[00:00:00] Jed: Hi CharterFolk this is Jed, excited about today, we’ve got our first recurrence of a visitor here at a CharterFolk chat. We have with us today Howard Fuller for round two. Those of you who have been with CharterFolk since the beginning know that Howard was one of our first invitees to a CharterFolk chat. I believe it was in August of 2020. And so Howard said so many interesting things during that discussion that I wanted to have another conversation in the next month, but reached out to him just a few months ago and asked if Howard would be willing to come back. And was delighted to hear yes. So Howard, thank you so much for being here with us again.
[00:00:49] Howard Fuller: Yeah, thanks for having me, Jed, I appreciate it.
[00:00:52] Jed: Look, we can dive into so many different directions, and one thing is I like about doing interviews like this is it gives me an excuse to do a bunch of additional research on people that would otherwise feel maybe a little bit creepy, right?
[00:01:05] Howard Fuller: [laughs].
[00:01:05] Jed: But it gave me a chance to reread the book, and to dive back into the chapters that I love the most. I’ve watched a bunch of additional videos, and we’re going to create links to these videos. I thought what Marquette is doing with you, and these four-hour long interviews around paying it forward, we’ll provide all of those interviews going forward.
But I’ve certainly just enjoyed, getting to know even more about you and appreciating even more of what you’ve done for us. To get things started, one of the stories that just comes back again and again is, you and your shoes in Mozambique, right?
[00:01:43] Howard Fuller: [laughs].
[00:01:43] Jed: And I mean, just the full abandon within which you just threw yourself into that challenge.
[00:01:51] Howard Fuller: Yeah.
[00:01:52] Jed: And then realizing, half way through, “Wait a second, maybe there were a couple of additional things I might have thought about before I did this thing.”
[00:01:59] Howard Fuller: [laughs].
[00:01:59] Jed: But anyway, for those of our listeners who haven’t heard that story before, can you talk to us about Mozambique and your shoes?
[00:02:05] Howard Fuller: Yeah. Well,the problem with the shoes was I actually realized once I got invited to come into Mozambique, I only had 24 hours to get ready, and I couldn’t tell anybody that I was going into Mozambique. So I sort of dropped off the face of the earth, but I knew that I needed something other than those leather shoes that I had, [laughs]. But there were no size 14 tennis shoes-
[00:02:29] Jed: [laughs].
[00:02:29] Howard Fuller: … in Tanzania, in Dar es Salaam that I could find, so I ended up going in with those leather shoes. And they were pretty cool for walking around, [laughs], in a city. But not on a hike with guerrilla columns, inside of Mozambique. So I actually literally walked out of the soles of those shoes, and there’s a picture in the book of me sitting by a hut with Fernando, who was my bodyguard, and if you look real closely you can see duck tape.
[00:03:00] Jed: [laughs].
[00:03:01] Howard Fuller: Because I was, [laughs], it got to the point where I had to put duck tape on the shoes to try to hold them up to make it through. So yeah, if I had thought about it, I would have carried some tennis shoes. But I didn’t know I was going to go into Mozambique when I went to Tanzania, so, yeah I wasn’t prepared.
[00:03:20] Jed: Wow. I think there are all sorts of artifacts, in the Howard Fuller museum we’d all love to see.
[00:03:25] Howard Fuller: [laughs].
[00:03:26] Jed: But that one I think it just conveys so many things about you. And one thing I wonder is, now you’re into your 80s now, and you’ve been through so many different chapters in your life and so many different chapters of the ed reform piece.
And to some extent, you can want to like, go to the area stores and see if you can find a size 14, tennis shoe, a day before you need it. And but then there are other things where you’re just not gonna be able to have the time to prepare, and you end up in the middle of these things, whether it was your superintendency, whether the things you were doing earlier,with the political work you were doing before, really, charter schools ever came along. All of the work afterwards and wait a second, people who were my political allies are gonna be attacking me for doing things that are completely intuitive to me.
I mean, talk to me about preparation and readiness, for the circumstances that you’ve found yourself in. And is there any advice you can give to people that are gonna be into things? There are actually a few things that, do prepare you no matter what. It might make you more versatile and more resilient than you might otherwise be.
[00:04:39] Howard Fuller: I’ll try to answer that question Jed. One of the things I tell people, I was talking to a group of young people the other day, because everybody’s younger than me, [laughs], but I was just explaining that for me, it’s really crucial to be committed to progress. As opposed to any particular institutional arrangement forgetting the purpose. And I think that has been the greatest preparation for me, because what it allows me to do, is to do things where some people would consider that to be a sell-out. And so I’m always trying to understand the distinction between principle and strategy and tactics.
And so some things that I’ve done in my life, I’ve considered to be a matter of strategy and tactics, but I realize other people would consider them to be a matter of principle. As I would consider certain things that people have done as a matter of principle, [laughs]. But then they see it as strategy and tactics.
So what I’m trying to say is that to me, there’s a general way to be prepared for whatever pathway you have to go in your life, and that general way to be prepared is to understand who you are, what it is you’re really all about, and if that commitment to purpose is there, it’s gonna always take you down a number of different pathways. But if you are confident and clear about who you are as a person, what it is that you believe in, you can go down these different paths. And you also have to be prepared as I have been and continue to be, to take the criticism that’s gonna come from various people, dependent upon the particular path that you take.
