“For us, by us”

Black Advocates for Education are an urgent voice for MinneapolisÂ’ black students

Law professor Nekima Levy-Pounds, second from right, participated in a panel discussion at the University of St. Thomas law school in downtown Minneapolis in March. Credit: Dylan Thomas

Shortly after it was reviewed by a panel of primarily African-American educators in late February, Minneapolis Public Schools leaders decided to recommend against use of “Mission 2: Flight for Freedom,” a slavery simulation computer game, in district social studies classes.

A statement issued by the panel stated the game ran the risk of “being misunderstood and insensitive at the least and disrespectful and racist at the most” — echoing concerns raised first by parents and community members but quickly picked up and amplified by Black Advocates for Education, a young, social media-savvy organization that has been a watchdog on issues of race and equity in the city’s public schools. It’s a hallmark of BAE’s tech-enabled activism that the protest involved a “Twitter storm” of online messages targeting @MPS_News and @MPS_MichaelGoar, accounts operated by the school district and interim Superintendent Michael Goar.

Chris Stewart, one of BAE’s founders and a former Minneapolis School Board member, called the episode the latest “example of quick success” for an organization that didn’t even exist a year earlier. Explaining the need now for a voice like BAE’s, Stewart, who is director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, said: “There are no great guardians of black students in the policy sphere of Minnesota.”

The group’s founders describe BAE as a “for us, by us” social justice movement. One of them, University of St. Thomas law professor Nekima Levy-Pounds, said BAE exists “to frame the issues from our own perspectives as African-American parents and community members.”

“We’re unapologetic about being black, about raising concerns on behalf of black children and about being direct in our activism and advocacy for what it is we’re asking for,” Levy-Pounds said.

That directness is nearly the opposite of ‘Minnesota nice,’ and although BAE has won a diverse group of supporters it also offended some with its blunt rhetoric. Stewart’s Twitter account was even blocked by @MPS_News for a time, meaning he couldn’t follow or view tweets from the district.

After inquiries were made during the reporting of this story, a district spokesman said the blocking was unintentional and had been reversed. Stewart professed to find it humorous, adding the district was “not the first or the best” to attempt to ignore him.

“To be fair, the Commissioner of Education (Brenda Cassellius) has also blocked me,” he said.

Highlighting disparities

BAE coalesced last summer around former Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson’s decision to launch the Office for Black Male Student Achievement with just $200,000 in funding — far too little and a “setup for failure,” said Levy-Pounds. Johnson later added $1 million to the office’s budget, and the district maintains it was “standard operating procedure” for the office’s director, Michael Walker, to draft a formal request and plan for the funds before the full amount was allocated.

Then, at the start of the school year, controversy erupted around the awarding of a $385,000 contract to Community Standards Initiative, a group led by African-American community activists Al Flowers and Clarence Hightower. The contract was cancelled in October when it became clear the group would not be able to fulfill its goals of working with families to close the achievement gap.

BAE framed the controversy as symptomatic of a situation where education leaders and policy makers engage with just a small group of black leaders instead of the wider community. It launched a Twitter campaign using the hashtag “#JimCrowJr” criticizing the district for lacking transparency in the awarding of the CSI contract, while at the same time highlighting racial disparities in academic proficiency and graduation rates.

“When we started looking at Minneapolis Public Schools, started looking at the statistics, started looking at the uneven allocation of resources, started looking at the proficiency rates amongst the different schools, we said this is reminiscent of the of the Jim Crow era,” Levy-Pounds said, referring to laws that codified racial segregation in the South after the Civil War.

It was intended to point out examples of institutional and cultural racism, Levy-Pounds said, but to former Superintendent Johnson, who grew up in Selma, Ala., the tweets felt like a personal attack. In an interview in January, Johnson said, “It felt vile, it felt ugly and it was so hurtful to me.”

“I thought it was an inappropriate term, knowing what Jim Crow meant,” Bill English of the Coalition of Black Churches said. “… I lived through rigid segregation, so I’m very much familiar with Jim Crow.”

English said, in his experience, “using emotionally laden terms is not effective” when trying to address issues around race. Despite that disagreement, he said he respects and admires BAE’s advocacy, viewing them “co-collaborators.”

“Facebook exploded”

While English is a regular and vocal presence at School Board meetings, he doesn’t engage as much in the online debate. (“I’m not the greatest social media person, because that’s not my media,” he said. “I’m of another generation.”) But the CSI controversy highlighted how BAE’s members can speak directly to their peers in Generations X, Y and Z.

The acronym BAE mimics a teen slang term — a reference that might sail over even some 30-somethings’ heads. And when Levy-Pounds showed up to an October School Board meeting to protest the CSI contract, she brought a young man in a Kermit the Frog costume, evoking a popular Internet meme. The meme’s “But that’s none of my business” punch line is used to humorously or ironically express disdain.

“When we did the Kermit memes, Facebook exploded,” she said.

But do memes and tweets sway district decision makers? Although BAE and former School Board Chair Richard Mammen exchanged open letters on the CSI contract, Mammen said he lacked “an informed perspective” on BAE.

Also on the receiving end of the “#JimCrowJr” tweets was School Board Member Rebecca Gagnon, who said “being inflammatory and hostile, pushing people’s buttons” was not an effective way to carry on a dialogue. Gagnon said BAE criticized her involvement in the CSI contract online, but no members ever attempted to have an in-person conversation about it.

School Board Member Tracine Asberry expressed a different point of view, calling their contributions to the debate around Office of Black Male Student Achievement funding and the use of the slavery simulation “essential.” In an email, Asberry wrote that their actions “moved the educational experiences of Black students from the margins to the center in these two critical decisions.”

BAE’s members recently outlined their top priorities in an open letter to School Board members, and they include keeping tabs on the search for a permanent superintendent and the Office for Black Male Student Achievement. They’ve also asked the School Board to reinstate its Equity and Achievement Committee, which was recently eliminated in a consolidation of board committees.

Stewart said they don’t plan to alter their audacious style of advocacy.

“We think what we’re saying is really serious, even though it’s not always scholarly in the way that we say things,” he said. “We think it’s important to call out injustice. It’s that simple.”