THE CONTEXT OF MEWG'S WORK
2001 is 47 years since Brown vs. Board of Education held racially segregated public schools unconstitutional because it imposed the stigma of race and the stamp of inferiority on the children who were the objects of the official policy of racial separation. But in Mississippi today there is still a dual school system: one public, one private; one black, one white. The white community in the Mississippi Delta has kept its children in private academies since the federal courts issued its school desegregation orders in Mississippi in 1971.
public schools are starved for resources by the state legislature
and county boards of supervisors that control local school budgets.
The State Board of Education acknowledges that there is a statewide
crisis of insufficient numbers of teachers in the schools, especially
in the area of basic skills, such as reading and math, and that Mississippi
schools rank among the lowest in the United States in teacher salaries,
per pupil expenditures, and student performance on standardized testing.
In addition, every year the racial balance among teachers and administrators
shifts in the direction of domination by whites (teachers are now
75% white, 25% black), even as the racial balance of students in the
public schools becomes increasingly black. Mississippi is 35% black,
but its public schools are 56% black.
The public schools in MEWG's participating school districts have low student performance on standardized test scores, high drop-out rates, severe disciplinary problems, low morale and a sense of despair about the ability to change the situation. In some of these schools some of the school board members, teachers and administrators are more prone to see black children as institutional inmates, rather than students. As a result there is also a deep-seeded suspicion among segments of the community that should be working together: that is, parents, students, teachers and administrators, and little to guide communities toward creating the kind of quality public educational system that can build bridges to justice and opportunity.
This circumstance in Mississippi is the conscious, direct result of generations of official federal, state and local governmental policies, supported by private and official violence, to resist efforts to provide an effective education for African-American families that would teach critical thinking skills, relevant substantive subject matter, and enable African-Americans to compete effectively for every kind of job in the employment markets. Since school desegregation the white community has worked hard to prevent the growth and development of public education in the Delta by withdrawing resources and support.
The education system in Mississippi is central to the maintenance of domination and control of the black community by the white community. The education system in majority-black areas of the state is built around an all-white private academy network, supported by the economic resources of the white community, and predominantly-black public schools are starved financially by public officials. White parents keep their children in segregated private academies to ensure that they internalize the principles of separation by the time they are of age to be on their own.
African American students are systematically under-prepared in the public school systems across the state, especially in the Mississippi Delta public school districts. They are not being prepared for the jobs of the 21st century and will not be able to compete for them on the same basis as the white children. This is not because black families are not concerned, but because they do not have an effective voice in the formation of public education policy at the local, county and state level and do not have sufficient economic clout to offset their systematic exclusion from the political process.
The MEWG is a coalition of grassroots community organizations working in their local school districts to create a quality, first-rate public educational opportunity for African-American families in their school districts.
The MEWG has two primary thrusts:
1) to provide training, technical and legal assistance to grassroots organizations in support of their efforts to impact the formation of public education policy in their local school districts; and
2) to pool the resources and strength of the local organizations to impact the formation of education policy at the state level, in support of the work which the organizations are doing at the local level.
In addition, it is a fundamental premise of this work that in order for the African American community to impact public education policy at the local or state level, it will be essential that effective organizations and new, young leadership be developed that:
1) understand the fundamental principles of community organizing;
2) that can be held accountable to the needs and interests of the community through the building of a broad base of support and participation within each community active in the MEWG, and
3) that are willing to build the work from the beginning on an inter-generational model of participation, in which younger and older people work together as equals.
The Mississippi Education Working Group project is the first time in Mississippi that a coalition of grassroots community organizations, rooted in and led by the African-American community, has been formed to work together to impact public education policy at the state level to support the work being done at the community level.
In the past, each of these communities has seen itself as separate from, having different needs and interests from, having problems far greater than, all other local communities. For the first time, community people from different school districts have come to understand that they have common ground on which they can work together, that they can build strength through unity and unity through organization, that they cannot succeed even at the local district level without having a collective impact at the state level, and that their attitude of isolation and sense of uniqueness in the past have contributed to their powerlessness.
In the past Southern Echo has worked with these individual communities separately, responding to their respective requests for training, technical and legal assistance. In addition, in the past Southern Echo has brought individuals from each of these communities together at residential training schools and regional workshops in the Delta around specific skills or subject matters, with the expectation that the participants would utilize the training in their separate communities.
The MEWG changes the framework of the way work is being done, while building upon the foundation laid in the past. The local organizations which comprise MEWG continue to set their own agendas in their local communities. But the local agendas have the benefit of input from the process of creating the vision, strategies, and programs of work at MEWG meetings and training sessions. In addition, for the first time local organizations, understanding their common purpose and common ground, support and assist each other in connection with the work each is doing at the local level, as well as at the state level. This grassroots effort to build unity statewide, and to pool resources across traditional plantation, city and county lines around education issues, has not been done before in Mississippi.
