The John Lewis Fellowship has allowed me to re-conceptualize my work in CS education as a continuation of the American Civil Rights Movement. The patterns of history are clear, as segregation in quality CS classes and a homogenous, male-dominated workforce too closely resemble the segregation and inopportunity that oppressed students of color during the 1960’s (Margolis et al., 2017). Faced with such similarities, it is necessary to ask what lessons from the Civil Rights Movement should be applied to the work of ensuring “CS for All:” the goal that every K-12 student, regardless of background, has access to high-quality computer science classes. The activists and participants in the John Lewis Fellowship, young and old, including Roslyn Pope and John Lewis themselves, have highlighted one lesson in bold: although top-down policy solutions promise change, mobilizing individuals and grassroots coalitions is the only way to create swift, long-term, inclusive change.
Although top-down policy solutions promise change, mobilizing individuals and grassroots coalitions is the only way to create swift, long-term, inclusive change.
The false promise of Brown v. Board stands as a pertinent example of government’s failure to create swift change. While Brown promised school desegregation, the Court’s soft stance on enforcement and language of “all deliberate speed” delayed realization of this promise for decades. Southern states and citizens appropriated the court’s language and ambivalence to launch “Massive Resistance”, rendering “deliberate speed” snail-paced. Collective manifestos against integration, closure of public schools, and sanctioning of citizen violence kept more than 50% of black students out of white schools for 34 years (Epps-Robertson, 2016 & Orfield et al., 2014). As Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “justice delayed is justice denied,” and the Supreme Court’s delay of racial justice denied millions their rightful access to quality education. Fittingly, at the museum of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, the history of Brown v. Board marks the entrance to a room that is home to stories of violence and resistance: it is symbolically the beginning, not the end, of the fight against school segregation.
Had Ruby Bridges, The Little Rock Nine, and other black students not courageously faced the rage of the white community, popular opposition to desegregation would have rendered the Court’s ruling void.
The stories on display in the exhibit after Brown v. Board highlight the necessity of local organizing to realize promises of reform. Families like that of Ruby Bridges, the first black student to attend an all-white elementary school in the South, took direct action against segregation despite the potential for violence and bodily harm (Michals, 2015). Coalitions of students, like The Little Rock Nine, bravely registered to integrate schools despite searing opposition and hateful threats (Jaynes). Although these efforts were set in motion by Brown v. Board, the realization of integration could not have occurred without this individual sacrifice and collective bravery. Had Ruby Bridges, The Little Rock Nine, and other black students not courageously faced the rage of the white community, popular opposition to desegregation would have rendered the Court’s ruling void. It is clear the fight for integration is not yet over, but the first teetering steps were initiated by ordinary students who sought to right a wrong – not a federal government that suddenly found its conscience.
Whereas the history of Brown v. Board demonstrates how bureaucracy is inadequate for quickly realizing reforms, the history of the Voting Rights Act exemplifies how government action alone is inadequate for sustaining them. While the Voting Rights Act of 1965 removed barriers to civic participation that had plagued African-Americans for years (i.e. poll taxes, grandfather clauses, and literacy tests), reversals of key sections have resurrected the same discrimination in new forms: voter ID laws, strategically placed polling stations, and obscure voting times (Anderson, 2018). As these evolved forms of discrimination compromise elections by barring marginalized communities from voting, it becomes clear that relying solely on the government to sustain reforms is futile. Instead of continuing to strengthen civil rights as critical as the vote, the U.S. government has dismantled progress.
Without these organizations doing the work of expanding access to the franchise, necessary reforms such as the Voting Rights Act would be obsolete.
As the government has not maintained reform, grassroots organizations have proven how necessary they are to sustaining it. Voting rights organizations like the New Georgia Project have taken the responsibility of upholding rights to civic participation into their own hands. In order to en- sure voting rights for all, the organization carries out the necessary work of voter registration drives, bussing voters to polling stations, and informing voters on key issues (Ufot, 2018). Even museums have taken on the same responsibility. Organizations such as The Legacy Museum offer voter registration opportunities on-site, while at the same time informing the general public of how the right to vote has been and always be sacred. Without these organizations doing the work of expanding access to the franchise, necessary reforms such as the Voting Rights Act would be obsolete.
Not only does top-down reform fail to be responsive and sustainable, it leads to uninformed decisions due to its distance from the lived experiences that it seeks to change. In his 2004 book, Class and Schools, Richard Rothstein argues that the United States has failed to close the black- white achievement gap because it has not accounted for the different social, economic, and cultural backgrounds with which children start school. Upon first entering the classroom, some children have eaten breakfast while others have not, some have practiced reading while others have not, and some have been told to value school while others have not. A political system which overlooks these experiences will inevitably create policy under faulty assumptions about what influences educational outcomes, exemplified by the passage of reforms like the No Child Left Behind Act and Race to the Top (Ladd, 2012). Although these policies promise a more just education system, their lack of proximity to children’s experiences prohibits meaningful change.