I mean you can’t do work for social justice in any form in this country for five minutes and not live in a sea of contradictions. And so the reality of it is are you willing to take the weight for the decisions that you make? Are you willing to live with the contradictions that you have to live with in order to get to the purpose that you’re trying to achieve?
[00:06:41] Jed: Fascinating idea and realizing my own sense, where the values were clear, I would definitely… Felt more resilient. And then I had my moments of… And I’ve seen it in others. If you were to talk about our movement, whatever, if it’s ed reform, if it’s choice, if it’s charter schools, collectively, do you have a sense now that the people that are finding themselves in these challenging situations, are they bringing the same degree of commitment and principle as we’ve seen in the past? Less, more so? Any trends that you’re identifying about who’s coming and what their readiness is for the challenges ahead?
[00:07:21] Howard Fuller: You know, I really don’t have a view on that Jed. Because I’m not as involved on a day-to-day basis, nationally as I was. I’m not keeping up with a whole lot of stuff, [laughs].
[00:07:34] Jed: Right.
[00:07:34] Howard Fuller: Because right now I’m focused on trying to build, [laughs], a new building for our kids. I’m focused on what is the next school year going to be. I’m up at our school right now, our teachers have come back and sitting in on some of the sessions as they’re getting prepared.
And so I’m sort of like, focused on our situation right here in Milwaukee, this afternoon I’m gonna do a session as I’ve told you with, what I consider to be the next generation of leaders in the city of Milwaukee. And my goal is to try to get them to understand sort of how we got to where we are today, answer any questions that they have that I can answer. And then it’s about how can I be supportive of them, as they go forward?
And there’s this one quote from Wretched Of The Earth by Frantz Fanon that always sticks with me. And it says that , “Every generation out of relative obscurity must discover its mission in need to fulfill it or betray it”. And what that has always meant to me is that every generation has to sort of define its mission. It has to say, “This is what I see as the mission.” And then you have to decide like, how do you move forward on that mission?
And so for people like me, I think my role at this point in my life, it is first of all to keep fighting for kids every day, you know, [laughs]-
[00:08:55] Jed: Yep.
[00:08:55] Howard Fuller: … who don’t… I mean,I don’t care how old I am, I’m gonna fight for kids as long as I can. But it’s also to try to be here as a source of historical information, advice when it’s asked, but giving that advice in a way that makes it clear to people, you’ve got to decide whether or not this advice is of any value to you. And I ain’t gonna get mad at you if you decide it’s not, [laughs]. You know what I mean?
[00:09:22] Jed: Right.
[00:09:23] Howard Fuller: But at least I’m gonna tell you like, “Hey, here’s some lessons that I’ve learned, and you’ve gotta decide whether or not those lessons are useful.” It’s like when I’m with my grandson, and, he’s like a basketball fanatic and he really wants to play. And of course, I played, but I played 100 years ago. So I can’t, you know, like he’s doing stuff and [laughs], that, back then my coach would tell me, “Oh no, you, you’re not supposed to do that.” Well, yeah, you are gonna do it today, because the game is totally different. You know what I’m saying?
[00:09:50] Jed: Right, right.
[00:09:50] Howard Fuller: And so I believe the same thing about any struggle that goes on, to make change. It takes place under a whole set of different historical conditions. And so you have to approach it with that in mind. And I can only be helpful to that up to a point because I don’t have the same perspective that people who are engaged today, they come at it with a different lens, with a different set of lenses. And I gotta be… Understand that and just figure out how I can help.
[00:10:32] Jed: Yeah, I think that, I’ve got confirmation bias as bad as anybody. And so I admit that upfront. But I would say that I see some things that would suggest to me, that the reform world, what we sometimes find most bewildering, what knocks us off our moorings, is the political backlash. That our intentions could be doubted. And then suddenly we start looking at other people and wondering.
And what I’ve noticed in the last, two years, of course the political backlash has continuing and all that stuff, but these other issues have emerged around COVID, around learning loss, around racial reckoning. And I actually feel like our world has its bearings better, dealing with these incredibly difficult things. ‘Cause sometimes they connect us more directly to the kids. “I gotta do this thing.” Because I can understand the kids in the communities. The political stuff that almost bats us away,, and almost makes us more fragile, any reaction to that? Or is that just… Is that confirmation bias well, yeah you can pick that up where you want to, but it’s as much counter failing evidence , as you know, supporting.
[00:11:45] Howard Fuller: Yeah. Well, what I would say Jed, is that what you just described has never not been the case. In other words, it’s people, “Oh well-“
[00:11:52] Jed: That’s true.
[00:11:52] Howard Fuller: “… you know, there’s politics.” Well, there’s never not been politics, [laughs], right? It’s like one of the beautiful things about reading history and understanding history, is that you understand that these things have happened before, albeit under a different set of conditions, different manifestations of those conditions. And so when I was reading, you know, one of the things that COVID, [laughs], allowed me to do was to finally read Black Reconstruction by Du Bois.
