Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Baby Steps: Giving Back to Community

RASPBERRY: You mentioned the effort I've been making in my hometown of Okolona, Mississippi. One significant fact about that town is that the schools -- fifty years, fifty-two years after Brown -- are officially desegregated. In fact, about 99 percent African American. There's no point in talking about solving Okolona's education problems through some racial tinkering or some racial accusation or some racial guilt. We've got to deal with the kids we've got and with the resources we have. It's also clear to me that there're things that our children suffer that we try to address, but we almost always try to address them by giving the schools one more thing to do. And the schools can hardly do what they're primarily charged with doing, which is to teach our children. And I started thinking about the children in my hometown -- a hometown that, by the way, had given me a good start in life back before Brown v. Board -- and looking at those youngsters and thinking, you know, there's some more Bill Raspberrys scattered among them, some more potential that if we're not careful, will go unrealized. What can we do?


And the thought occurred to me that so many of our children begin school, begin kindergarten already behind, and how does this happen? Because they fail to get the kind of start that is best for learning back home. Not because their parents are wicked, but because their parents don't always know what to do. So I undertook three years ago, back in '03, to teach the parents of preschoolers in my hometown what they can do at home to get their children ready for learning and for life.


BOND: And what are those things? What do they learn?


RASPBERRY: First, they're learning -- they're relearning what we used to know, that education is magical, that it is life-transforming if you let it be. We're talking about a generation of parents, and I'm talking now about young parents including many school dropouts, who no longer believe that education is magical. It didn't work for them. That's why they dropped out and had little Stephanie when they were seventeen or sixteen or eighteen. They want their children to do well. They love them. They spend precious money on dressing them to make them look cute and I say to them or we say to them, "We know you love your kids, but suppose we said we can give you something that will matter more for their lives long term than those cute Weeboks you've got on their feet, which will be too small in a few months anyway? Suppose we said you can give me something that'll change their life down the road, make it better. Would you be interested?" Well, of course, they'd be interested.


And we say, "I know what you're thinking. We're talking about education and you think there's nothing you can do to help your child be successful academically because you weren't. What do you know?" I say, "Look, you're your child's first teacher, like it or not, and every single day you get up in the morning you're teaching your kid. We're not talking about whether you should teach your child. We're talking about what you'll teach your child. You can teach your child that his life or her life will be pretty much the same as yours, or you'll teach your child that he or she has the prospect of a vastly changed life trajectory, that something wonderful can happen if we start now and prepare to make it happen."


BOND: And surely people buy into this and say, "Sure, sign me up, I'll do it." Have you thought about the people who say, "No, it's not for me" or "I don't have the time or I don't have the energy"?


RASPBERRY: Nobody says, "Not for me." Nobody says, "I don't want it." They signal they don't want by not showing up. With everything, there're the early adapters who will show up every time you say that life's going to be better for my kids, "Yeah, I want some of that," and there's a second ring of people who will come in kind of reluctantly and there's a third ring that will say, "Let me see how this goes and then I may step up." We're affecting the third ring. There's a fourth ring that I think I won't be able to reach, I'm not smart enough to reach. But if we can reach a critical mass of parents of young children, I think we begin to transform what happens in schools.


I'm already -- you know, I committed to doing birth to five, that is, parents of children from birth to five. It's already clear to me that when the five-year-old becomes six or seven and enters the public schools, we can't walk away from those parents. The things we've tried to teach them and the attitudes we've tried to instill in them will still be important so we'll have to find the ways and means of following them into the schools.


But you know, you ask what we do, what we teach them. Sure. Attitudes are among the things that I think are critical. The beginnings of a new belief in themselves as parents and their own efficacy. But there're specific things that they can be taught to do. Talk to your kids. Talk to your children. It can be quite astounding to watch how little conversation happens between parent and child at some of the lower income levels. Studies have been done on this that as you come down the socioeconomic ladder, there is less conversation between parent and child.


All parents, according to one study, a Todd Risley study, says that all parents do pretty much the same amount of what he calls business talk. "Now, bring me my shoes." "Hang your coat up." "Stop." We all do about the same amount of that. At the lowest socioeconomic spot, that's all that happens and you spend time with a middle-class mom or dad and their toddlers, there's this incessant chatter that's going on both ways. This is language formation. It promotes reading readiness although that's not what it's meant to do. It's kind of a bond -- it's what they do, but it's fun trying to teach taciturn parents to be chatterers, but it's important -- and they enjoy the -- I mean, it's fun for them, too. I mean, we're not taking them to the woodshed all the time. We're saying, "Here're things you can do. Here're things you can talk about."


Reading to their kids every night is something they can do. Using stuff that's around the kitchen to teach initial letter sounds is something they can do and enjoy learning to do. Talking to them about health choices -- a little trickier because moms are often making poor health choices themselves and it's hard to enforce, but if you can help people to believe that what they do will make a difference for their children's life chances, you can get their attention.


BOND: I would think that would be the initial hardest barrier, to convince parents that their children's outcomes can be different than theirs because of the interaction or intervention of the parent. Once you're over that hurdle, I would think it would be easy, but --


RASPBERRY: It's not easy, but once you're over that hurdle, it becomes possible. And you are exactly right. That is the critical barrier. You don't have to convince parents to love their children. They do that automatically and naturally, but they don't have much basis for believing in their own efficacy as parents. They haven't been reinforced. They haven't seen any good come of it, so our task is to do some modeling and make that happen.


BOND: Now, after three years, is it too early to say this has been successful, this didn't work too well?


RASPBERRY: You sound like a funder. Yes, it's too early. It's not too early to begin the measurements and we've got a brilliant woman in Mississippi whose specialty is assessment who's doing this for us, and we will have some numbers, and she's already been talking to the parents -- parents and children in the Baby Steps program. I think I forgot to tell you, that that's what we call it, Baby Steps -- who we talk to people who are in Baby Steps and people who are not, and they try to assess certain pre-literacy competencies and so on. That's at a pay grade higher than mine. I just -- I think it's something we need to do, so I just keep doing it.


BOND: You know, as an aside, in '64, in the Freedom Summer of Mississippi, we had Freedom Schools for kids. About three thousand kids went to these schools. Only anecdotal evidence will tell you that some of them flowered and flourished. At the twenty-fifth anniversary of Freedom Summer, we had a reunion and a teacher went back to Hattiesburg and met three girls who are now women who had been Freedom School students. They were children of single mothers and had all the demographics that you'd say means failure for these women. Two of them were doctors, one of them a lawyer. And I've always been curious why some graduate student, and I've tried to get my graduate students to do it, to go back and capture this cohort. We have the names. Easy to find. And compare them with those who didn't have this experience and see whether this single summer of a broadened educational experience might not have had some large effect, but anyway --


RASPBERRY: It would be a brilliant!


BOND: Oh, sure, it would be, but let's not get distracted by this.


RASPBERRY: Maybe you -- well --


BOND: I don't even know if they were in your county in '64, but at any rate, maybe some of the mothers of these children are kids who are in those schools all those years ago. But let me move on.