The contrast between the success of the Algebra Project and the failure of policy reform again highlights how grassroots organizing is the only way to ensure direct, positive change for students.
What is needed, then, are projects with proximity. Organizations like the Algebra Project, highlighted in the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, showcase how community-focused education reform transforms lives. The Algebra Project centers children’s voices and experiences to fulfill its mission of enabling underprivileged students to succeed in high-school- and college-level math. Its founder, Bob Moses, advocates for the importance of developing a community consensus on reform, arguing that this consensus is what ultimately allowed his work with the Algebra Project to thrive. Additionally, Moses writes about how his voting rights efforts with SNCC in the 1960’s informed the Algebra Project’s philosophy, further exemplifying how lessons from the Civil Rights Movement should still inform today’s activism (Moses, 2002). The contrast between the success of the Algebra Project and the failure of policy reform again highlights how grassroots organizing is the only way to ensure direct, positive change for students.
At first glance, efforts among CS education advocates to shift from community organizing to policy work are an exciting way to create broad change. But in reality, these efforts have failed in the same ways that past bureaucratic reforms have failed. While 13 states have created policy to provide CS courses to all high school students (Code.org, 2018), it remains to be seen how long implementation will take and how long states will continue to fund quality teachers and courses. Additionally, as most CS curricula adopted by states was created within the white, male-dominated circles of CS, structural barriers to careers in CS will still be pushed onto marginalized students. In short, the rush for policy to ensure CS for All has run into the same problems as past civil rights legislation: change occurs too slowly, is unsustainable, and does not reflect the experiences of students who are most directly impacted by the policy.
The John Lewis Fellowship has allowed me to re-conceptualize my work in CS education as a continuation of the American Civil Rights Movement.
If history is any indication, CS for All can only come by organizing communities around the issue of CS education. Rather than relying solely on policy, the movement needs more passionate educators on the ground. Rather than more advocates from tech giants, the movement needs more students to “show up and think and organize and imagine something better” (Benincasa, 2017). Doing so will not only create more immediate, sustainable, powerful change, it will situate CS education as a movement that is a continuation of, and in solidarity with, the goals of the American Civil Rights Movement. Consensus on such a conceptualization will invite those who advocate for CS education to also advocate for the other pertinent civil rights issues of our time, and vice versa. It will create a community that is not only focused on ensuring CS for All, but on ensuring students everywhere receive the complete justice and dignity they deserve.
- Anderson, C. (2018, July). One Person, No Vote. Georgia State University School of Law. Benincasa, A. (2017). Make Reality. Retrieved from https://vimeo.com/224483264
- Clotfelter, C. (2004). After Brown: The Rise and Retreat of School Segregation. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Code.org. (2018). State Computer Science Policy 2018. Retrieved from https://docs.google.com/ document/d/1WX7KO3ioZEghj4Ro5u2WrZ9CodJbZIJkrs6o87eXuCk/edit?usp=sharing
- Epps-Robertson, C. (2016). The Race to Erase Brown v. Board of Education: The Virginia Way and the Rhetoric of Massive Resistance. Rhetoric Review, 35(2), 108–120. https://doi.org/ 10.1080/07350198.2016.1142812
- Jaynes, G. D. (n.d.). Little Rock Nine. Retrieved July 31, 2018, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/ Little-Rock-Nine
- Ladd, H. F. (2012). Presidential Address: Education and Poverty: Confronting the Evidence. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 31(2), 203–227.
- Margolis, J., Estrella, R., Goode, J., Holme, J. J., & Nao, K. (2017). Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.
- Michals, D. (2015). Ruby Bridges. Retrieved July 31, 2018, from https://www.womenshistory.org/edu- cation-resources/biographies/ruby-bridges
- Moses, R. P. (2002). Radical Equations: Civil Rights from Mississippi to the Algebra Project. Beacon Press.
- Orfield, G., & Ee, J. (2017). Our Segregated Capital: An Increasingly Diverse City with Racially Polar- ized Schools. Retrieved from https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/3475265/Report-on- segregation-in-D-C-schools.pdf
- Orfield, G., Frankenberg, E., Ee, J., & Kuscera, J. (2014). Brown at 60: Great Progress, a Long Retreat and an Uncertain Future (p. 10).
- Ravitch, D. (1983). The Troubled Crusade: American Education, 1945-1980. ACLS Humanities E-Book. Retrieved from https://quod-lib-umich-edu.proxy.lib.duke.edu/cgi/t/text/pageviewer-idx? cc=acls;c=acls;idno=heb02040.0001.001;node=heb02040.0001.001%3A7;rgn=div1;view=image;page =root;seq=128
- Rothstein, R. (2004). Social class, student achievement, and the black-white achievement gap. In
- Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic, and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap (pp. 13–59). Washington, D.C.: Economic Policy Institute.
- Ufot, N. (2018, July). The Franchise: Voting Rights, Challenges and Responsibilities. Georgia State University School of Law.