At the same time, the capacity to understand and move to another level of organizing work, such as MEWG, is the direct outgrowth of the Southern Echo vision, strategies and program of work designed to:
1) create a cadre of organizers in the Delta committed to the empowerment of the community;
2) create new, broad-based, accountable leadership and organizations that understand that the empowerment of the community is essential to the ability of the community to hold the political, educational, economic and environmental systems accountable to the needs and interests of the community; and
3) provide training programs that assist the community to understand that the education system in Mississippi has played a key role in the methods by which the white community has maintained domination and control of the black community.
THE FORMATION OF MEWG
At the July, 1996 residential training school held by Southern Echo, Inc., entitled, Advancing Community Organizing Skills, Part 5: Creating A Quality Public Education for Mississippi's African American Families -- An Inter- Generational Vision, Strategy and Program of Work, more than 80 participants from 13 counties across the state formed a coalition of community organizations and individuals, called the Mississippi Education Working Group (MEWG).
ACCEPTING THE CHALLENGE
In August, September and October, 1996 MEWG held statewide meetings to work on the development of a vision, strategy and program of work. Participants developed a concept of what constitutes a quality educational opportunity, how educational policy is determined at the local and state level, what kind of accountable leadership and organizational strength is needed to impact policy at the local and state level, and what must be done to develop the strength to transform the culture in which education policy is made at the local and state levels.
MEWG participants from Tunica, Bolivar, Tallahatchie, Sunflower, Leflore, Washington, Holmes, Scott, Simpson, Lincoln, Pike, Walthall and Marion, and from Southern Echo, addressed these challenges:
a. Can the MEWG develop a clear vision, effective strategies and a program of work that will transform the culture and enable African-Americans to build a sense of community statewide, and to create a framework for collaboration in work across traditional geographic and political barriers?
b. Can the MEWG come to the aid of one of its constituent members and impact the formation of public policy at the state level in support of the work its members are doing at the local level?
MEWG said "Yes!" to both questions.
The coalition of local community groups active around education issues is committed to an inter-generational model of participation, in which younger people and older people are working together as equals in the planning and implementation of the MEWG effort.
MEWG delegates have agreed that racism is about domination and control, not hate, and that racism is at the core of the resistance by the white community to the creation of first-rate public schools in those areas of the state where black students are in the majority in the public school system.
To overcome racism, delegates agreed, it will be necessary to build a dual process. At the local level, African-American communities must build accountable leadership and organization to empower the community and impact the formation of education policy at the school district level. At the state level, local communities will have to pool their strength to impact the formation of education policy at the state level in order to enhance the effectiveness of organization at the local level.
Initially, MEWG delegates have agreed to undertake three steps:
1) investigate who makes education policies at the community level;
2) begin to build a relationship with their state legislators and local public officials around education issues; and
3) obtain training for community people that will develop their understanding of education issues, their working tools to build accountable organization, and their leadership skills at the community level to broaden the base of support.
Southern Echo has agreed to provide to MEWG workshops at the community level on community organizing working tools, the duties and responsibilities of public officials, conflict resolution skills, organizational development, and fund-raising.
EFFECTIVE COMMUNITY ORGANIZING
MEWG emphasizes the importance of building strong community organization, through effective community organizing work, as the essential means through which to advance the fundamental goal of empowering the community.
A special emphasis for MEWG is the active inclusion of the young people in the community in this process on the same basis as adults. The young people have the fewest ties to the past, the least fear of the white community, and have the potential for creating a broad vision of a fair and just society. The young people are the present, as well as the future, and their effective participation is essential if the struggle to empower the African-American community in Mississippi is to be successful.
Truthtelling is central to the empowerment process. In training sessions and in the community, it is essential that community people overcome their fear and tell it like it is. Until people are willing to confront the real problems which their communities face, including who the gatekeepers are that hold back the community, it will be impossible to build a solid foundation within the community to fight for change.
At the same time, every community person has to deal with the fear which that person carries within as the result of generations of terror imposed on African-Americans by the dominant white society. Learning to overcome that fear is an essential part of the training process.
MEWG PROVIDES ASSISTANCE TO GRASSROOTS COMMUNITIES
Only when the African-American community in Mississippi, and other parts of the South, is empowered and able to make the system accountable, can the community begin to fight racism effectively. MEWG works through its training and technical assistance programs to provide the information which community people need to develop the skills to become effective community organizers, enable people to assume leadership roles, work together for the empowerment of the African American community, impact the formation of education policies at the local and state level, and struggle to build a quality public educational opportunity for African-American families.
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Southern Echo, Inc.