The mission is personal

by Kenya Woodard

Last week, I attended the Black Alliance for Education Options’ annual symposium. It’s a gathering of hundreds of black leaders, activists, educators, students and ordinary concerned citizens who come together to discuss ways they can push for more school choice in their communities. Officially launched in 2000, BAEO wants to increase access to quality education programs for low-income and working-class black children.

By the end of the conference Saturday, I was fully reeducated about why the mission to expand educational options and empower parents was critical to the success of black children.

Not that I should have had to travel to Jersey City for such a lesson. The truth is, I know first-hand how lack of knowledge about and access to good schools and quality education programming can mean the difference between success and failure in life. In fact, I’m currently watching this very thing play out in my own family.

My youngest brother is a smart, bubbly kid who loves to read and has an affinity for video games. He attends a school for gifted and talented children in my hometown of Gary, Ind. Another brother, my sister and I all were enrolled in the same program. It was crucial to our development as the civil engineer, graphic designer and communications professional – respectively – that we all have become. But lately, it’s become clear that this program isn’t right for my youngest brother – he’s struggling in several academic areas. What’s also increasingly clear is that his choices for a quality education elsewhere in his city are severely limited.

It’s a frustrating situation for my father, who is raising my brother as a single parent. The school that his son attends is, indeed, the best public school – traditional or charter – in the city. It’s got all of the credentials that make up a parent’s dream school: an excellent school leader, great teachers and acknowledgement from the state with the highest award for academic excellence several years in a row. Yet, it’s not the right school for his son. And a private school education is out of reach.

Before going to Jersey City, I thought I was just an ally in this. After all, I do work for an organization that champions providing education options for the poorest students and genuinely believe that just because you are economically disadvantaged doesn’t mean you don’t deserve the same education opportunities as others who may be more affluent.

But a speech given by BAEO luminary Howard Fuller to first-time conference attendees snapped me back into reality. This cause doesn’t need more allies, more sympathies, or more sideliners. Instead, it needs more people to be moved to act because they know that the mission is personal. They’ve seen what the effects of getting a mediocre education or sitting in the wrong school for years on end can have. And they want things to be better for their son, daughter or brother. It keeps them up at night, gets them up early in the morning, tugs at their hearts, and makes them both angry and optimistic. Because it’s personal.

And so, the journey begins for my family and I to do all that we can to help my brother. It began with my calling Dad early Saturday morning, telling him my ideas for a plan of action for my brother. It won’t end until seven years from now, when he’s graduated from high school and has entered college.