On Tuesday I went to “Men of Color and Education: A Discussion on the Pursuit of Excellence” hosted by Teach for America. Panelists were Common, John Legend, Dr. Marc Lamont Hill, Ruben Diaz Jr., Dr. Pedro Noguera, and Eric Snow, moderated by David Banks.

The panelists discussed everything from manhood and racism to personal responsibility and the importance of systemic change. The need to explore education from these different angles is crucial as the situation with Black and Latino men in school is dire: they are more likely than any other group to drop out, be expelled, or classified as having a learning disability. And as educators, Black men make up a mere 2% of all teachers and Latino men less than 5%.

Two and a half hours of high energy and sometimes tense moments is a lot to recap. I’ll highlight a few points that really spoke to me.

“There is a difference between ‘I want to send my child to this school’ and ‘I want to close the achievement gap.’” ~John Legend

Let me start by saying that John Legend was not the star of the evening. While he supports a variety of education initiatives, he got on everyone’s bad side with his generally conservative approach to education. Yet he made an interesting point by bringing up the difference between what we want for ourselves and what we want for those we serve. Unfortunately, I have seen that the two do not often match. Though good intentioned, we may assume “these kids” cant do certain things or wont be interested in certain topics, never truly engaging them or offering praise for the bare minimum. We are there to help and sometimes think that means not pushing or challenging the students or ourselves to demand more of each other.

“Our children succeed not because of school but in spite of it.” ~Dr. Marc Lamont Hill

When he said this it made me reflect of the problematic way we celebrate “inner city kids” who may not succumb to the many problems of their surroundings. We have it backwards when we do this. The shock is not that people like these kids succeed. Instead, the shock is that we expect them not to succeed. Implicit in our celebrations of each child who manages to get out of a depressed neighborhood or home is the acknowledgment that these situations require almost super heroic efforts to overcome and that these stories are the exception rather than the rule. Our narrative speaks to the injustice those children endure while our celebrations allow us to say that perhaps it’s not so bad in the first place.

“There is a conspiracy to keep you here…but are you part of the conspiracy too?”~Dr. Pedro Noguera

When addressing a group of young men in prison he told them that jobs and revenue were dependent on their imprisonment yet demanded that they think of how they were involved in keeping that system running. When we are dealing with something as complex as education and how the failure of schools creates a pipeline to prison for far too many black men, there is no one person to blame. We are all responsible. You need not be a teacher to have a hand in how young people view education and respond to challenges. As parents, friends, and neighbors, we have a responsibility to demand excellence of each other and challenge systemic injustice.  Our attitudes towards education, our definitions of manhood, our expectations of students, teachers, and parents, what we praise and what we denigrate all contribute to the inequality we see.

Since I work in a school that serves a low income minority population, I have had the opportunity to see the many issues the panelist brought up play out a regular basis. In the end, I left the discussion feeling energized and more committed to this topic. It’s rare to have so many people from different parts of the education community together learning and trying to generate solutions.

Here are some other perspectives on the event:

Gotham Schools: Testing, charters get boos at Teach for America education panel

Jose Vilson:  Dear John: Where I Disagree with John Legend

Wall Street Journal:  Common, John Legend Speak at Hippest Town Hall of the Week

Other articles on Inequality in Education:

Sotomayor and the Future of Catholic Schools

Nonprofits and the Education Gap

When it comes to education inequality, what are you doing to solve the problem?