After Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham declined to appeal Yazzie v. Martinez, the New Mexico Legislature appropriated an increase of some $450 million for public school funding. Indigenous leaders in New Mexico are now questioning the effectiveness of that increase to educate Native American students, as legally required. They are advocating the adoption of a Tribal Remedy Framework, a comprehensive plan developed by tribal community members and Indigenous education experts focusing on nations, tribes and pueblos in the state, and on the plans to make libraries community education hubs and to preserve Native languages. I fully support the Framework, but the demand for community-specific policies reminds me of my childhood educational experiences growing up in segregated North Carolina.
I attended a neighborhood school in which all the students and teachers were Black. I have frequently opined that our education was a community endeavor and did not take place solely in school. When I went to play with friends after school, their parents made us do our homework first. Then, there was the three-room Black public library on the second floor of the neighborhood drugstore. A Bookmobile regularly cruised the community. Moreover, our school was the cultural center of the community. Plays, concerts and commencement ceremonies were held there.
The teachers were a vital part of our extra-scholastic education. They lived in our neighborhoods, and students were allowed to visit them in their homes and ask for additional help. They were active in civic affairs and involved in community organizing long before President Obama made the term famous. It was not uncommon to see them teaching Sunday school, where reading was reinforced. As near as we could tell, teaching paid well, and we saw the teachers as affluent. Many of them had attended the school as students and returned as teachers. The presence of the teachers was not happenstance; they did not live in our neighborhoods merely because of segregation; it was school policy. The teachers were required to live in the community and to be engaged civically. The experience in my hometown was not unique; teacher community presence was common, whether by policy or otherwise, in Black communities across the state.
Teacher community presence was one of a slew of community-specific policies and practices implemented in the South to educate Black children. My segregated school, for example, was a Rosenwald school. Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears & Roebuck, and Booker T. Washington partnered to build schools in Southern Black communities. The schools were not imposed on Black communities as they had to seek and match Rosenwald funding if they wanted it. The Southern Education Foundation provided teachers for Rosenwald schools through the Jeanes Teacher Program. The Columbia University Graduate School established a program to train highly qualified teachers to teach in those schools in the 1940s and ’50s. We all know that Black schools in the South were inadequately funded and unconstitutionally segregated, but that did not dampen the spirit and desire of Black communities to educate their children for better futures. Segregated Black schools in my hometown produced bankers, clergy, corporate executives in Fortune 500 companies, doctors, elected officials, engineers, lawyers, librarians, nurses, officers in the military, schoolteachers, social workers, university professors, a poet, an opera singer who is the dean of a college of fine arts, the first Black trustee of Columbia University, the first African American woman to found a billion-dollar company, and, of course, a law school dean.
I certainly am not advocating that New Mexico adopt segregation-era policies and practices, nor am I suggesting my anecdotal experience as a recipe for best practices to educate Indigenous children. However, when I hear Native American leaders calling for a Tribal Remedy Framework, their voices resonate with my experience. Accordingly, I believe the proposed Tribal Remedy Framework should be adopted and adequately funded without delay.