community. But we need those members to have a healthy conception of civil rights and social justice. Too many reformers use “education as a civil right” language as sexy campaign slogan. What’s been conspicuously absent is support from reformers for non-school-related rights and issues that are important predictors for academic success like housing, unemployment and public safety. Martin Luther King, Jr., the greatest civil rights leader in American history, did not partition freedoms into manageable data points that were subject to political patronage. He certainly did not segregate civil rights into adult and children’s issues. Martin Luther King Jr. certainly was about school reform as evidenced in his participation in the Brown v. Board struggles. However, he also died while fighting for worker rights in Memphis.

Black TFAers generally know better to not make these kinds of mistakes; they read the books, have daily discussions, and feel the real consequences of injustice.  For instance, the killing of Trayvon Martin and the Zimmerman trial reinforced that high achieving people of color share similar fates as those who did not go to a selective college.

But it’s because of their sophisticated social justice lenses, black and brown affiliates will reach an impasse with the larger organization. Black and brown members understand too well that economic and political power may be lost because of simplistic gap closing strategies. They see the billions that have directly benefited the non-profits sector at the expense of substantive community empowerment. Consequently, political sponsors, funders and white leadership of TFA may not like black and brown members’ responses to the question, who do you represent?

This is not to say that the Gathering was an insurrection – quite the opposite. Black members seem sincere in their efforts to transform the organization from the inside out.

The obvious danger of convening black and brown members as a separate collective is that people of color will more than likely be charged with shouldering the same work its white members need to be fully engaged with. In addition, divergent voices can quickly make people outsiders. I will always be wary of the meetings’ potential for cooptation and subterfuge.  Also, being a person of color doesn’t make you a person dedicated advancing self-determination and community empowerment.

However trust, most high achieving blacks are part of a much greater social justice mission. TFA must face that mission both internally and externally. If TFA is smart, its black and brown members will become the soul of the organization.

Andre Perry is Dean of Urban Education at Davenport University and is the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City. He can be reached at andreperry@davenport.edu or @andreperryedu.