[00:12:23] Jed: Ah.
[00:12:23] Howard Fuller: And it was really helpful because it helped me to understand what was going over at Trump. It helped me to understand how we’d gone through these different periods of our history and how certain things, certain ideas rise up at certain moments in our history. And these ideas have the same foundation, although they manifest themselves in different ways.
So for example, I hear people talk about “Oh, you know we’ve reached an inflection point in race in this country.” And when that was said after George Floyd was killed, I was like, “Man, I hear what you all are saying, you’re gonna have to prove that for me.” Because I don’t see what it is you’re saying because George Floyd was killed with a police officer putting his knee on his neck, in the same way that Ernest Lacy was killed in 19, what was that, 1985 I think it was when you know, I co-led a struggle with a brother named Michael McGee, Justice for Ernest Lacy.
Ernest Lacy was killed with the same maneuver by the police. And so when people start talking to me about all of this, “Well, this is a different point.” It is a different point. Things are different, but some of the fundamentals to me, [laughs], are the same. But it doesn’t mean that because the fundamentals are the same that the way you weigh struggle is the same.
But what I would argue, and I think the point I’m trying to make, I don’t want to become too abstract, is the same that when you talk about, “Oh, you know, the politics will drive you away.” Jed, think about what the politics were in 1988, when Annette Polly Williams, a Black Democrat, a Black woman stood up and said, “I support vouchers.” Think about what the, [laughs], what the politics were at that point in history when that occurred. Think about what the politics were early on when we began to talk about charter schools.
So the point I’m trying to make is, there’s nothing new about the political fallout and the backlash and all of that. It just comes in a different form. That its existence has always been the case when you try to weigh struggle.
[00:14:57] Jed: Question about what’s going on at school. Great to see the pictures behind you.
[00:15:01] Howard Fuller: Yes.
[00:15:01] Jed: See the recent press about progress on fundraising. Of the videos that I watched in over the last 10 days, the video of the signing ceremony and the excitement of all those kids going to school. It sure seems to me as though your high school, which has actually been around for quite a while now.
[00:15:20] Howard Fuller: 18 years.
[00:15:21] Jed: It’s picking up more momentum. That’s interesting. It’s the inverse of ’81 right?
[00:15:28] Howard Fuller: [laughs].
[00:15:28] Jed: It just seems to me as though, is there any correlation here? I mean, is there something to sticking with it, and at some point over time, some things start to emerge that weren’t there before? Or is it just happenstance? What is the commitment over time translating to, and to your school, and in terms of your advocacy?
[00:15:50] Howard Fuller: Yeah. That’s a very interesting point, Jed. Because I don’t have any issues with people who have their 15 minutes of fame and then they sort of, [laughs], disappear. But to me, struggle is about the long haul. It’s about understanding that you could get certain things done at certain moments in history, doesn’t mean … One step forward, two steps back. It’s never gonna be linear. It’s always gonna be like, fraught with, [laughs], with twists and turns and dangers and this and that.
But If you’re committed to purpose, it means that you’re committed to the struggle over the longterm. And at different moments in the history of any particular struggle, there are gonna be peaks and valleys, there’s gonna be moments, there are gonna be days when you’re like, “Aw, man, we really, [laughs], are moving forward.” And then there are gonna be days like, “Oh my God, what just happened?” [laughs]. Right?
But if you’re commit- I’m committed to the kids. I’m not committed to charter schools. I’m committed to what charter schools are supposed to do. I’m committed to the notion of a certain type of institutional arrangement can allow for certain things to happen. But at another moment in history, that saying ‘institutional arrangement’ may become a status quo reality. And you gotta not become a protector of the new status quo, if the new status quo doesn’t work in the interest of your purpose, which is to help kids.
So what we’ve tried to do with our school, and we’ve gone through all kinds of twists and turns, we’ll continue to do it. There are good days, there are bad days, there are some good things we’re doing, there’s some things that we’re not doing so well. And so the constant thing, I did a session with the staff on last Friday, the first day of the staff coming back, and I used three quotes, Jed. One of them is that, ” The only thing that’s constant in the world is change.” That is the only thing that is constant, [laughs].
The second quote was,” You can’t use the same level of thinking when the problem was created to now solve the problem at a later point in history”. You gotta talk about a different level of thinking. And then my favorite one is by a great African American philosopher named Junebug Jabbo Jones, he said that, ” Mr. Say ain’t nothing, Mr. Do is the man”.
[00:18:31] Jed: Ah.
[00:18:31] Howard Fuller: And the reality of it Jed, is you know, people can say anything. The question is, what do you do? And show me the results of what you do. Because many times I’ve been at the base with people who would argue about, “Well, I don’t like the way you’re doing this.” And my retort has always been “If you don’t like what I’m doing, cool. Show me what you’re doing. Here’s what I’m doing, I’m willing to stand on what I’m doing. Show me what you’re doing, and are you willing to stand on that?”
And so to go back to the question of momentum on the school, we are about to do something has never been done in the city of Milwaukee. And that is for an independent charter school board controlled by Black people, to build a new building from the ground up. And it’s never been done. There have been new buildings built by schools connected to churches, but never an independent charter school board.
