By Jan Worth-Nelson
Three generations of Flint residents who’ve been students in the Flint public schools agreed in a Tendaji Talk event Tuesday evening that they had not been adequately introduced to race or inequality issues in their education, and that they directly experienced the effects of systemic racism and inequality whether they understood it at the time or not.
They further contended that systemic racism in the Flint schools is not a thing of the past — not just in its individual effects but in its overall institutional dimensions — what one panelist identified as “administrative racism.”
Yet several participants strongly urged each other to get involved in the system and to attempt to change it from within — asserting that would help assure all Flint students have access to whatever resources and opportunities are available.
The Zoom-based panel, on the theme of “Racism and the Education System in Flint” drew about 30 participants, Numerous comments critiqued not just Flint’s educational system but the purposes of education in general, and how Flint residents, particularly people of color, have been affected by it.
Education to survive in a white world?
“Schools are teaching our children — us — to survive in a white world, plain and simple,” summarized Carma Lewis, a Flint resident and a product of Flint public schools.
“The first Black History Week [which is now a month, the month of February] started when I was in school,” recalled Lynn Williams, community engagement officer at the Community Foundation of Greater Flint (CFGF).
“Other than a couple of teachers who dissected the Civil War, the Reconstruction, Martin Luther King,” Williams said.”I was an adult in college before I got any substantive education.” Her actual “awakening and my education” has extended throughout the rest of her adult life. “It’s a continual learning journey,” she said.
Moderated by Bob Brown from the sponsoring group Neighborhoods Without Borders, the panel featured Laura MacIntyre, a member of the Flint Community Schools (FCS) Board of Education; Ruben Martinez, a Michigan State University sociology professor; DaChelle McDonald, administrator of WOW Outreach; and Williams, from the Community Foundation of Greater Flint (CFGF).
Education to make us “fully human”?
Martinez said the purpose of an educational system should be to “help us become fully human.”
“Right now we have a system that is sorting people not by skill level but by the crimes of structured inequalities, and we need to dismantle that to create school systems that help us…by developing opportunities for kids to discover their innate talents and abilities,” he said, summarizing: “That’s what it’s all about.”
He lamented that in recent years educators have been disempowered, resources have been reduced time after time, and anti-government sentiment has taken public education to new lows.
DuChelle McDonald, who graduated from high school in ’97, said that when she was in school “we didn’t really focus on race” — there was “no curriculum,” nobody to say, “Hey, back in the day y’all were slaves but now you’re free.”
She said at nine years old she was shocked to learn what it meant when a little white girl during a visit to Kentucky called her a “nigger” and that she learned she “had to act a certain way because I’m black.”
“But I’ve learned as I’ve grown,” McDonald said. “My new skin color is love. We all gotta learn how to figure this thing out.”
A misleading history: “Don’t equate numbers with greatness”
A recent graduate of Southwestern Classical Academy: Flint native Keishawn Wade, who’s now in the third year of a full-ride scholarship at Cornell University, said he initially grew up “color blind” and “not critically engaging with race.”
Born in 2000 and entering Flint schools in 2005, Wade said he believed what he was told — a story about Flint’s vaunted history in its touted glory days of community education and public schools. The district, which now has fewer than 3,000 students, in the 1960s had enrollments topping 47,000.
“Don’t equate numbers with greatness,” he said. “That’s not honest — that’s not transparent.” He said back then the district was in the full swing of segregation, and “there was no way in which black and white people were valued in the same way.”
Williams, who grew up in Flint in the ’60s, agreed, adding, “I don’t feel racism in the schools is unique to Flint. If you go back to the way this country was formed, it was always designed for black people to not be considered having full and equal rights to anything.”
She said even in her childhood when money to the schools was flowing, the majority-black elementary schools had fewer resources than the majority-white schools, and she would have to go out of her own neighborhood to get resources that other families were able to get.
And in fact, as several commentators noted, the Flint schools were under a federal desegregation order until 2002, and as recently as 2019, as reported in M-Live, four Flint schools were described as “intensely segregated” by a UCLA Civil Rights project.
Question premises: “Are our assumptions correct?”
UM – Flint mathematics professor Dr. Joyce Piert called for serious skepticism about the premises governing education, which is sometimes assumed to be on the right track without being critically questioned.
