Plucking the Chords of Change: Teach for America Needs to Review History by Frederick B. Hudson
In 1912, a future U.S. Presidential candidate, Adlai Stevenson accidentally killed a 16-year-old girl at his childhood home when he was performing a drill technique with a .22 rifle which he thought was unloaded. Even though no charges were filled, he was grief-stricken and full of doubts about his worth. However, as the Governor of Illinois, he was told about a teenager who had survived an automobile accident while his friend was killed. Stevenson told the teen's father that he should tell his son that "he now has to live for two", which Stevenson's friends took to be a reference to the shooting incident.
Fighting For Freedom In The Summer
When hundreds of college age students headed for the rural communities of Mississippi in the summer of 1964 to set up community centers, freedom schools, libraries, health and legal services as well as work on voter registration, destiny called upon them to live for the rest of their lives not for two but for four. Three members of the famed Freedom Summer would be murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in Philadelphia, Mississippi.
The other participants would forever feel the resonance of the lost lives of James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner whose car was stopped and burned on June 21; their bodies were recovered much later buried in a dam.
The Freedom Summer participants became sponges for the nation’s guilt at the corrosive hatred which had mandated the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to utilize Freedom Summer to organize its first political power base at a national political convention. The volunteer and staff efforts were to be centered upon the organization of the black Mississippi Freedom Democratic party, led by an evicted sharecropper, Fannie Lou Hamer. Ms. Hamer had lost most of the sight in one of her eyes from beatings in jails, but her indomitable vision was to unseat the white Mississippi delegation and allow the disenfranchised black community to select the next President of the United States.
America’s guilt was vast when the bodies of the two white college students were pulled from the dam with the corpse of the black organizer, James Chaney. They had not pulled the trigger as Adlai Stevenson had in 1912, but the victims were just as dead.
The press swarmed around the white privileged volunteers, probing their motivations for putting their feet in the fire of the apartheid cauldron. Rita Schwerner, the wife of the slain Michael noted that if her husband and Andrew Goodman had been Negroes, most of the ensuing national attention would not be existent. One volunteer, Sally Belfrage wrote in her memoir, Freedom Summer, that she heard a white man say in Mississippi to writer James Baldwin who was visiting the project: "I feel victimized by some of the things you wrote... I feel personal guilt for your condition. But it is not my fault. What can I do?"
Baldwin answered, "That you are guilty and I bitter is the state of things. It is not my fault. It is not enough to feel guilty. Change things."
And change things they did.
Teach For America
The manifestations of their change has new relevance in light of a recent study done at the suggestion of Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America, a corps of recent college graduates who teach in high-risk schools. The program is nearing its twentieth anniversary and Ms. Kopp wished to compare the level of civic activism exhibited by graduates of the program compared to others who dropped out of the program and those who were accepted but declined the acceptance. The study was patterned after one done by the same Stanford professor who surveyed Freedom Summer graduates and found that after time in Mississippi nearly all volunteers were still engaged in progressive activism.
The Teach for America study found that those accepted and declined the invitation to join as well as those who dropped out before the two year committed actually manifested more involvement in areas like voting, charitable giving and civic engagement than those who completed their tour of duty in a school. This is important in terms of the program design of Teach for America since an organizational goal was initially included of “making citizens who took their civic commitments beyond the field of educational practice and administration".
Some "experts" have postulated that exhaustion and burnout may account for the lack of community involvement, while others felt that the experience of teaching in the troubled schools may have lead to a broader disillusionment with the capacity to initiate change.
But Where Are The Songs?
But where are the songs that have been written and sung from the teachers and students in Teach for America?
Many veterans of charismatic movements have often found that change is often best reflected in the songs that are composed by those who place their bodies on the line for service. Most of the movement meetings in the summer of 1964 were held in small churches in Mississippi. Kwame Toure (born as Stokely Carmichael) noted in his autobiography that he often drew strength in a pew while the Klan drove by flashing their headlights by singing the words of a spiritual, “Guide my feets, Lord, while I run this race, for I don’t want to run this race in vain.” Toure and other organizers felt that there was a balm in Gilead to soothe their fears.