But Jed, I could not do this without the help that I’ve gotten from Bill Oberndorf, Christy Walton, Betsy DeVos, I mean there, there have been people who other people would be all “Oh my God, oh my God.” [laughs]. These people are my friends. We’ve not always agreed on every single thing, [laughs]. Like I didn’t agree with Betsy when she worked for Trump. She knows this, but we didn’t lose our personal friendship over a political difference, you know what I’m saying?
[00:20:13] Jed: Absolutely.
[00:20:14] Howard Fuller: So a part of the reason why people look at me cross-eyed is because, one of the reasons, [laughs], I refuse to allow people to pinpoint me, I refuse to allow people to say, “You’re a conservative, you’re a liberal.” I’m neither. I don’t believe in either party. I’m not a Republican, I’m not a Democrat, ’cause both of them have rubbed their hands on my head and called me boy.
What I am is an independent thinker. What I am is a person who believes in interest convergence theory. I believe that in different points in time, people’s interest converge, even though that interests, that convergence can never be permanent because we come at it from two different worldviews. And this is a concept I’ve learned from Derrick Bell. And he talked about it in particular in his book Silent Covenants.
So I know it’s kind of a long answer, but to me, the progress of the school is an ongoing situation. And there are gonna be good days and bad days. And there are gonna be things that we do well and some things that we do horrible. The issue is are we always willing to be brutally honest about what it is we face, what it is that we’re not doing good, what is it that we are? Are we willing to change? Are we willing to step back and say, “You… I know we started this way, but this way really doesn’t work.” Are we willing to change?
To me that’s how approach struggle, over a long period of time. And I think the greatest thing that we all have to have, Jed, is humility, man [laughs]. I mean, ’cause you know, don’t none of us really have the answer… All of us are this, we’re human, and so we’re gonna make mistakes. But I can live with making a mistake because you’re trying to do something. And if you try to do something in this world, you’re never not gonna make mistakes. You’re never not gonna do something that, you’ll look back on and say, [laughs], “Well, you know,that really didn’t work the way I thought.”. But, here’s how I can remedy that. Here’s how I can do better. And I try to approach life that way.
[00:22:35] Jed: I would say over the last couple of years, since leaving CCSA, the comments you were just sharing about having allies across the political spectrum and not feeling as though any party represents me or represents us has gone from becoming almost like a political strategy that we’re consciously trying to adopt, more toward a way of life, more toward a principle that it’s just simply the only way to be in this world that is pulling us in so many different directions. And if there’s not something that holds us together, which is principle and the ability to keep building relationships across the most difficult, frames of difference. Right now, maybe one of the most difficult is political ideology. That may be hard… I was reading that there are people that will marry people of different races, of different religions, of different nationalities, we are not marrying across political ideology.
[00:23:34] Howard Fuller: Right.
[00:23:34] Jed: And now we are starting to realize that there is a Republican gene pool that is being formed, [laughs], and the Democratic gene… It’s literally it’s creating a difference in the species. So I’m tempted to dive more into this and see what you have to say, but I also want to be disciplined ’cause I had a question I wanted to ask you from the book and from… ‘Cause I’ve really been focused on what’s going on with our large urban school districts. And seeing them in this moment of massive, massive challenge and frankly, I think failure, collapse, implosion, whatever you want to call it.
And thinking about my own experiences, across a lot of different things, the absolute most difficult hours for me were working in San Diego Unified. And I reread the book and I don’t know what I didn’t see this before, but it seems as though your own personal challenges, like battling depression, battling anxiety were worst when you were inside an urban school district. Would you mind just elaborating more on why it was so difficult and is there anything we can learn from just how difficult these school districts are to work within?
[00:24:42] Howard Fuller: Yeah. And so Jed, I’m glad you asked that question. There’s a book that many people haven’t read, it’s called a Long Way To Go by Jonathan Coleman. And Jonathan wrote this book while I was the superintendent. And we became really great friends but, he spends a significant part of the book talking about me during the time when I was superintendent. And there’s a part in the book, I don’t know if people will remember this, but a superintendent in Cleveland actually committed suicide in a school. He went to a school and he committed suicide.
And in the book, I made a reference to the fact that I understood, why, [laughs] that happened. And my youngest daughter got all upset with me because she thought that at some point while I was the superintendent, I contemplated suicide. And, [laughs] and what I had to tell her was like, “No, I mean, I didn’t…” I never thought about, [laughs], committing suicide, but I could understand why someone would. Because of the type of pressures that came at you.
And particularly if you were actually trying to make change. If you were in it just for career, these pressures affect you one way. But if you honestly like, with every fiber of your being, you are trying to make a difference for these kids, just trying to move something an inch, as you know, in a school district, it takes monumental effort, [laughs]. Because the nature of the system is non-dynamic and self-protective. And so when you’re going in and you’re saying, “Look, [laughs] I really wanna make a difference for kids, and you see things that you know would make a difference, then you can’t do them. You’re not able to politically do them.
