Discrepancies in education started way before 1865, considering there was only one educational system in place created by, and for, those who believed themselves the “founders” of what became the United States. This system was not established on a foundation of equality, regardless of race or socioeconomic status. It was established by affluent white people in power for people who looked like them. The idea of inclusivity did not enter into their thought process.
“We were born in the middle of a chapter in American history, and it’s important to understand how we got here and what has led to where we are today,” said Mike Green, co-founder of Common Ground Conversations of Race in America, a national cultural competency training consultancy based in southern Oregon.
In 1865, there were just under 100 functioning or fledgling colleges and universities across the then 36 united states that were either accepting applicants or were chartered from the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862, with funding reinforced in 1890. In the following decades, prominent white people experienced an unprecedented buildup of great wealth and discretionary income by leveraging an infrastructure of higher education. During this period, an educational chasm was created by default.
There were a few schools in the North that were educating Blacks before the end of slavery. The first opened outside of Philadelphia in 1837 and was initially named The Institute for Colored Youth. Today it is known as Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, part of Pennsylvania’s System of Higher Education and a member of a legacy landscape of more than 100 historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) built over a 100-year span between 1865 and 1965. Since the inception of this nation, education was, and remains, the key to building generational wealth; and very few Blacks had access to quality education throughout America’s history. That remains the case today.
The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, otherwise known as The Freedmen’s Bureau, overseen by the War Department, were created in March of 1865. The Bureau supervised educational activities, financial relief to refugees and dispensation of confiscated lands from former Confederate states and from Native peoples. The intent was to redistribute “abandoned” lands to formerly enslaved people. Many of these efforts were challenging to enact due to the resistance of white supremacists that dominated the population in both the south and north. In fact, most of the confiscated lands were ultimately returned to the previous white owners (not the original Native owners), and the law was gutted.
This “Reconstruction Era” effort, lasting a mere seven years, was challenged by hostile white southerners and white terrorist organizations such as the KKK. Leniency by President Andrew Johnson (a former slave owner from Tennessee who was impeached for abuse of his office in undermining Congressional efforts to empower Black people) toward southern states accelerated returns of lands to previous white owners, resulting in little to no opportunity for aspiring Black landowners. The nation was at its most fragile during this tumultuous recovery period. Sadly, in many ways, we still are dealing with the ripple effect today. When a foundation is non-inclusive and built on quicksand, can it be stable?
One of the better results from The Freedmen’s Bureau was funding for the HBCUs. This is arguably one of the most critical of the post-war recovery efforts. It provided funding for an educational infrastructure for African Americans, which was necessary due to extreme hostility toward Black children and youth in a nation established for the benefit of white citizens. Most white doctors wouldn’t treat Black people, so Black doctors were educated and trained at HBCUs to serve Black communities. The same challenge was met by HBCUs in skills training for most jobs. White supremacy and racism were ubiquitous across America. For white Americans today, it is difficult to imagine just how challenging these previous times were for Black Americans. Today, a century and a half later, we are still experiencing similar rates of segregation in schools as previous generations did in the 1960s. The foundations of the education system were designed for non-inclusivity and each generation continues to sustain the status quo.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote the book, “Why We Can’t Wait,” in which he described in great detail the uprising of a nonviolent direct-action protest in 1963 that engulfed nearly 1,000 cities. Known as the “Negro Revolution,” it was a national response to the centennial celebration by white America of the Emancipation Proclamation issued by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, which was largely perceived as a mockery in 1963 by Black America. The first chapter of King’s book is titled, “The Negro Revolution: Why 1963?” The irony is that no schools today teach this important history, although the first of three specific demands of the Negro Revolution is to “desegregate the schools.”
Dr. King’s 1964 book is a blueprint of the nonviolent revolutionary strategies and tactics used by King and his collaborators in efforts to disrupt segregationist policies and practices in education, housing and banking. The Department of Labor published a report in 1965 extolling the virtues of the “Negro American Revolution,” which is the title of the first chapter of its official report wherein it proclaims the Negro American Revolution to be the “most important” movement in the history of the United States. It even compares it to the American Revolution itself. Yet schools still do not teach this history today. And school segregation remains the status quo. Today, Black communities are ubiquitously served by the worst quality schools in the world’s richest nation. This is by design.
