Dr. Dorothy Height

Great Civil Rights, Women’s Rights and Children’s Rights Leader

“We African American Women seldom do just what we want to do, but always what we have to do. I am grateful to have been in a time and place where I could be a part of what was needed.”
dorothy-height.jpgThis quote inscribed on Dr. Dorothy Height’s Congressional Gold Medal was just one of the many dozens of awards she received over her extraordinary life of 98 years, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom. A posthumous honor on February 1st from the U.S. Postal Service celebrated the beginning of Black History Month by dedicating the 40th stamp in its Black Heritage series with a beautiful new design featuring Dr. Height in her ever present beautiful hat. She was a brilliant indefatigable lantern and role model for millions of women of all colors but especially Black women, and a long haul social change agent blessed with uncommon commitment and talent. 
Her fingerprints are quietly embedded in many transforming events of the last seven decades as Blacks and other people of color pushed open and walked through previously closed doors of opportunity. The new stamp is a fitting tribute to tireless activism whose example is so needed right now everywhere as a half-century of progress for those left behind is threatened with dismantlement.
Dorothy Height, born in Richmond, Virginia in 1912, transcended the limits the Jim Crow society of her childhood placed on a young Black girl. From an early age her speaking skills stood out, and she attended New York University in part with a $1,000 scholarship from a national oratorical contest (after being turned away by Barnard, which had already reached its quota of two Negro students for that year). She cited November 7, 1937 as the day that changed her life when she was the 25-year-old assistant director of the Harlem YWCA and was chosen to escort First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to a National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) meeting where she met NCNW’s founder and president, the legendary Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, who was immediately impressed with her. She became Dorothy’s close friend and mentor, and in 1957, two years after Mrs. Bethune’s death, Dr. Height became NCNW’s president — a position she held until 1998 when she became Chair and President Emerita, a title she held until her death in 2010 at 98 years young.
During the Civil Rights Movement, while so many women were playing vital roles that weren’t featured in the spotlight, Dorothy Height was always up front with a seat at the table. She was often the only woman in the room with Dr. King and the rest of the “Big Six” group of male leaders as they planned many key strategies of the Civil Rights Movement. She sat on the stage — she should have been a speaker — at the historic 1963 March on Washington. She led the NCNW membership as active participants in the movement and reminded us that women were its backbone — unseen but strong and indispensable. A cornerstone of NCNW’s civil rights strategies was Wednesdays in Mississippi, which brought together prominent White and Black northern women to travel to Mississippi to develop relationships with Black and White southern women, educate themselves and each other, and create bridges of understanding between the North and South across racial and class lines. It’s a model of women’s partnership that resonates right now.
NCNW developed a range of model national programs focused on Black women’s and families’ needs. She always stayed focused on the ways African Americans’ needs connect to a larger national and global mission. She participated in conferences and leadership training sessions and on official delegations around the world, and from the White House to the United Nations, her expertise on civil rights, women’s rights, and human rights was always in demand. Through it all, Dr. Height’s intellect and wisdom remained sharp as did her signature sense of style. She always looked good! When Dr. Height was awarded her Congressional Gold Medal, then-Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton began her tribute by saying she had known Dr. Height for more than thirty years, when they began working together on the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF)’s board — and “just as in those long ago days, today once again, Dr. Height is the best dressed woman in the entire room.” The new postage stamp pays fitting tribute to her legacy of beautiful hats as did a play “If This Hat Could Talk.”
But it’s Dr. Height’s substance that we need to study and remember today, especially her willingness to put her head down and keep working regardless of whether the winds were with her or against her. To me she was a dearest friend, mentor, and role model, and CDF was blessed to have her wisdom for over thirty years. In 1990, she co-convened with great historian Dr. John Hope Franklin and CDF a quiet but landmark meeting of 22 Black leaders at the beautiful Rockefeller Foundation conference center in Bellagio, Italy that launched the Black Community Crusade for Children (BCCC) committed to Leave No Child Behind™, the incubator for community service models like the summer CDF Freedom Schools® program, Beat the Odds® youth leadership program, and the Harlem Children’s Zone. We honored her during her life with a weekend symposium at CDF-Haley Farm where we named a beautiful old cabin as the Bethune-Height House. After she was wheelchair-bound, she was still by our side rallying at the U.S. Capitol in support of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). When she passed away we lost a wise counselor, a rock and an “energizer bunny” we could always lean on for support in tough times.
While we were privileged to know her personally, everyone can learn from her servant leadership example and commitment to doing what she had to do. I hope this new stamp helps spur all of us on to protect the civil rights, women’s rights, children’s rights and human rights threatened today.