Because as you know, like the vast majority of school districts are controlled by the people who work in them. And now of course you have a different dynamic where you’ve got school boards where people, this has happened before in our history, right? Where single-issue people take over school boards where people have taken over school boards to make sure that race is not talked about, [laughs], within a school district. These things that are now hitting school districts are making being a superintendent or a leader in those districts, in so many cases really even more impossible than they were. Because once I left being the superintendent, I worked with Paul Hill to put out a study called, An Impossible Job.
[00:27:44] Jed: [laughs].
[00:27:44] Howard Fuller: And was talking about, [laughs], the impossible job of being a superintendent, right? And I think that job, for this moment in history, is probably even more impossible because even though, you face certain things in San Diego, I face certain things. There’s nobody living who ran a school district during a pandemic, right, and all of the implications of that.
But I think that the thing that the pandemic brought to light that, that people should have already known, was the inability of huge organizations like a school district to turn as quickly as it needed to turn to deal with the reality that it never thought would happen, or never knew that this kind of thing was happening. But because of the way that school boards function, and the way that school systems function, your ability to make rapid changes, your ability to do things radically different, it’s just not possible because of the way that the entity is structured.
And so people have… More people have lost confidence in the system because of the system’s inability to respond in ways that many people thought were necessary. But again, there’s conflicting views about how… What the response should have been. And so if you’re superintendent, you’re sitting there trying to figure out, if you care about kids, and not all superintendents do, with all due respect, [laughs]. Kids are not the dynamic that’s driving them, their careers are driving them. And I’m not… I’m just saying that as a fact, right?
[00:29:25] Jed: Yeah.
[00:29:26] Howard Fuller: But for people who are in there literally because they’rereally trying to make a difference for kids, they are under enormous pressure. Personal pressures, political pressures, just because of the nature of how the system works.
And so I have nothing but respect for anybody who’s given leadership to a school district or any type of organization during this particular moment in history, just because of I have some level minimal of understanding of what it is that they’re facing.
[00:29:59] Jed: Yeah, and I think for my dad, he was a very successful principal in a really challenging neighborhood and I think he built a reputation, “Oh, he knows how to do that. Oh, we’ve got this other one, let’s go and have him do that for his last 10 years.”
[00:30:13] Howard Fuller: Yes.
[00:30:14] Jed: And it did not work. He was crushed. And he was prevented from doing what he knew this high-need community needed done, and it was just soul-killing for him. And I think there are just so many different contexts within dysfunctional school districts where people just feel that. It’s we could do this, but then you’re in some way prevented.
Question I have for you is, as we see our school districts dealing with even greater challenges, where we’re seeing an exodus of kids, we’re seeing an exodus of teachers, we’re probably gonna see… Need to see more school closures happen. We may need to be shifting to hybrid things. I’m seeing school districts considering changing to four-day workweeks and these kinds of things. We’re putting our school districts in the situation where they have to change more than they’ve ever changed in the past, and yet their ability to change seems as, as small as it’s ever been, if not smaller. How does this affect your sense of optimism or how should we be orienting ourselves to these school districts knowing just how far short they’re likely to fall in the challenges that await them?
[00:31:23] Howard Fuller: You know honestly Jed, I give no thought to that.
[00:31:26] Jed: [laughs].
[00:31:27] Howard Fuller: [laughs]. I know… I mean, I’m just being honest, man. I’m like over here trying to figure out how do we make our school work for the children and the families, right? And I don’t spend a lot of time, looking over at the Milwaukee public school system, trying to think about what it ought to be doing and this and that. Because honestly, I do not know.
What I know is there’s 325 children who in a few weeks, are gonna come into this building. And I’m concerned about the adults being ready to do what needs to be done to help those kids, right? But I’ll give you an example, does the discussion out here about losing teachers, right, where are the teachers gonna come from? Here’s what I think, Jed, I looked at our school and I said, “You know what? We’re gonna have to grow our own teachers.” And but we can’t talk about it in generic terms.
What we have to do is you look at our building, there are at least three young people in our building who graduated from our school who work here. They could become really good teachers. But they didn’t do what was necessary in college so that they can now become licensed teachers. So what we do is, you sit down as I’ve done with each one of them individually, and you try to understand what their situation is. And then we map out a plan for you to get to become a teacher. That’s one of them.
There’s another group I’m talking to who are in school right now, like one, one of them is at Grambling, and his mother took out a Parent PLUS loan. And when his younger brother graduated from here and went to Grambling his mother could not pay for both of them, so he as the older brother quit so that his younger brother could go to school, right?
But I got in touch with them this summer and I was like, “Hey man, you gotta get back in school because you, when you left here you said that you wanted to come back to this school and teach math.” And so I have spent hours with him like laying out, “Okay man, this is what you gotta do, [laughs], in order to get back on track. But I’ve got to be able to also help you in a financial way.” You can’t just, [laughs], you can’t just counsel people. [laughs]. You know? At a certain point in time, people need concrete help. So my job is to get concrete help. So that’s another group.
The third group that we have to deal with are the ninth graders who we should be identifying right now who could potentially become teachers over the next four years. We need to work with them, what we would do any type of career path, Jed, so that once they graduate now we work with them through college and then they come back to be teachers.
