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Changing the World One Student at a Time

Overcoming Educational Inequalities Through Dialogue: A Moderator’s Experience with and Commitment to Social Justice

In the mid-1960s, Cynthia McDaniels, then an eighth grader, stood on the balcony of the Progressive Baptist Church of Berkeley, Calif., watching as Reverend Edward Stovall entered the church accompanied by a seemingly ordinary man. Silence fell over the congregation. The man sat quietly behind Rev. Stovall, a sign of respect. When he stood up to address the congregation, the man spoke with authority and dignity, relating matter-of-factly the events that skyrocketed him to the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement and garnered him significant media attention. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. confessed that he’d never intended to become a civil rights leader, but that he’d been chosen by virtue of his ministry as an official spokesperson. We do not always select our battles, he said, but we choose how to fight them. McDaniels listened enthralled as Rev. King alluded to his now-famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which she would read in one of her college courses years later: “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”

A native of Oakland, Calif., McDaniels — professor and chairperson of the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies — was raised by a hard-working single mother in an integrated cul-de-sac on Genoa St. As a child, she exhibited a precocious talent for learning and manifested a budding spirit of social justice. She would often put herself at the service of others by eagerly offering to babysit for family and friends, volunteer as a candy striper at Alta Bates Hospital, or clean for elderly neighbors. When her mother was struck by a car and spent a year in the hospital, McDaniels stayed with her uncle in Vallejo, Calif., where she attended a middle school mainly made up of upper-middle-class white students. Here McDaniels confirmed what she suspected to be true: the duality in education persisted, a clear-cut boundary drawn along racial lines.

It is hard to pinpoint the exact moment in time that solidified McDaniels’ commitment to social justice — perhaps it was the bevy of civil rights leaders whose words galvanized a younger generation into nonviolent direct action. Perhaps it was her years as an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, which instilled in her the confidence to create meaning in a world clamoring for it. Or perhaps it was the time she traveled to apartheid Southern Africa with the Peace Corps to share her curriculum development skills and improve education for African children. McDaniels recalls that when she arrived in South Africa, the white volunteers she’d met in Chicago, and traveled with to London and Nairobi, refused to get off the plane with her. She writes in her upcoming memoir, Cultural Misfits: “In a few short minutes, I had watched several developing friendships wither away, had seen the bond developed by our shared mission to southern Africa crumble under the weight of apartheid.”

McDaniels was not deterred. Instead, she cast her mind back to the Black American leaders who influenced her — Martin Luther King Jr., Angela Davis, Malcolm X — and summoned the confidence to walk off the plane and through customs alone. “It seemed as though [Rev. King] himself returned to give me spiritual guidance,” she confesses. Decades later, McDaniels, as the chairperson of Educational Leadership & Policy Studies, has taken the fight for racial equality to the virtual sphere. Since last October, she has been co-moderating a new colloquium series with Dr. Stephen J. Hegedus, dean of the College of the Education.

The idea of the virtual colloquium — a conference at which guests speak about a related topic — germinated in the wake of the death of George Floyd and the wave of protests that broke out across the nation in response to it. McDaniels, who addresses diversity, inequalities, and racism from multiple perspectives in her educational foundations course, decided to join in the choir of voices demanding an end to racial inequality.

“We saw what happened to George Floyd and others, and I was looking at how all these corporate people issued a statement that they’re committed to social justice,” she says. She spoke with Dean Hegedus about ways to reach more people and increase the level of awareness.

“We thought of having an event that engages academic leaders, scholars, and educators who are having a broad impact on our educational systems at large,” Hegedus says.

“With this new virtual modality, our hope is to reach out to our friends and particularly our alumni to showcase the many ways in which the College of Education is advancing our commitment to social justice.”

McDaniels views the colloquium as an opportunity to educate the public about the lived experiences of minority people.

“We came up with the whole idea of a colloquium given the situation that was confronting our nation, and the fact that so many people needed to be educated about the Black experience,” says McDaniels. “We need to ask ourselves: what do we need to do in our educational system?”

A renewed interest in racial awareness is at the core of education today and is fundamental to what McDaniels terms “difficult conversations.” To have these difficult conversations is to give voice to themes that face educators and our society; it is to orient oneself in the shifting political landscape and to lay the foundations for the advocacy that will indubitably follow. The colloquium, however, is not merely an occasion to converse, as the etymological root of the word denotes, but to problem-solve, to offer dynamic solutions, and to improve educational experiences for students, teachers, and leaders. The colloquium is, ultimately, an ongoing conversation complete with resources to keep the themes alive. It is, in other words, a starting point for “nonviolent direct action.”

To achieve this end, it was decided that, instead of having a panel discussion with participants sharing their views, each colloquium would be limited to no more than four keynote speakers, all of whom were carefully selected for their unique insights into educational systems today.

“What others are doing is good because they’re having conversations which would never have taken place, but we’re also good at this,” McDaniels says. “As educators, we’re taking the full capacity we have to educate and using effective strategies that we know well.”

Indeed, educators and leaders who, like McDaniels, seek to interrogate and dismantle structures of power are spearheading the campaign to reform education from within and actualize the vision of equality dreamed by dozens of activists before them.

“Even in your classroom, you can’t change the world, but you can certainly help one student at a time,” McDaniels says.

All that’s needed is a nudge towards nonviolent direct action.

The final installment of the colloquium featuring Superintendent of Miami-Dade Public School Counties Alberto Carvalho and Congresswoman Jahana Hayes took place on Friday, April 23, 2021. The colloquium series is co-hosted by the College of Education and the Office of Alumni Relations. To watch past colloquia and access resources, visit: https://www.southernct.edu/education/colloquium

Excerpts of this interview are from McDaniels’ upcoming memoir, Cultural Misfit.

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