“We reify it — we still will glorify it even though we know there are people who don’t make it through, who are beat up,” she said. “Do we still say it’s the best way? Are our assumptions correct?”
Flint resident Ta’Nessa Betts said while working in the Flint schools she has tried to figure out the “someone or something” that decides “how we’re going to educate people. Why are we learning certain things? We don’t all think the same way — we have not all been educated in the same way.”
To survive, black males have to “shrink”
Keishawn Wade called what is actually going on “evil,” a system of segregation based on a “white supremacist set of values.” He said the death of Trayvon Martin when he was 13 “really woke me up.”
“It was a shock to me that somebody could be killed walking from the store just because..it took away everything that I had been taught. We’re taught that it’s a meritocracy and if I’m able to be a Superman with no resources, I can get anywhere I want in life. And that’s not true at all.”
He said he learned the world required him as a black male, to “shrink” himself, to make himself “smaller” so he wouldn’t be recognized as a threat.
He said the difference between him and black youths in prison is that “they didn’t shrink.”
“Education in the U.S. is about reproducing inequality”
In an extended comment near the end of the discussion, Laura MacIntyre, who recently called for consideration of an offer of a $200 million support proposal for the Flint district from the C.S. Mott Foundation and more than a dozen other partners, nonetheless made an impassioned case for bringing back local autonomy. She also called attention to the history of Flint’s educational systems, particularly the community education movement of the 20th century.
She noted it began with Charles Stewart Mott himself along with Frank Manley, considered to be the father of the city’s nationally-known and frequently replicated movement.
“Education in the U.S. is not about educating children — it is about reproducing inequality, period,” MacIntyre said. Referencing Andrew Highsmith’s 2015 Flint-based book Demolition Means Progress, she said, “Flint is the basis of our so-called community education model framework, which is not at all about community — it was about segregation.”
MacIntyre, who completed all but a dissertation for a University of California Ph.D., said Flint’s school system was about regimenting students to sit in desks in rows, stand in line and be quiet and raise their hand to be called upon, with bells ringing the start and end of the day, as in the factories — “all part of the reproduction of inequality.”
“I’m a product of Flint education,” MacIntyre said, “and I didn’t even realize this was happening to me in the 60s and 70s.” Only in hindsight, she said, as she engaged in a systems analysis of inequality, did it become clear: Racism isn’t just something that happens to an individual personally, or in groups, it is a system, she said.
What she labeled “administrative racism” is “alive and well in Flint,” MacIntyre said. She said the Flint school system was designed by Charles Stewart Mott and Frank Manley “to reinforce segregation in our residence and school system, also to “union bust, to eliminate Communists and eliminate socialists and to take over our community spaces so that we didn’t have workers’ alliances.”
“Nonprofit industrial complex” threatens’ public schools’ autonomy
“You can’t just say this is all in the past,” MacIntyre contended, asserting that the Mott Foundation and the “nonprofit industrial complex” is trying to “get a stranglehold on our educational system.” She lamented that the district has “outsourced in the name of neoliberalism,” school resource officers to TeachOut, food services to Sodexo, after-school programs to the Crim Fitness Foundation and YouthQuest, and so on.
She said “We need to take back our school system,” and all these functions “need to come back inhouse. We need to be part of our school system, and we need to have autonomy, we need to keep it public.” Alluding to the federal Cares Act funding of close to $100 million arriving for the district, she said, “We need to decide what to do with this money. Whose money is it? It’s OUR money.” She urged participants to attend a 6:30 p.m. Nov. 17 FCS board meeting at the Accelerated Learning Academy, 1602 S. Averill Ave., where that topic will be on the table.
Betts summarized the flavor of the discussion at the end by arguing, “Coming into the system is how you can change it. You can’t change it just by talking about it — stay serving…stay working.”
Retired Beecher school district educator Harold C. Ford and an East Village Magazine (EVM) eduction beat reporter, had been scheduled for the panel, but due to a misunderstanding about the time and place did not join until the end of the event.
The Tendaji Talks honor the memory of educator and community activist Tendaji Ganges, who died in 2015.
EVM consulting editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at email@example.com.