CharterFolk Chat: Round 2 With Howard Fuller – Having No Right to Not Get Up and Try to Make a Difference Every Single Day

Good morning, CharterFolk.

Today it’s my pleasure to share with you a new CharterFolk Chat with Howard Fuller.

Click here to read the full transcript of our chat with Howard.

Those of you who have been with CharterFolk since the beginning may remember Howard’s and my first discussion two years ago. For our second round, we dive deeply into a wide range of topics. As always happens any time I have a chance to talk with Howard, I find that I now have a stack of new books on my reading list, and I provide links below for those of you who may want to read along. I also provide links to other materials that Howard and I make reference to during our time together.

I do hope you have a chance to watch the interview in its entirety. For those of you wanting to get to different parts of the discussion, I provide a summary of highlights below. I also provide links embedded within the minute marks which will draw you directly to that section of the interview.

Before we turn to that, there is one piece of context I should share with you. At the beginning of the conversation, I ask Howard to recount for us the story of his shoes in Mozambique. It is a story that appears in No Struggle No Progress.

If you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, I highly encourage you to do so. It helps you understand even more deeply the extraordinary life that Howard has led.

In Chapter 7, “Hanging With Freedom Fighters,” Howard recounts how he travelled to Tanzania in 1971 and ended up making an unplanned trip on foot into Mozambique to spend time with guerrillas from the Mozambique Liberation Front.

Here’s the picture that Howard references in the interview. (Note duck tape on shoes.)

Here are the highlights of our conversation:

  • At the 1:30 mark, Howard recounts for us the story of his shoes in Mozambique.
  • At 4:39, building on the story of his time with the Freedom Fighters, Howard explains that being deeply committed to purpose has been his most important preparation for all the various, and often daunting, challenges he has confronted in life.
  • At 8:17, in response to a question about whether the latest generation of ed reformers brings the same commitment to purpose as we have seen in the past, Howard shares a quote from Frantz Fanon’s classic book.

Every generation out of relative obscurity must discover it’s mission, and either fulfill it or betray it.

  • He then goes on to make an observation about the way his grandson plays basketball and connects it to the way that all of us in ed reform must orient ourselves to the world we find today. “The game has changed.”
  • At 11:37, Howard observes that balancing politics and deep connection to the work of assisting youth has always been central to the challenge confronting ed reformers. And he found that having a chance to finally read W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction during the pandemic …

  • … has given him new insight into how the struggle for justice can remain similar over time, but each struggle happens within a historical context that is unique.
  • At 12:50, Howard explains how and why he reacted to people who suggested that we had come to an inflection point on race after the murder of George Floyd. For those of you wanting to observe how Howard educates the next generation about the similarities between the death of George Floyd and the death of Ernest Lacy, a Black man who was also killed by the police four decades ago, I encourage you to check out the Paying it Forward discussion Howard recently filmed at Marquette.

  • We then talk about how Howard’s school has been open for 18 years now and seems to be picking up all sorts of new momentum, which leads me to ask whether in both academics and advocacy he finds that new traction is achieved by sticking to things over time. It gives Howard a chance to reflect on lessons he learned from both Junebug Jabbo Jones

Mr. Say ain’t nothing. Mr. Do is the man.

  • … and from Derrick Bell.

  • At 24:40, I ask Howard about a passage from No Struggle, No Progress where he describes coming as close to having a nervous breakdown as ever happened in his life while serving as the Superintendent in Milwaukee Public Schools. Given the range and severity of challenge that Howard has encountered and overcome, I find that passage remarkable and ask Howard what we have to learn from his experience as it relates to understanding the difficulty of working within traditional public schools. In his response, Howard references a tragic story about a school superintendent from Cleveland who committed suicide, which was described in Jonathan Coleman’s book.

  • At 31:23, Howard states that he doesn’t spend time thinking about what should happen in large urban school districts today because his focus is on meeting the needs of the students and families that his charter school serves.
  • At 40:19, Howard recognizes that a lot of great new schools have been formed in Milwaukee and in other urban areas in the United States, but he hasn’t yet found a place where excellence is the norm, and he thinks we’ve got to stay focused on encouraging all schools within local public education ecosystems to work together better toward improved opportunity for all kids.
  • At 50:00, Howard cites Howard Thurman’s book (the same one that Martin Luther King sought inspiration from in the days leading up to the Montgomery bus boycott) …

  • … as one calling on ed reformers to serve as the “motive force” working on behalf of disinherited young people.
  • At 52:00, Howard gracefully reframes my question suggesting that we might think of him as “the Bill Russell of the national education reform movement” (or think of Bill Russell as being “the Howard Fuller of the NBA”), and he elaborates on the tweet that he sent upon Russell’s recent passing, celebrating him as “the greatest of all time.”
  • Finally, at 56:00, Howard talks about his identity being a mix of people who have had profound influence on him including Bill Russell and Malcom X, whose “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech in 1964 Howard was on hand to see in person

  • … as well as his mother and his grandmother who raised him. And it’s the combination of all those who have influenced him that leaves him with the belief that he “has no right not to get up and try to make a difference every single day.”

I find every conversation I have with Howard inspiring and revelatory, but this one I found especially so. I hope, CharterFolk, you will as well.

I end with a last thanks to Howard. Just keep going, my friend.