I think we’ve got to have very specific strategies to do some of this stuff that we talk about in general terms, right? And it’s gonna come down to understanding the particular situation that you’re in, trying to develop a strategy for that particular situation, and then do it. Actually do it. Don’t talk about it.
[00:34:57] Jed: Yeah.
[00:34:58] Howard Fuller: Actually get it done. And so that’s where my head is. And so the dude who’s a superintendent, he getting paid real money to, [laughs], to figure this stuff out, [laughs], you know what I mean? I’m like, “Hey man, that’s… Whatever y’all do, y’all doing.” This is what we’re gonna do because you know what Jed? If those of us who are in our world don’t focus on our world, and don’t want you figure out how to make our world work for our kids, and how to make our world work in a particular situation we’re in, we’re gonna have nothing. You know what I mean? This district’s ain’t gonna work, what we’re doing ain’t gonna work. So then what is gonna happen?
So that’s my way of saying I have no idea, [laughs], but I do have some idea is about what we ought to be doing at this moment as a, a charter school. Because one of the benefits of being a charter school is our ability to make change quickly. You know what I mean? Because you know, Jed, that no matter what you think is the way to do when the kids show up, it’s different. [laughs]. You know what I mean?
[00:36:08] Jed: Yes.
[00:36:08] Howard Fuller: And so you gotta be able to take all of these grand plans that you had, change them because you… Because these kids have walked in here with a whole different set of things that you even imagined. Not everything, but you know what I mean? But the ability to make changes, to make sure that you can serve kids well. That is what we can do. As charters, whereas large districts can’t necessarily make those changes in the way that they need to be made.
[00:36:37] Jed: Yeah. And it’s that difference of just our readiness or our ability that… To make the change. When you start to multiply that across a number of charter schools that we have now, and the number of kids that are in school districts, it just seems as though there’s a special responsibility on us, those of us that have that freedom, that flexibility who can do it, to do it well.
But I also feel think that our heft is getting to be such that, we can’t help be expected to look across the other field and see the school district too and see how it’s struggling and what’s supposed to happen.
[00:37:09] Howard Fuller: Yes.
[00:37:09] Jed: And also when we see just how many super high needs kids there are, super high needs communities that are being served by those schools. It just seems as though the sense of responsibility grows. And…
[00:37:22] Howard Fuller: I agree with that Jed. But I think the point I’m trying to make is we can only do so much, as like these humans can only…
[00:37:31] Jed: right.
[00:37:31] Howard Fuller: [laughs]. So the question is on a given day, where are you gonna focus your attention, your resources, your ideas, and one of the things that I… That concerns me about the future, not concerns me, I mean, ’cause I know people will figure it out, but as networks grow, one of the things that we gotta not do, is become like that which we’re trying to escape from.
Because as you know, Jed, when you start institutionalizing stuff, which you have to do in order to survive, institutions can become self-protecting. And so what… So the question is, even as you try to solidify, you also have to be changing. Because if you don’t have that frame, then what you’re gonna become is, you’re gonna become non-dynamic.
And one of the things that worries me about the charter world, particularly when I was going to conferences and stuff, I start hearing a whole lot of stuff just like what I used to hear from the existing systems, right? And so we got to keep reminding ourselves, [laughs], that we created charter schools not to recreate that, but to do something different for kids. And we have to keep reminding ourselves of that reality. And not just reminding ourselves, but being willing to do it differently so that it serves our kids well.
[00:39:03] Jed: One of the comments I thought most interesting and maybe most dispiriting, [laughs], about what I saw you say with the Marquette , paying it forward series, is that you saw that there are three segments of education in Milwaukee, roughly third in charter schools, roughly… It’s not exactly balanced.
[00:39:25] Howard Fuller: Right.
[00:39:25] Jed: But there is the charter school sector, there is the private voucher sector and there is the traditional public school. And you found all three to be basically mediocre. And you lamented the fact that we were not looking across the three, figuring out what works, and then finding a way to do that. What I wonder is, do you see that as basically the story in all urban school districts? When I look at Washington D.C., for example, I actually don’t see that same story. I see that all boats have risen, I would much rather be uh, a family raising kids with educational options in 2022 than I would have in, say 1992.
But I don’t think it’s the same in all districts. In all cities. So can you just talk about that, are there places where we’re doing it better than other places? Or places where we are just getting lucky? Or there actually isn’t any difference?
[00:40:20] Howard Fuller: Yeah, I’ll say a whole bunch of stuff. And sometimes I wish I could go back and, [laughs], take some of it back, or reframe it. And that assessment might have been a little harsh because the reality is there’s some really good schools in the city of Milwaukee. In each of the sectors. I think the point that I was trying to make though is that I don’t think in any of the sectors, those good schools, however we define that, are the norm. I don’t think we’ve, we’ve been able to maximize in any way the ecosystem that we’ve created. In part because of the political opposition that continues to exist 35 years later.
And we’ve never been able to say, “Look, here’s the reality. We have a different education ecosystem than we did 30 years ago. Here’s how we could take advantage of that for all kids.” Like deal with equity and funding for example.
