Sunday, January 26, 2014

St. Cloud Apologizes-----

A week ago, we celebrated Martin Luther King day in St. Cloud just like many other communities.    Two major events served as the center-piece of  our community's celebration.  The first was the annual Freedom Fund Dinner hosted by the local NAACP.   The thrust of this event was a celebration of the things that we are doing in this community to make things better for disadvantaged youth.   The NAACP service award went to a white police officer, an assistant chief, who has made a significant contribution to improving police community relations.  

The President of the NAACP reported on this year's activities by the NAACP, which has focused heavily on volunteer activities by members and their partners to improve the education of minority students.   They've been tutoring, mentoring, and partnering wherever they can, to realize the goal of high quality education for all  students.  While we have a long long way to go, the NAACP celebrated the efforts of the school district  and its partners in addressing these issues.   

The NAACP has made it clear, however, that we need to do more.   The "guest speaker", the main event, was an inter-racial group of teenage students from South Side Family Charter School, Minneapolis who traveled for three weeks to visit the landmarks of the civil rights movement, in Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi, where they interviewed past leaders of the civil rights movement.  With a slideshow, they described the efforts of students and others during the 1950's and 1960's at the risk of their personal security, and sometimes their lives, to realize the dream that all young people would have access to a quality education.

The message at the Freedom Fund Dinner was that we are working together in St. Cloud to overcome the vestiges of bigotry, but its going to take a lot more work, and we need to work a whole lot harder, in the police department, in our public and private schools, and among our families and children, to realize the dream.  They celebrated the efforts of the Mayor, the police chief and his administration, the school district, and partners for student success, a coalition of volunteers seeking to make a difference for young people in our community.   This message received virtually no coverage in the media.    

The following day, the Mayor of St. Cloud conducted a breakfast at St. Cloud State University.   Before that breakfast, a college professor called upon the community to apologize for past wrongs, and at the breakfast, the Mayor made a point to deliver that apology.  You can read the coverage by following this link to front page headlines focusing on the apology. If this gesture helps heal the wounds arising out of 400 years of national bigotry....from slavery, from Jim Crow, from differential access to jobs and from unequal access to federal programs that assist the development of farms and businesses, then that's a positive tiny step forward. But just a tiny step and hardly warrants the headlines, or the laudatory editorial that followed.

The primary issue in our community,  is not the bigotry of the past, but what we are going to do to address the impacts of that past bigotry, especially as it addresses the younger generation. Attacking those problems will not be advanced simply by declaring who is to blame. Its going to take a considered effort by community leaders, by parents, and by young people themselves to assure that all of our young people become self-sufficient by completing high school successfully, and by getting enrolled in post-secondary opportunities, (college, community college, vocational training, etc) and then seeking, and finding, productive employment. Its going to take dedicated support from the academic community to focus now on supporting the hard work required to develop autonomy among our young....all of them. Theories of racism and an understanding of history are important in their own sphere, but we need to take appropriate action, and the best apology we can deliver is to get to work, all of us.

Without in any way diminishing the importance of the Mayor's words, if we are going to address the after effects of centuries of bigotry, we need actions, not just words. The actions of the renewed NAACP in St. Cloud points the way.  They have recognized that the best way we can apologize (if you want to call it an apology) is to make a difference for our young people, so when they are adults, they will have the skills they need to participate in the world of work on an equal basis.  To make this a reality, the city's  leadership, business leaders, school districts, and communities of faith need to provide concrete support for the things that need to be done to invest in our children. We can't deliver a real apology, if our position is that we can't provide parks and park programs for children, because we can't afford it.   We can't deliver a real apology if our position is that we can't afford to build 21st century schools, and can't extend learning time, because those things cost more money.    

There are too many people who frame the issues that confront us as if they will be resolved with a simple apology for the wrongs of the past.   These wrongs of the past have consequences today that cannot be addressed with an apology.  We need to buy into the approach advocated by the new NAACP leadership here, and that's the real story in St. Cloud.    If we are going to overcome the vestiges of the past, we must provide early childhood education for all students who need it.   The day that the Mayor steps forward and announces that he will not rest until that happens, the day that he calls for our community, to find a way to meet that need, all of it, that will be the day that counts as a real apology for me.   If we are going to overcome the vestiges of the past, the leadership of our charitable organizations have to stop taking the position that immigrants should live only in St. Cloud, and that it is the responsibility of only one public school district only to educate them.   The day that they step forward and recognize that addressing the needs of all our our children isn 't the responsibility of just a few neighborhoods and just a few schools, that will speak more eloquently that we have overcome the vestiges of bigotry.

The NAACP  is sending a message that they intend to take a leadership role in promoting success for all of our students, and they intend to do it with resilience and hard work.   We need to honor that message in the school district and at city hall by responding in kind.   Our Somali community is taking the same approach to overcoming disadvantages.   Many of in the Somali community arrive here having been the victims of civil wars and unimaginable hardships.    They arrive here having demonstrated extraordinary resilience in the face of adversity, but always their message to us in the school district has been, give our children the educational tools so that they can speak English fluently, can graduate from high school with skills, and so that they have a chance at post-secondary education.    Like other immigrants before them, they recognize that quality education is the road to success in America.  

This community has a long long way to go in addressing the needs of our young people, and an apology isn't going to accomplish that objective.  Its going to take more resources --and wiser  use of those resources; its going to take volunteers; its going to take a bold vision by all of us in government and by community leaders to take actual concrete steps. The day after the Mayor's apology, we were still as far away from realizing the dream of meeting the needs of all of our children than we were the day before.
Let's get to work.