“The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice” – MLK

Greg White on the many knees on our necks, and the need to keep on keeping on…

Last night, I caught up over the phone with an old and dear friend, Greg White in Chicago who heads a tuition-free public education charter school system with 12 branches, opening a 13th in DC soon. Greg is the first Black or African American friend I made within days of my arrival in the USA as an international student at Brown University in 1982. As a sophomore and Minority Peer Counselor in my dorm, Greg became a mentor and guide who went on to obtain an MBA at Harvard Business School. He now heads a tuition-free public elementary school system. Read below his powerful letter to their 500 employees, a moving message inspired by Martin Luther King. It comes straight from the heart.

Greg’s words resonate with the universal fight against oppression, in America and elsewhere. Keeping populations poor and deprived of education is the surest way of continuing systemic oppression. Read his letter below.

June 1, 2020

Dear Colleagues:

Many of you have shared that this is a very difficult time for you and your family.  The stress of the pandemic has been compounded by the slaying of George Floyd and the subsequent protests and chaos.    I want to share my thoughts and hear yours.

I was not shocked or confused by the public murder of George Floyd.   His death by asphyxiation was not simply the result of police brutality.  It was the consequence of America’s original sin of slavery and the culmination of 400 years of exploitation, lynchings, and oppression.  Mr. Floyd’s death was predictable and consistent with the experience of so many others who have been dehumanized and executed.   

In order to kill someone without remorse you must first dehumanize them.  Moreover, you must believe that there will be no consequences as evidenced by the murders of Trayvon Martin, Rodney King, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor and the thousands of other victims.    

I have first-hand knowledge of what it feels like to be humiliated, threatened, and degraded by those who pledge to protect and serve.  Multiple times I have been stopped simply because of the color of my skin.  As a Brown University student, I vividly remember lying face down in the street of Providence, hoping that I would not be killed. Over the next few decades, this experience was repeated several times in different cities. A few years ago, I was stopped in Dallas.  I had not broken any laws but I had to choose between asserting my constitutional rights or staying alive. I chose to live.

It is not just the past sins of our nation but the current policies and actions of our leaders that place a knee on the neck of many students. Unequal and wholly inadequate educational funding for Black and Brown students is a knee on their necks. Government policies that mandate students attend a horrible school is a knee on their necks. An education system that is driven by politics and power and not what is best for scholars is a knee on their necks. Zero tolerance policies and low expectations are knees on their necks. 

Therefore our work is about much more than education.  It is a fight for social justice and lifting the knees off the necks of our students.  It is working to nullify the consequences of 400 years of systemic and legalized racism. Did you know that it was illegal for most of our country’s history to teach an African American to read?  Did you know that the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision asserted, “Negroes have no rights that whites were bound to respect”? Providing a high quality education is how we ameliorate these past sins and nurture the humanity and potential of all our students. This is my calling and I am so fortunate to have you as my ally.

I choose to remain optimistic about the future because positivity gives me the essential strength I need to fight on. I also know that I have 500 committed colleagues, right beside me, who live the LEARN values (respect, safe & nurturing, whole child, high expectations, and family involvement). Our values must be our guiding light as we navigate through these dark times. 

I am also encouraged by the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who said, “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Working together, we are bending this arc.  Our job is to continue this progress in the face of adversity and exhaustion. We are all tired but not defeated. Thank you for allowing me this opportunity to speak from my heart and share my truth.

Warm Regards,

Greg

On a related note, I only recently learnt about “Juneteenth” – June 19th, marking the date in 1865 when the last enslaved African Americans were finally informed of their liberation, in Texas, two years after the Emancipation Order.

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