As Minnesota’s first African American Commissioner of Education, I am responsible for policies that impact the lives and education of nearly a million Minnesota children. I come to this task with a profound sense of gratitude for the opportunity to influence an area I care so deeply about. I also come with a deep sense of humility, and the knowledge that I stand on the shoulders of many who have come before me, including my own parents and my grandfather.
I grew up poor, but I never felt a poverty of love. My mother, just sixteen when she had my sister and only a few years older when I came along, never graduated from high school. Though she struggled at times, she was our greatest advocate. She was also was a firm believer in the notion that it truly does take a village to raise a child. So I was a Head Start baby. I was involved in community programs and I loved going to, and later serving as a youth counselor at summer camp. Each of these experiences opened the door to a world of possibilities. My father, also a consistent presence in my life even though he and my mother were not always together, reinforced the notion that education was my ticket to a better life. He would tell me I could either continue the cycle of poverty into which I was born, or could choose to continue my education and break the cycle. He told me “This is America. You can be anything or anybody you want to be. You might have to work harder than most folks, but if you’re willing, the future is yours to determine.”
As true as those words were for me, they were not, and are not, always true for everyone. Any forward progress that African Americans have achieved has been hard won through the heroic efforts of many, including my own grandfather, Melvin Alston. He played a key role in the relationship between race and public education years before Brown v. Board of Education changed the course of history in the United States.
In 1939, my grandfather was the president of the black teachers’ union in Norfolk, Virginia. By that time, segregation had created tremendous inequality in the schools in Norfolk, Virginia, including significant disparities in the pay scales between white teachers and black teachers. My grandfather, with the support of the NAACP, sued the city so that black teachers might win salaries equal to those of their white counterparts. His lawyer was Thurgood Marshall. Together, they won their case. That decision, along with several others, paved the way for the legal strategy that would challenge the entire idea of “separate but equal.”
To this day, I believe what my parents, my grandfather and so many mentors and teachers impressed upon me along the way. Education is the greatest equalizer we have to ensure every child – no matter their race, gender or socio economic status – has an equitable opportunity for success. In Minnesota, we still have work to do. While our students overall outperform their peers in other states, our state’s achievement gap – the disparity between our students of color and students in poverty and their white counterparts – is one of the worst in the nation. That statistic is unacceptable, and it is our moral and economic imperative to change that dynamic.
As I reflect on Black History Month and my own unique role in this stage of our state’s history, the words of Nelson Mandela ring especially true. “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” The work we’ve done and will continue to do – including securing a federal Race to the Top grant that will make high quality early education experiences available to more children and a new accountability system that will hold schools accountable for closing achievement gaps – have set us on course to build on our strengths and pave the way for better outcomes for all students. How successful we are will depend on our collective will to create a better Minnesota for everyone in our state.