One way to bridge this designed gap is with targeted redesigned efforts in our vulnerable communities. At the current rate of racial demographic shifts, within 20 years, there will be no majority of a specific population in the United States. Therefore, strategies to improve skills in students and adults toward America’s tech-enabled future are essential. Incorporating vital foundational elements of STEM-based entrepreneurship in schools as part of the curriculum could also create a significant impact. However, teachers cannot teach what they do not know. The vast majority of teachers have not been taught how regional innovation ecosystems are fueled by a Fourth Industrial Revolution that’s accelerating the pace of obsolescence in a global innovation economy. The innovation economy is technology-based: agtech, healthtech, biotech, esports, virtual reality (VR), artificial intelligence (AI) and more are disrupting industries and creating new arenas of competitive opportunities. The education sector is the training ground for developing core skills of critical inquiry and problem-solving that entrepreneurs need to identify opportunities and introduce market-driven solutions that can create jobs … including one’s own job.
When President John F. Kennedy created the call to action to put a man on the moon, that stimulated an unprecedented funding of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, math) education. All of the engineers who helped NASA accomplish this goal were STEAM-powered. However, most of the funding went to white schools for the benefit of white student, furthering the racial gap in education and economic opportunity.
Today (just like in 1865), we need to invest in developing a new educational infrastructure to train STEAM-educated entrepreneurs, from K-12 through higher education. Major investments must be made to redesign schools that serve our most vulnerable populations (MVPs). Black Americans have a long history of high interest in entrepreneurship. If more schools provided a safe space to test out, learn and fail, we could produce more industrious risk-taking individuals who could contribute growing businesses and jobs to their regions. Education is the key to elevating the industriousness of underserved communities of color and improving the measurable productivity outcomes.
Investing in education for the purpose of training new generations of entrepreneurs is not a novel or new idea. The National Science Foundation invested in a Lean Startup model at Stanford University with Steve Blank, a professor of entrepreneurship, in order to train its scientists in the art of entrepreneurship and commercialization of ideas born through government-funded research. The Lean Startup process is based upon a fail-fast methodology. This is where students learn quickly through trial-and-error. Having a safe space within an educational system to try out new ideas is the concept of a lab. Perhaps having an idea lab, like the Lean Startup model, for ideation would help lift people, protect the ideas of students and engage them with outside resources from the community to help create new businesses, which generate wealth.
Core competencies of critical thinking and problem-solving are not only essential for entrepreneurs, they are fundamental to lifelong learning. Therefore, schools whose curriculum is steeped in STEAM should be teaching entrepreneurial skills, critical thinking skills and market-driven “intrapreneurial” skills (workers with entrepreneurial skills applied in their jobs), which are absolutely essential for America’s future workforce. Such core skills should be required teaching in all schools, especially in schools serving our most vulnerable communities.
Mike Green shared with me that it is possible to substantially reduce systemic racism in educational curricula in schools that own their process of teaching. “It requires a paradigm shift, but it is possible,” Green said. “Teachers need new training, as it is not the students who are the problem that needs solving. We all inherited school systems and educator training based in 20th century segregationist policies and practice. This is where the core problem resides that we can address. We cannot fix a system that was designed for a different, hostile, purpose. We must redesign, reform and reconstruct the system of education. This is virtually impossible at a macro level but very doable at a micro level.”
Many organizations are working on bridging solutions to lift vulnerable populations, and many policies need to be changed. More money should be pouring into developing strategies for underserved communities to uplift their schools and drastically improve the quality of education aligned with today’s innovation economy and Fourth Industrial Revolution. Unfortunately, we are only as good as our least-performing student. Our education leaders and policymakers tend to forget students of color in their priority investments; these are valuable humans who simply deserve a chance.
We are awakening amid the chapter in history we’re living today. If you are as impatient as I am, I believe you want these things infrastructure problems in education addressed as soon as possible because this has perpetuated racialized gaps in our systems for far too long. Conversations in board rooms across the country should prioritize dialogue on how to engage their communities’ neediest kids. Every school should be a training ground for STEAM and entrepreneurship. The educational divide in America is embarrassing, and it is the responsibility of us all to redesign it.