A Light Shines in Harlem

A Light Shines in Harlem
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On February 4, 1999, a young West African immigrant living in the Bronx, Amadou Diallo, was gunned down in a hail of 41 police bullets; a terrible shooting of an unarmed man. New York City swelled with racial anger, akin to the feelings that inflame Ferguson, Baltimore and other communities today.

A few days later, the two of us – an African-American minister and a white Midwesterner who had found his way on Wall Street – met in the restaurant of an Islamic mosque on 116th Street in Harlem and began to work together. The minister had been chief of staff to Dr. Martin Luther King and chairman of the National Action Network. The Midwesterner – who had read Martin Buber’s theology by chance – was anything but. We had every reason to clash, distrust and disagree, but we also shared a common goal: to create a better and newer type of public school.

In September 1999 – 16 years ago this month – the  shared vision became the Sisulu Charter School of Harlem.  Later proudly renamed the Sisulu-Walker Charter School of Harlem, it was the first charter school ever to open in New York State and is the only one to survive from that first year, when these schools were authorized to begin operating.

Charter schools have proliferated since 1999. There are now approximately 200 in New York City alone, educating 95,000 students. Approximately 3 million children attend charter schools nationwide.

While the number of charter schools has increased, it seems that society’s divisions along racial, religious and economic lines have only grown wider. Anger leads to rough discourse, which leads to violence, which leads to more anger. How can such divisions be bridged? How can common cause be found?

The answer lies in education. Education of the head, and education of the heart.

Education of the head -- intellectual education – requires, first, better public schools for all. Charter schools such as Sisulu-Walker are public schools. They are tuition-free, regulated by the state, and open equally to all by lottery. In New York City, well run charter schools have far outperformed the nearby traditional public schools. According to studies by Professor Caroline Hoxby of Stanford University, students who attend city charter schools from kindergarten to eighth grade can close about 86 percent of the “Scarsdale-Harlem” gap – the difference in scores between students in Harlem and those in the affluent New York suburb — in math and about 66 percent of the gap in English.

Funding for such charter public schools must be made equal, however, including equal funding for facilities. Today, older New York City charter schools like Sisulu-Walker that have never been given free facility space receive approximately $3,000 less per child per year than the traditional public school down the street, or than a newly authorized charter school. As Dr. Walker has said since 1998, charter schools and education reform constitute the civil rights issue of our day. Equity should be restored.

Even more fundamental, though, is education of the heart: the explicit realization that every person deserves an abiding and equal respect for the spark of divine light inside of them. This light is innate; separate and independent from race, wealth, ethnicity or any other identifier.

Today, too many “remedies” – such as Critical Race Theory, the increasingly fashionable post-Marxist/postmodernist approach that analyzes society as institutional group power structures rather than on a spiritual or one-to-one human level – are taking us in the wrong direction: separating even elementary school children into explicit racial groups, and emphasizing differences instead of similarities.

The answer is to go deeper than race, deeper than wealth, deeper than ethnic identity, deeper than gender. To teach ourselves to comprehend each person, not as a symbol of a group, but as a unique and special individual within a common context of shared humanity. To go to that fundamental place where we are all simply mortal creatures, seeking to create order, beauty, family, and connection in a world that – on its own – seems to bend too often toward randomness and entropy.

The large answer emerges from a million small acts of private understanding, private kindness, private creativity – acts that nobly succeed, or that nobly fail.

Our little charter school in Harlem was one such act – started in an unlikely partnership between us, and then accomplished in partnership with the hundreds of parents, children, teachers, regulators and neighbors that form the Sisulu-Walker community.

“This Little Light of Mine, I’m Gonna Let It Shine,” sing the children at our school. The teachers help them shine. And this little light – this fundamental acknowledgement of a single deeper yearning and value at the core of all people – may still light the path to our best and common future.

Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker is the former chief of staff to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Steve Klinsky is a New York-based businessman and reformer. Together, they were founders of the Sisulu-Walker Charter School of Harlem.

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