House Votes to Overturn ESSA Accountability, Teacher-Prep Rules

The House of Representatives voted Tuesday to overturn regulations crafted by the Obama administration for accountability under the Every Student Succeeds Act, as well as those for teacher-preparation programs. 
If the ESSA resolution overturning the accountability rules is successful, it could have far-reaching consequences for the U.S. Department of Education, state officials, and local district leaders. These rules address school ratings, the timeline for identifying and intervening in struggling schools, indicators of school quality that go beyond test scores, and other issues. A Senate resolution to overturn the ESSA accountability rules is also expected in the near future. 
The Obama administration released a draft version of the ESSA accountability rules in May, and finalized them in November after considering public comments. That final version granted states more flexibility in some areas than the May draft on issues like summative school ratings. However, last month, the Trump administration hit the pause button on the implementation of these final rules. The final teacher-prep rules were issued last October. 
The Congressional Review Act allows lawmakers to overturn regulations from the executive branch. Rep. Brett Guthrie, R-Ky., and Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind., introduced the joint resolutions to overturn the two sets of regulations for teacher preparation and ESSA accountability, respectively, last week. The CRA has never been used on education regulations, however, so its unclear how the department would proceed as far as issuing guidance or new regulations. If the regulations are overturned, Congress is barred from issuing "substantially similar" regulations on these two issues before lawmakers reauthorize ESSA and the Higher Education Act, respectively. 
In remarks on Tuesday before the House vote, Rokita said he wanted to overturn the ESSA rules because they ran counter to the spirit of the law itself, which he said is designed to give state and district leaders more power. And he said getting rid of the rules would not impede states from shifting to ESSA as they saw fit. (ESSA kicks in for the 2017-18 school year.)
"Here we have a federal agency inserting itself, making law, not just interpreting it, but making law," Rokita said of the ESSA rules.
Critics, however, have a different idea. On the House floor Tuesday, Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., said ditching the ESSA rules would be damaging and disruptive, not liberating, particularly for states that have worked for over a year to shift to the law. And he stressed that the education secretary's hands would be tied as far as new regulations.
"This resolution would undo all of that state-level work ... creating mass chaos and uncertainty in public education, and destroy the civil rights safeguards that Republicans and Democrats worked so diligently to put in the Every Student Succeeds Act," Polis said.
The National Governors Association and AASA, the School Administrators Association, support Rokita's resolution regarding the ESSA rules. Civil rights groups like the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, however, are opposed to the resolutions from Guthrie and Rokita. 

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"Tell Them We Are Rising"

Members of Howard University class of 2016 celebrate commencement ceremony. 
Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

[Editor's Note: Although this blog focuses on K-12 public education, we are re-posting this article because it discusses an important film about HBCUs and their role in building Black political and economic strength. ~ C. Wolf.]

Stanley Nelson, director of "The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution," is back with an intriguing history of HBCUs, "Tell Them We Are Rising." Here, a day after its Sundance debut, he talks about the triumphs and controversies of these still-essential institutions.

Stanley Nelson's new documentary on the legacy of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) takes its name from a scene describing General O.O. Howard, a White Union general and Howard University's namesake, talking to formerly enslaved students in the South. "He asked, 'What should I tell the people up North about the plight of the former slaves?'" narrates historian James Anderson in the film. "And 13-year-old Richard Robert Wright rose and said, 'Tell them we are rising.'" 

Wright would later found the HBCU that became Savannah State UniversityMost of "Tell Them We Are Rising," which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah yesterday (January 23), focuses on this sense of triumph and progression. It features archival footage of HBCU students cheering during football games, marching at protests for different racial justice movements, celebrating commencements and forging lifelong bonds with one another. 

No film before this one explores the transformative role that HBCUs have played in building Black political and economic strength. 

But the film doesn't shy away from many of these institutions' problematic histories. Using testimony from student activist leaders and police, one sequence deconstructs the horrific killing of Southern University students Denver Smith and Leonard Brown by sheriff's deputies when they and state police used tear gas and firearms to quell a student takeover of an administrative building in 1972. 

Another scene depicts the crumbling, graffiti-covered football stadium of Morris Brown College, which lost its accreditation in 2002 amidst financial troubles not uncommon among many smaller HBCUs. Nelson spoke to Colorlines over the phone about including both sides of the HBCU story, cooperation with these institutions, their future and much more. 

"Tell Them We Are Rising" is the first documentary that examines HBCUs' history. What compelled you to create this film now? 

Both my parents went to Black colleges. My mother went to Talladega College and my father went to Howard for dental school. My father, who grew up in Washington D.C., made it clear that if Howard hadn't been there, he wouldn't have gone to college. His going to school and becoming a dentist changed my life, my kids' lives and will change my family's life through generations. 