But the reality is because this isn’t about kids, it’s about who controls the power, who controls the flow and distribution of the money. Because it isn’t about how we make this work best for kids, we’re not maximizing what we created in a way that would work for kids. And I would think that no matter where you go out in this country, no matter what school district, whether it’s D.C., whatever, that you will be able to look across that district and see some really good schools, relatively speaking, are doing well by kids. But the way I am, [laughs], is I tend to always worry about the kids that are not doing well or the schools that are not doing well.
[00:42:04] Jed: Yeah.
[00:42:04] Howard Fuller: You know what I mean? And I look around our school, I see some kids who are really doing well, but I see some kids who are not doing well at all. And I’m always like, “Well, [laughs], what are we gonna do about them?” [laughs]. Right? What you know, because to me, but that’s also a bad thing. Because what you sometimes is you don’t celebrate that which is good, ’cause you’re so focused on looking at the things that are not going well. And I have or always remind myself, [laughs], that you gotta also celebrate that which is good, even as you keep saying, “Yeah, but we gotta do better.” Right? Because even though we may all be better than we were, the question is, we’re better than we were, but what’s required today requires something that is even better than where we are. You know what I mean?
[00:42:54] Jed: Right.
[00:42:55] Howard Fuller: And so you’ve got to always in my way of looking at the world, put stuff in context. And yes, like I told the staff the other day, is that there are people who say, “You know, doc, like the school ain’t, what it used to be.” And my argument is “Good.”
[00:43:16] Jed: [laughs], right.
[00:43:16] Howard Fuller: [laughs]. Because if the school was what it used to be, like the graduates. “You know doc, y’all used to do this and that.” I’m saying, “Yeah, but that was y’all. You know, this is a whole different group of kids. Right? You can’t function with them the same way that we functioned with you.”
But there are some fundamental things that I, I think are still critical, but it’s the how do you keep the things that work but make the changes that need to be made to meet the current situation? So that’s my way of saying that when I made that statement, what I was trying to get people to see is that we’re not in the situation where if you look across each of these sectors, the vast majority of schools operating in each of those sectors is really good for kids. That’s not true.
[00:44:00] Jed: Right.
[00:44:01] Howard Fuller: But it’s also true that there are schools that exist today and they’re doing well with kids, so much better than, five years ago or 10 years ago, right? But what I’m trying to get people to see is, don’t start thinking, “Oh, we’re cool.” No, we’re not cool because there’s still too many schools that are not doing well by our kids. And we gotta like, not let that reality just be and nobody says anything.
[00:44:34] Jed: Yeah. I think this is an obsession of mine. I totally hear you in terms of “Hey, I’ve got my head down and I’m focused on, these kids and what does the school district do?” I just am particularly attuned right now to just this notion that every generation finds a way to screw over, the low income black kids and Latino kids. And it seems to me as though a way that it could happen or is happening in this generation is that we’re leaving black and brown and poor kids in these urban settings, that are financially broken, they’ve had all the resources sucked out of there and anybody that could get out, is getting out. And yet we’re gonna leave those kids there. And what do we do about that?
And it’s also the place too, where it’s not like there aren’t all sorts of good-hearted people that want to do… Would charge directly at that but then they see that thing that instilled the anxiety and depression in you. Wait a second, if I go there and it’s high doubt in terms of what we can like, get done there, oh my goodness. And so we almost structurally have this way of like turn… Averting it… Our eyes from the ugliest and saying, “I can help in damn ugly, but not the ugliest. Let me stay focused there.” And I’m just… It’s just a moral dilemma that I never feel like I have answered for myself.
[00:46:00] Howard Fuller: But, but there is no answer for it, Jed.
[00:46:03] Jed: [laughs].
[00:46:03] Howard Fuller: That’s why you don’t have an answer. [laughs]. No, I’m serious.
[00:46:05] Jed: [laughs].
[00:46:05] Howard Fuller: There is no… You know what I mean? There’s no like, good answer to that, right? But let me ask you to think about it in this way: as you weigh struggle, one of the things we have to try to understand is there’s a division of labor, whether we want it to be or not. Some of us need to like, get up every day and worry about what you just said. And try to figure out, “Okay, how do we make a policy change? How do we make a difference?” Some of us have got to get up every day and say, “You know what? I got a school, [laughs], that I’m trying to run, and I gotta be like, laser-like focus on how I’m gonna make a difference.”
But at different points in time, we ought to be able to work together. Right? Because you’re out there, I’m just using you’re like-
[00:46:59] Jed: I understand.
[00:47:01] Howard Fuller: Policy this or that. I’m down here like talking about how do we work on this school? But you and I should be able to sit down and talk and say, “Okay, what is the lesson that I’m learning from my perch that can be helpful to you in the broader struggle? Or in the broader effort to try to make change?” And you ought to be able to say to me, “I’m out here talking about these broader policy things which are critical, but what is it that you’re learning in your real day-to-day situation that is gonna be instructive to me as we try to formulate the policy?”
Because as you all know, what happens a lot of time, people working on the policy, get totally divorced from the people who are working on stuff day-to-day. The people who are working day-to-day have no input on the broader policy. And so you get that disconnect, right?