The tradition of singing continued in movements that emerged from the matrix of the Civil Rights movement. The antiwar movement benefited by the anthem “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” written by Phil Ochs who was part of the Caravan of Music Project Mississippi in 1964. Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” became emblematic of internal and external turmoil felt by those seized by the prospect of change in all areas. Indeed, Ms, Ella Baker’s keynote address at the first state convention of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party included the words: “We who believe in freedom cannot rest...” became the signature words in a song composed by the world wide singing group, Sweet Honey in the Rock.
Linkage With The Community
The experiences of Teach for America veterans contain little of the linkage with the community and the land that Freedom Summer produced. This writer met a dropout from Teach from America who left his school assignment after his efforts to involve parents in their children’s progress were condemned by his principal who admonished him that: “There is no room for parent involvement in this school!” Another Teach for America volunteer was dismissed from his school after an incident involving two students who left class and were found having sex—despite the teacher’s obedience to regulations which state that a teacher is to stay with his class at all times. The bureaucracy used him as the whipping boy in the controversy.
Freedom Summer veterans were frequently involved in education but Lawrence Lader, author of Power on the Left: American Radical Movements since 1946 noted that "one aim of the freedom schools was to prepare blacks for political leadership... classes were always linked to the movement. French teachers conjugated, "we love freedom." Math classes centered on practical examples of installment buying. Farmers were taught about untapped sources of financial aid."
By educating, the educators prepared themselves for dramatic new roles in their future lives. The New Left had learned the pragmatic organizational lessons in the South and carried them to new arenas. One of the first parallel agendas occurred on September 14, 1964 when student organizational tables used by civil rights groups were banned in a certain area of the University of California at Berkeley campus. The ensuing turmoil became one of this country most disruptive student uprisings and protest—the Free Speech Movement (FMS). Its most dynamic speaker was a former teacher in a Mississippi freedom school, Mario Savio. He wrote to a friend, "I’m tired of reading history, I want to make it.” The FSM demonstrations ultimately resulted in over eight hundred arrests and set the stage for many more student demonstrations around the country.
Robert Moses, who led the Mississippi project for three years after dropping out of Harvard Graduate School, left to become active in the antiwar movement, telling audiences, "Don’t use Mississippi as a lightening rod, use it as a looking glass." He eventually used a MacArthur "genius" grant to develop a new early intervention method to increase mathematical literacy in black youth.
The songs sung in churches in Mississippi continue to sway the feet and hearts of generations to come. They are living for three and four and multitudes. Perhaps the leaders of Teach for America can find new program concepts in their efforts—concepts that deal with the need for organization and inclusiveness in the families that send their children to school.
After receiving this essay from Frederick I contacted an anonymous source -- who has both worked for and graduated from the Teach For America program -- for an insider's perspective on this critique. Below are comments from my source. However, I felt it obligatory to give the author the last word; his final response concludes this addendum:
Anonymous TFA-Insider Comments
"I appreciate the concept, but take issue with the content of [the paragraph addressing "Linkage With The Community"]. In the first instance, the author conflates the views of the school principal with Teach For America. It's unclear whether what the principal said caused the person to drop out or how TFA deal with the corps member. In the other case he references, it's important to keep two things in mind: 1) TFA corps members are employees of districts not TFA; and 2) by virtue of being employees, they are not "volunteers" as the author states. I actually think that the author may be able to make a stronger case by building out these examples and possibly finding others that better illustrate his point. At the moment, I find the article somewhat intriguing, but think that there are too many common misconceptions about TFA included for me to find it compelling. There are also multiple cases of TFA folks remaining very invested and committed to the community and parental involvement. I'll include just a few to illustrate... but there are many more examples: Mark Levine founded Credit Where Credit is Due Credit Union in Washington Heights with a group of fellow TFA teachers; Sondra Youdelan runs Community Voices Heard, which does a great deal of organizing and empowerment with low income women; And Kellie Terry Sepulveda runs The Point in Hunts point."
The piece cannot hope to speak for all TFAs--like all organizations members have different motivations and can use their involvement as springboards for further organizational experiences. I myself was a VISTA Volunteer in 1967 and last year met with some alumni of my group who used the experience for organizational growth--one woman started a counseling organization which has been active for 30 years! My piece attempts to study the organizational limitations in many "establishment" structures which can constrict some members' best instincts. I was suspended from VISTA for a few months because of controversies. The cases cited of TFAs running into conflicts with the educational establishment are symptomatic of the status quo's gravity which resists innovation and assigns blame as in the case of the teacher who was blamed for the sexual acting out.
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