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NAACP educator perseveres to overcome bias

Michael Wotorson did not let being spit on at age 18 when he was walking across campus at the University of Missouri stall his quest for higher education. 

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Michael Wotorson

Coming from Liberia with his self-concept based on his tribal community, not his race, he was undeterred when the spitter told him to go back to Africa and called him a name he had only read about.  That insult, however, changed his identity to being a black man in America.

“In American society, the road for black men is too often from cradle through prison to death,” he said.  “It’s taught by schools and police making assumptions.”

Now national director for education with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Michael spoke at the recent Spokane Freedom Fund Banquet on the Scholarship, Partners in Education, Back to School/Stay in School programs that are part of the NAACP’s Call to Action in Education.

“Our education campaign is a 12-step program calling for parental involvement, resource equity, teacher quality and smaller class sizes,” he said.  “The goal is to reduce the alarming high school dropout rate and connect students with post-secondary options for personal growth, development and economic security.

Michael earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science from the University of Missouri-Columbia and is working on a doctorate in education administration at the American University in Washington, D.C.

Now active in Read Temple African Methodist Episcopal Church in Glendale, Md., he has worked in civil rights and education for 15 years with the Fair Employment Council of Greater Washington, the Anti-Defamation League, the Mid-Atlantic Equity Center, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund and other organizations.  He worked with a hate crime prevention and awareness project for the Anti-Defamation League.

I came to the United States believing every aspiration could be realized.  I still believe it,” he affirmed.  “The NAACP is here to make that so.  Through it, members are in Washington, D.C., making noise about policies, preferences and perspectives.”

Fifty years ago, the NAACP advocated desegregated public education.  This year it filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a plan to resegregate Omaha public schools.  The case is now before the Supreme Court.

“We value integrated public education, but not everyone does.  In the Supreme Court, we are challenged by well funded, if misguided, adversaries who would turn back gains we made.

“We need to be steadfast.  We need to organize and mobilize, so young people will continue to benefit from the promises and gains we fought for,” he said.

Michael calls for three levels of engagement:  1) tell the truth, 2)  engage in a personal existential struggle and 3) take action.

As a sign of its commitment to assure opportunities for young people in higher education, the 2006 NAACP convention gave $276,000 in scholarships, up from $198,000 in 2005.

“When I started, African Americans bought into the dream.  While it appears the dream is deferred and some have walked away from promises, many people continue to work doggedly day and night to usher in the dream,” he asserted.

Michael calls for pushing ahead “for the sake of our children,” not assuming those who would move backward are better organized.

After graduate school in 1992, he chose to work in civil rights to make a difference for children.

In the Liberian tradition of family and friends being honest for the sake of the wellbeing of those they love, Michael offered a list of concerns from recent studies:

• With 46 percent of black adults below average in literacy, it is hard for them to process information for civil engagement.

• Too many black high school graduates have eighth-grade math skills.

• About 60 percent of black fourth graders cannot read.

• Every day, 7,000 high school students drop out, and the majority are black and brown.

“Where is the moral outrage about that data?” he challenged. 

“Schools have clever means to push children out of school under No Child Left Behind,” Michael observed.  “It’s a form of terrorism for black and brown children to sit in under-resourced schools with inadequate textbooks. 

Seventy percent of black students attend schools that are predominantly black and lack resources, allocating $400 less per student than schools with predominantly white students.  We need to close these educational gaps,” Michael said. 

In 2001, the NAACP asked governors to reduce the racial gap by 50 percent in five years.  It has not happened.

“We need policy makers to understand that every day our children are underserved is a day they are denied opportunities to meet their aspirations, and a day they are marched in the direction of prison,” he said.

He expects more than a whimper from those who survived slave ships, slavery, Jim Crow, rape and segregation.  He expects blacks to be the nation’s conscience because of that oppression. 

“We need a radical change in how we educate minority children,” he said, noting the importance of education as minorities become the majority.  “If we are undereducated when we are the majority, how can the United States compete in the world?  How can we know what democracy means and keep our democratic rights and responsibilities?”

 Michael urges shifting from an education system geared to children taking tests to one that develops critical thinking skills.

“Diversity matters.  Just because someone is devising ways to trip us up does not mean integration is a mistake.  We must not confuse people with slogans about ‘no child left behind,’ if the policy is not funded or implemented.”

Michael hopes people will struggle and think.

He also urges parents to discern if they help or hurt their children by letting them wear baggy pants, smoke, cuss, watch TV or put off homework.  He urges them to set an example by caring.

Michael said the need for change is reason to join groups like the NAACP, a matter of status for his grandmother’s generation when neighbors contacted the NAACP about problems.

“Our children need the NAACP,” he said.  “We need to be involved, not look the other way.  The eyes of the future are looking back on us.  Acting can simply mean to speak up, not to accept things as they are, to vote, and to become involved.”

With 60 the average age of NAACP members, he said, people cannot simply assume it will be there to challenge police brutality, sexual assault or education inequities. 

“We need to be part of the action to challenge that felons—who are disproportionately black—lose the right to vote and their ability to find work,” he said.

Even if a dream is deferred or dies because people become comfortable with mediocrity, he believes it can be revived collectively. 

“We are interdependent, whether we are black, brown or white,” Michael said.  “We need each other.  We need to love each other so much we tell the truth and encourage a personal struggle that motivates people to act.”

For information, visit www.naacp.org or call 323-6368.

 

Copyright © December 2006 - The Fig Tree