Because of Them, We Can...
During the 2017 New York City Writing Project, Dr. Christopher Emdin said the following. “Do you know why the parents of the Little Rock Nine chose to send their kids to Central High School? Do you know why those parents were willing to have their children yelled at, have things thrown at them, and be treated as less than? They wanted them to have access. Access to resources. The education they received at their original school wasn’t subpar. The resources were.” Emdin’s words resounded with us, especially as New York City schools become increasingly segregated. The notion of school choice has resulted in a reversal of integration, gentrification, and in some instances white flight. We at the Equity Consulting Group believe not just in educational access, but in the fact that equity begins when all resources are divided evenly among schools.
Nearly a year later, while attending the Journal of Literacy and Language Education (JoLLE) conference, Dr. Ramkellawan had the opportunity to meet Ms. Elizabeth Eckford. Ms. Eckford is one of the original members of the Little Rock Nine. Ms. Eckford, pictured right, was a keynote speaker at the conference. Her gait and poise were as strong at her current 76 years of age, as it was when she boldly confronted bigoted protesters over 50 years ago.
“My parents worked two jobs. I know that I wanted to go to college, but it wasn’t going to be possible at the school I attended. .... As a part of desegregation, Central High School accepted applications. They got over 200 applications, but only accepted nine. They only wanted students who didn’t cause any trouble and had good grades. … They didn’t want students who were connected to the NAACP.”
Ms. Eckford then went on to express the levels of degradation she experienced at the hands of her classmates. “If someone is feeling isolated or lonely, don’t just stand up for them. Be there for them. Support them. … There were 12 people in the school of 1900 who stood up for us day in and day out.”
Her speech was deeply moving and brought chills to members of the audience. Not only was it humbling to be in the presence of a true equity warrior, it provided insight into the fact that while we have made progress, there is still even more work to do.
After the session, Dr. Ramkellawan approached Ms. Eckford. Their conversation consisted of the following:
Reshma: “Before anything else, I want to thank you. Thank you so much for your sacrifice and all of the things you had to endure in order to provide people like me, and people that look like me with the opportunity to go to school.”
Elizabeth: (nodding). Mhmmm. Are you from India?
Reshma: No, I have Indian ancestry but my parents are from the Caribbean. Even then, I wouldn’t have been able to go to some of the great schools that I’ve gone to, without what you have done.
Elizabeth: She silently nodded
Reshma: I do have a question for you. What do you think about the de facto segregation of schools that is occurring all over the country?
Elizabeth: Well, in Arkansas now there are over 10,000 children in private schools. That’s not counting the ones in charter schools.
Reshma: So instead of de facto segregation, we actually have resegregation.
Elizabeth: Exactly. Where are you from?
Reshma: New York
Elizabeth: Well it might be better in New York because it is the northeast.
Reshma: Actually it can be just as bad. With gentrification, you have instances of all white public schools in Brooklyn, and schools where there is a majority of children of color, and a paucity of resources are not more than a few blocks away.
Elizabeth: Hmmm. I can see that. In Arkansas, we were all really of the same social [and economic] class. You had some families that were middle class -
Reshma: Economically too?
Elizabeth: Somewhat. They helped [middle class families of the time period] if they wanted to. If they wanted their kids to go to school with us, they would make it happen, which would make other people want to do the same thing. But that doesn’t mean all of them helped.
Reshma: Interesting. So you’re kind of saying that they could use their presence and position to help?
Elizabeth: Yes, if they wanted to.
There was a line forming of others in attendance eager for their turn to speak with Ms. Eckford and ultimately the conversation ended there. She thanked Ms. Eckford for her time, and asked for the picture featured above. Walking away from the moment, it was impressive to note the conviction in Elizabeth’s voice and that she outwardly held no ill will for her torturers. Simultaneously, her concern for the resegregation of schools was palpable. So where do we go from here? At Equity Consulting, we believe that while systemic change is absolutely necessary. However we are also realistic and know that we can act as agents of change in smaller ways. As Ms. Eckford said, “When change is happening, it’s not enough to watch it happen. … You need to be involved, get up and do something.”