I didn’t want to go. I had no interest in attending an event billed as a rally for youth and Dr. Shawn Joseph during a time the embattled director of schools is fighting for a contract renewal. “What good,” I asked myself, “could a Thursday night church rally of Black community members and leaders do to bridge the school board/director divide, repair broken relationships between board members, and undo three years of damage to the court of public opinion due in large part to unrelenting media scrutiny? I also questioned if my attendance would be a slap in the face to the employees currently in the throes of lawsuit hell against Dr. Joseph and his administration.
But something happened. Hours before the rally was set to begin, a news report titled,”Debate over MNPS directors’ future divides black community” hit social media. The headline sent me directly to Malcolm X’s quote:
“The media’s the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power. Because they control the minds of the masses.”
Divide and Conquer
Despite my anger at the attempt to divide and conquer, I watched the report anyway. The two black people interviewed made solid arguments about the issues that plague our district and hurt students, most of which I agree. However, I do not co-sign media’s attempt to define and control our narrative.
And with that, I was reminded that Nashville’s education problem is larger than issues with its director of schools who happens to be Black. That for decades we have been unnaturally comfortable with poorly resourced Black communities housing poorly resourced schools responsible for educating a population of mostly Black and poor students. This didn’t start with Dr. Joseph and the educational injustices will still be here long after he’s gone.
So, I went to church. On a Thursday night. I went, not as a blogger or observer, but as a member of Nashville’s Black community concerned about the present and future of the district’s most disrespected students. I sat through seventy-five minutes of thoughtful, inspirational speeches impressing upon the audience to fight for Nashville’s Black and Brown students, and Dr. Joseph. From the pulpit, we heard from pastors, elected officials, education advocates, and Dr. Joseph’s chief of staff and director of government relations.
The Youth Will Lead
The enthusiastic crowd also heard from Kennedy Musgrave, a senior at Hillsboro High School. Musgrave spoke of the discrimination she’s experienced at school. She bravely shared with the audience that even though the school district has mostly minority students, “it seems we are the most overlooked.” Having started an organization to recruit more Black students into Hillsboro’s International Baccalaureate program, the graduating senior said there were times she wanted to give up because of the backlash. “The person who pushed me past that was Dr. Joseph.”
After Musgrave’s passionate appeal, Councilwoman Tanaka Vercher, Budget and Finance chairwoman, took on the role of someone who is typically “called” to challenge the congregation to think about what matters most. Noting education is the solution for most societal ills, the Councilwoman said, “We cannot talk affordability without talking about education. We cannot talk about youth violence without talking about education.”
Christiane Buggs, the only school board member to attend the rally, sat quietly at the aisle end of her row taking in all the support. Not scheduled to speak, Buggs decided late to challenge everyone to email or call to show their support in the future. Responding to Councilwoman Vercher’s charge to Black school board members to “walk in their power,” school board member Buggs acknowledged her continued ‘power walk’ and lamented the exhaustion that comes with it. “I’m tired and ask that you walk with me.”
Juvenile Court Clerk and former mayoral candidate Howard Gentry, amidst a fiery sermonette, echoed my sentiment about the report on the divided black community stating “Whoever heard that the white community is split? Dr. Joseph is not splitting the Black community!”
There were several others who offered strong pleas for support of MNPS students, district, and Dr. Joseph. Still, I see no clear path to repairing the broken relationship between the director and board members. Further, looming over all of this is Dr. Joseph’s evaluation which is currently being withheld for whatever reason. But he’s not the first director to have these issues and won’t be the last.
In my view, Dr. Joseph’s tenure revealed Nashville’s true character and taught us a couple of things. While this administration is not without issues, some extremely serious, the manner in which the powers (media, elected officials) have responded is unacceptable and should never be forgotten.
Finally, and most importantly, we must work to ensure school board elections yield the largest voter participation of any political race from the White House to the schoolhouse.
“We in America do not have government by the majority. We have government by the majority who participate.” Thomas Jefferson