My family and I migrated to the United States in 2007 from Zambia. Before we moved, whenever my father was told stories about the United States, they were stories full of opportunity, success and social mobility. Most importantly, as any parent longs for, they dreamed of opportunities to provide the best of everything for their children. So, in 2007, we made the move from Lusaka, Zambia to Bridgeport, Connecticut, when I was 7 years old.
One of the things that my mom quickly realized when we moved to the States, was that everything was not equal, especially the education system. She looked at our financial situation, the city we were living in, and felt that our school district was treated differently. That’s when she decided to enroll me in a new school district. My new school was a small lottery magnet school with resource counselors for math and reading and “specials” that engaged the students. For the first time since moving to the States, I felt heard. I felt like my teachers saw past my accent and saw a child excited and willing to learn.
Now, as I sit back and think about my early experience here in the U.S, I realize that I was one of the lucky kids that did not slip through the cracks of an underfunded and overwhelmed education system. It goes without saying that success in school begins in the earliest years, so having that strong, fundamental start is critical for students. There are many leaders who have fought – and continue to fight – to expand early learning because they recognize the importance of it.
As we celebrate Black History Month, it gives me a chance to reflect on the sacrifices many African Americans have made which contributed towards the development of the U.S. education system. Those leaders that have strived to bring equality to education despite the many obstacles.
While there are dozens of Black pioneers to celebrate, below are just a few who made a difference in our education system.
Betsey Stockton was an influential trail blazer in the 1800s who worked to bring early childhood education to hundreds of Black and indigenous children and adults in Canada, Philadelphia, and Hawaii. Her work created new approaches to early childhood education and helped strengthen the African American community. She strived for equality in the education system and ended up having a remarkable 40-year teaching career!
Dr. Evelyn Moore
Dr. Evelyn Moore began her career in the 1960s as an educator, providing high-quality early childhood education to three- and four-year-old African American children living in low-income and poverty-stricken environments. She was a teacher in the groundbreaking Perry Preschool Project, which helped prove the life-long gains that early education programs provide for children, especially low income and high-risk African American children. For decades Dr. Moore worked tirelessly to provide education to children facing difficult challenges in obtaining quality education. Dr. Moore continues to defend and support the need for universal childcare, which includes access to high-quality early childhood education for all children regardless of race, economic level, or other identifiers.
Edmund W. Gordon
Edmund W. Gordon is an early education pioneer who was the founding director of research and evaluation for Project Head Start. His work to establish Head Start as a child development, early education, and community improvement initiative continues to have a positive impact on the 35 million young children and their families that have participated since the program was established in 1965.
Aaron Lloyd Dixon
As one of the members of the Black Panther Party, in 1969, Aaron Lloyd Dixon launched Free Breakfast for School Children in Oakland, California, a program aimed at providing breakfast to hungry children. The program grew exponentially and went on to feed thousands of children. Unfortunately, this and other community social programs the Panthers lead were shut down as part of broader efforts by the FBI and other agencies to discredit what many saws as a dangerous group. However, Dixon and the Black Panther Party’s work was a definite impetus in the federal government permanently authorizing the School Breakfast Program in 1975. The program has fed tens of millions of school children since its implementation.
To me, these pioneers are examples of what it means to celebrate Black History Month. Celebrating Black History Month isn’t just about celebrating the accomplishments of Black pioneers, but it is also about calling on the strength of all the past activists and finding a voice for yourself and whom you care about. These leaders and their work, although ground breaking, should not be the last efforts made to bring quality education to every child.