But I'd like to think that even if I didn't have this personal connection, I would have wanted to make this film. Black colleges have been instrumental to informing Black communities and society in this country. It's a story that hasn't been told. 

The film examines the contemporary state of both thriving HBCUs and those, like Morris Brown College, that fell victim to the structural problems of financial hardship and falling student enrollment after White schools desegregated. What do you think separates the successful schools from the troubled ones? 

I don't want to oversimplify, but there are over 100 Black colleges in this country, and there's probably not a need for that many. There will be some consolidation, and that's just the reality. Some of the bigger schools like Howard, Fisk and Spelman are doing well. We don’t talk about this in the film because we couldn't cover everything, but there are some public HBCUs that are becoming more Latino, more White, or shrinking and trying new things. 

Twenty years down the line, there probably won't be over 100 schools. Some will disappear, and some hopefully will become stronger. As we see in the film and saw over the last year-and-a-half, there are real reasons why a student would choose a Black college. 

We saw that with the [new protests] on Black colleges and the talk of microaggressions that happen at White institutions. There are still good reasons why someone might choose to go to a Black college in the future, and there will be unless things change in this country. 

You used a lot of HBCU alumni interviews and schools' archival footage to deepen this historical narrative. How cooperative were the involved schools and their alumni communities towards your requests, especially given the inclusion of less-than-flattering history?

We had great cooperation. Morris Brown gave us permission to shoot there, and it is what it is. They're still going and hoping to get their accreditation back. It was our example of what can happen, and it's poignant to see chains on a building built in the 1880s, and that the football stadium that seemed vibrant and filled with fans is now empty and graffitied-over. 

We don't think about the fact that that can actually happen to these institutions and their fiscal plans. 
We had a lot of schools shoot stuff themselves for us and send us digital files. We see a montage of people coming into the schools for the year's start, marching bands, students working and stuff like that. A lot of these schools had communications departments that were able to shoot stuff we could use.

The scenes about Denver Smith and Leonard Brown's killings at Southern University feature interviews with student leaders alongside Baton Rouge police and former Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards justifying their actions in quelling student unrest. 

This is similar to how you incorporated LAPD members' perspectives in one of your last films, "The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution," when discussing its siege on a Panther house. Why is it important to you to incorporate those opposing perspectives when investigating such a painful event? 

I think it's really important as a filmmaker to get all sides of an issue. It gets you that much more involved to hear the governor talk about why he did what he did, or the officer talk about seeing someone pick up a tear gas canister and throw it back at police. 

As an audience member, you don't feel like this is all one-sided. It's always exciting to hear from people on both sides, and to hear from students, law enforcement and the governor about one incident makes [the documentary] that much richer. 

"Tell Them We Are Rising" juxtaposes many HBCUs' founding on racist ideas of educating a subservient Black workforce with legacies of incubating student activism. But even now, administrators at Dillard University and Talladega College face criticism for engaging with anti-Black politics. How do you see HBCUs reacting to this political moment?
I think HBCUs, by and large, have been pretty clear on who they serve, which is the African-American population. 

And look, colleges and universities don't usually make statements about what's going on in the world. You don't know what Harvard or Howard think about Trump; that's not what they do. We unfortunately couldn't get into this because of time, but during the Civil Rights and sit-in movements, the colleges were very supportive of the students most of the time. [Many] Black colleges did not expel student activists. 

Some of the public institutions did expel people during the Freedom Rides, but private Black colleges did not ban students and individual professors were supportive. Hopefully that’s what will happen now. 

Trump can always find a marching band from a Black school for his inauguration, someone's got to do it. But the African-American community's very clear on where they stand, and I think Black colleges aren't ambiguous about where they'll stand in the coming four years.

"Tell Them We Are Rising" premiered today at the Sundance Film Festival and will publicly air on PBS in October. Visit the film's website to learn about screenings and events as they're announced. 

