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A photo of Heather McGhee

Schools must be the first place where citizens are prepared for a multiracial democracy

Attendees of the fifth-annual Amplify event welcomed author Heather McGhee to discuss her work, education, and equity. Within that space, she placed them in the history of this moment to prepare all students for a more equitable future.

Uncommon
Voices

Recently, educators gathered at the Foundation, virtually, for the fifth-annual Amplify event. Hosted by the Kauffman Foundation, this event creates a space for educators of color to connect with peers, join the movement for representation, learn from the community, gain practical knowledge, and to be an advocate for change.

Among the line-up of speakers from across the country, representing the power of educators of color, was Heather McGhee, author of “The Sum of Us.” McGhee participated in a question-and-answer session with Amplify committee member Karis Parker, local principal at Crossroads Academy Central Street.

The first question taken from the audience came from a policy standpoint: How can we address, rebuild, or shift context on the educational system and what might that mean for the purpose of education?

McGhee’s answer:

I’m teaching a college class right now and there’s a young man in the class who is a young, Black biochemist. And you’re sort of like, “Yes, do your damn thing, like, yes.” He came into this class that I’m teaching because his goal in life is to repurpose public education so that the goal of public education can be to create effective citizens in a multiracial democracy. And I was really moved by that vision statement of his. I was still like, “But, could you just be a biochemist too? I just need you to be a biochemist too.” But he was like, “no.”

Interestingly, the link that he made was he had done so much tutoring as a really gifted scientist, and what he realized was the spark and the goal of his tutoring was to nurture in younger students the sense of self-esteem that would allow them to go on and take on the harder STEM subjects. And so, I just thought that was very interesting, the idea of the purpose of public school being to create effective citizens in a multiracial democracy.

I do think that has been an aspect of the purpose in other times in our history. But I think that the harsh economic inequality of our society today has made there be more of a financial purpose to school: to prepare children to not be poor. We have other ways that we can make sure that people don’t end up poor, right?

Poverty is policy’s choice.

Poverty is policy’s choice. There aren’t really other ways to prepare people to be effective citizens in a multiracial democracy. If you think about most of the people in power right now, in their 60s and 70s, they’re used to a 90% white society. Ninety percent of voters were white in the Clinton era. What we’re creating, what our young people are already living in, is the America that’s becoming, that has no racial majority. And, so, really, everything needs to be oriented toward “how would we create a multi-racial democracy?” That’s a pretty bold experiment. It is not guaranteed. We’ve only had it in the U.S. structurally since the Voting Right’s Act of 1965, and even then, we weren’t really talking about a real mix. We were just talking about less than 20% of people of color.

And now, we’re really talking about a real mix. And so, if you sort of start fresh and say … how do you do it – without doing what they did, basically, at the turn of the century, which was just to make 80% of the immigrants white – how do you really do it? I think schools have to be one of the first places where that mission is taken on.

Final question from Karis Parker: In your recent conversation with the Kansas City Public Library, you named that you find hope from your ancestors. They didn’t despair and so you find the strength and energy to keep moving forward as well. As Maya Angelou said, “Bringing the gifts that the ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slaves. I rise. I rise. I rise.” How do you honor the ancestors in your life and what type of ancestor do you hope to be?

McGhee answered with another Angelou quote: “You came straight from the creator, blazing creativity. You gave all that you’ve been given. You kept nothing for yourself.”

When you hide your light, when you don’t go with your calling and your purpose, when you have gifts that go unexpressed, that’s not just hurting you, that’s actually sort of a betrayal of the reason that we’re on this planet.

McGhee: That idea of all your gifts, they’re not for you, they are for the world, and you have to leave them all. And so, actually, when you hide your light, when you don’t go with your calling and your purpose, when you have gifts that go unexpressed, that’s not just hurting you, that’s actually sort of a betrayal of the reason that we’re on this planet. No pressure or anything. But it’s a very powerful way to think about.

If I have some gift, it’s for the world, that, in some ways, makes it easier for me to justify doing those things and ensuring that those things are done. I honor my ancestors who … I’m the descendant of enslaved people on both sides. I was very fortunate when I was growing up to have two great-grandparents who lived to be over 100 who were very much in my life on different sides of my family. And I think about them all the time. I think about my grandparents whose story was just so quintessentially typical Black American. You read the Warmth of Other Sons, that’s my family … up from slavery, up from the south, to the Midwest, industrial and public sector jobs, just boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. Always very civic-oriented. I think about them constantly, not just like specifically my ancestors, like the ancestors broadly.

And just the idea that they had to face so much more than we do with so much less. This week, I was given a book that is a photography book of the Rosenwald Schools. The 4,700 schools that were created and pioneered by Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald who was the Sears and Roebuck’s CEO – a Jewish philanthropist who educated generations of Black Americans under Jim Crow. I think about those teachers, those educators. I was thinking about them, and when I was thinking about coming to be with you all, and how much they had to face, and with so much less than we have. And, yet they really educated the civil rights generation. They shaped history in that way.

I know sometimes it feels like you are being attacked by people with terrible intentions and that is true. But there are so many more people who support you, support all of the social and emotional learning, all the anti-racist teaching that you are doing. So don’t let these people take your hope and the knowledge that we are winning.


Amplify is an annual convening supported by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation since 2017. The Kauffman Foundation is dedicated to racial equity and a vision of inclusive prosperity for our nation and believes the inclusion and elevation of leaders and educators of color is paramount to student success. This convening was developed because of an identified need in the Kansas City community, to create a space for educators of color to come together, celebrate, and support one another.

This piece is part of the Foundation’s “Uncommon Voices” series, which features viewpoints from those working hard on issues that reduce racial equity and support economic stability, mobility, and prosperity.

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