Biased Policies Are Pushing Black Girls Out of School

[Reposted from New York Magazine]


Photo: Peter Muller/Getty Images

At a listening session in Philadelphia with the Education Law Center, a young woman of color told a story about getting her period in school when she wasn’t expecting it. After being denied access to the bathroom, she decided to tie a sweater around her waist to cover the back of her pants. A teacher then told her to remove the sweater — it didn’t comply with the school’s dress code.
These kinds of policies — clothing restrictions, codes barring certain hairstyles, policies that regulate kids’ “attitudes” and discourage “disruption” — are common in public schools in the U.S. But research shows that vague and implicitly biased guidelines are contributing to a large percentage of black girls being pushed out of the system before they even make it to graduation.
When children are punished for unfair and unspecific infractions like “defiance,” they are more likely to mistrust adults, they end up with lower grades from losing class time, and they have a higher likelihood of dropping out of school entirely. Black girls, according to research by the National Women’s Law Center, are on the receiving end of a disproportionate percentage of unfair discipline. This is responsible for what is known as “push-out”: when a school’s disciplinary actions encourage a student to abandon their education.
In 2014, the NWLC and NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund released a report that shared details on how often black girls were punished in school, and why. “African-American girls often encounter deeply embedded stereotypes that reinforce racial and gender biases in the classroom,” the report says. Because of this, in the 2011–2012 school year, “twelve percent of all African-American pre-K–12 female students were suspended.” This was six times as many suspensions as those doled out to white girls. It was higher than all groups of girls in general, and higher than suspensions given to white, Asian, and Latino boys.
Black girls accounted for 31 percent of all girls referred to law enforcement and almost half the number of girls who experienced a school-related arrest. “Although African-American students are punished more frequently than their white peers,” the report says, “they are not engaged in more frequent or serious misbehavior.” Worse still, African-American students are given harsher disciplinary measures than white students for the same behavior. Remember the South Carolina student who was thrown to the ground by an in-school police officer for having her cell phone out? That’s one type of disciplinary action that the NWLC would like schools to begin combating.
Adaku Onyeka-Crawford is the counsel for education at the NWLC and is responsible for a new initiative aimed at educating schools on their potentially biased and unfair policies. She put together a handy tool kit for schools called “Let Her Learn” to determine if administrators and teachers are unfairly and disproportionately disciplining young African-American women. “We’ve held a series of listening sessions with girls of color to talk about how they feel in school,” she told the Cut. “A lot of times girls think they are being disciplined for speaking up.” The tool kit helps schools properly assess their policies: Are they treating black girls unfairly?
“Is your school’s policy super strict? Does your school’s policy target hairstyles or clothing common to certain racial, ethnic, or religious groups? Does the policy punish students for vague ‘attitude’ violations?” These are some of the questions Onyeka-Crawford would like schools to start asking. “It’s time to have more culturally competent schools and curriculum,” she says. “What that means is actually valuing diversity and valuing the contributions of black girls, Latina girls, Indian girls, Asian girls, and Muslim girls. It’s time to start dispelling stereotypes and myths. That can start on a student level, but it can also happen by finding teachers, administrators, and principals who recognize and value diversity in their student populations.”
Onyeka-Crawford’s suggested method — reforms in schools’ conduct policies — is already happening in some school districts across the country.
The Philadelphia school district is one example where policy itself was preventing students from accessing a fair learning environment. “The school district’s policy excluded students for wearing clothing that is considered a ‘distraction,’” Deborah Klehr, the executive director of the Education Law Center, said. “We were explaining this to a white cis-male adult wearing a vertically striped tie and a horizontal striped shirt,” she added with a laugh. “But subjective language like this disproportionately punishes black girls. We approached the school district and said, ‘We want you to change your dress code policy and to stop excluding kids from class for “distracting clothing.”’ And they changed it. They removed that language. It was a great example of the power of working together with the systems that already exist.”
Suspensions and expulsions are also forms of discipline responsible for push-out, Klehr said. “Two years ago, the Philly school district had 448 suspensions of kindergartners, 1,500 suspensions of first-graders, and 1,900 suspensions of second-graders. Over 90 percent of those suspensions were for nonviolent offenses.” That year, 87 percent of suspensions given to black students overall were for “conduct,” not for more severe or specific infractions like drugs or weapons. After releasing these statistics, the School Reform Commission was able to remove suspension as a punishment for kindergarten students.
These kinds of changes are what Onyeka-Crawford and Klehr hope to see more of in the future. Monique Morris, author of Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, told The Atlantic in March that discipline reform in education is one stepping stone to interrupting oppression of girls of color. “Centering the voices of black women and girls moves us toward a deeper understanding about their lived experiences, and forces us to confront the routine (and often ignored) victimization, exploitation and discrimination that occur in their lives.”
Along with her tool kit, Onyeka-Crawford says that restorative justice is a promising future replacement of currently unfair disciplinary procedures. But educating the educators is at least a good place to start. “When we’ve asked administrators to look at the data, many of them have said, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize that,’” she said. Klehr agreed that change can come from even the slightest shift in priorities. “We need to be especially thinking about these students who are at the intersection of race and gender and disability,” she said. “Are we ensuring that we’re providing them with the tools and resources they need to learn?”
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