And one of the things I was trying to say about Milwaukee is that if we were smart, we would look at this ecosystem that we have created and say, “How do we maximize this ecosystem?” Because we could. The only reason we don’t do it is because we don’t have the political will to do it.
[00:48:17] Jed: Yeah.
[00:48:18] Howard Fuller: Because again, kids don’t drive the agenda. What drives the agenda is who has the power to control the flow and distribution of the money. Because when you’re talking about school districts and schools, what are we talking about Jed? We’re talking about economic enterprises. We’re talking about entities that provide jobs, that provide careers, and so when you start, when you start getting into all of this and it starts affecting people’s careers, their jobs et cetera, et cetera, decisions get made around that, not how is it that we maximize for kids. And the tragedy of it is, we could do both.
[00:49:04] Jed: Yeah.
[00:49:04] Howard Fuller: We could do both if that was in our interest. But what I would argue, and you said it, and I’m gonna say it, too, is that the children who come into our school, the children who live on the north side of Milwaukee, the poorest children in the city, this country politically, writ large, has no interest in these kids, [laughs]. I’m gonna just say that. The structure does not care about these kids, and we need to quit acting like it does.
And so because… And so for those of us who have been fighting for as long as we can, we have to keep those kids’ interests uppermost in our mind. Because that isn’t what is, quote, at the top of mind of people who are making the certain types of decisions. That’s not what is driving them. And so we gotta be the voice, we gotta be, Every day fighting for those kids.
It’s like Howard Thurman wrote this book called Jesus And The Disinherited, and he talked about the disinherited being the poor people who get up every day with their backs against the wall, trying to figure out how they’re gonna make it. And the decision that they gotta make every day is how should I deal with those people who are in power, who impact the decisions that are being made about my life?
And for me, those people, they’re struggling every day just to live. And so people like you and me, we therefore have to be, [laughs], Not just the voice, not just the conscious but the motive force to try to make a difference in their lives.
[00:50:54] Jed: So I’m looking at my list of things here. I have two more things I wanna bring up and we really have time for one-and-a-half. But if we go over, we go over. I couldn’t help notice that you tweeted about the passing of Bill Russell.
[00:51:09] Howard Fuller: Yeah.
[00:51:09] Jed: I don’t know how people would think it’s fairest to describe, is Howard Fuller the Bill Russell of the education reform movement? Or was Bill Russell, the Howard Fuller of NBA, I don’t know.
[00:51:24] Howard Fuller: [laughs].
[00:51:24] Jed: Right? Right? But that, that you really talked about what we had to learn from Bill Russell and so I wonder if you could articulate that. But realize that what my thinking is what do we have to learn from Howard Fuller? I mean you’re 81 years into this thing, that means probably two thirds of your life is behind you, we’ve only got you for another 40.
[00:51:50] Howard Fuller: [laughs].
[00:51:51] Jed: Right? Time is precious here. I mean, what do we have to learn from, these pivotal figures like Bill Russell and Howard Fuller?
[00:51:59] Howard Fuller: Yeah, so here’s the thing about Bill Russell. I was in Cleveland when the infamous meeting was held at there. Because if you look at that picture, the picture I’m talking about is when these Black athletes came together to support Muhammad Ali. And so there’s a, there’s a of picture of Bill Russell, Lew Alcindor, Kareem, Jim Brown, but in the background there are pictures of John Wooten, Walter Beach, and I think Mitchel was there. These were Cleveland Browns football players. [laughs].
And because I was in Cleveland and, and there’s a whole set of circumstances be great to talk about, but I got into the Cleveland Browns football inner circle. So John Wooten I knew. Walter Beach, the person who actually was key to organizing that meeting for Jim Brown, I knew him personally. So I knew the people, [laughs], three or four of the people in that picture, I knew personally.
But what people have to recognize is what they took at that moment in time for someone like Bill Russell to stand up and say, “I support Muhammad Ali.” And Bill Russell, always demanded to be respected as a human being. So now these pictures are coming up of Bill Russell going down into the South, to speak to people. He was engaged in, quote, the Civil Rights Movement, right?
And so what I’m trying to get people to understand is as great as Bill Russell was as a basketball player, as a coach, I mean people talk about the greatest of all time, well, if you gonna use championships, then there ain’t no discussion, he gotta be 100. But for me, he’s the greatest of all time. Because he stood up as a Black man and as a human being and fought for justice and to be dealt with as a Black human being at a point in time, that was not an easy thing to do.
And so that’s why you know, I put that tweet out there. And I’m not mad at anybody because the current generation may not know all of this. But it would be woe is me if I don’t say something, right? If I know about it and I don’t say anything, [laughs] right? And so I was using the medium that I use to reach another generation of people. People say “Hey man, like you should really check out some of this stuff about Bill Russell,” because you would understand and appreciate him so much more than you do as, quote, just a basketball player.
[00:54:44] Jed: Well thank you for answering the Bill Russell part, and leaving predictably the Howard Fuller part aside. But I’ll come back to get that out of you in our third one, right?
[00:54:54] Howard Fuller: [laughs].
[00:54:54] Jed: Last question Howard. You’re 81 and you know our country is about 160 years from when slavery was still legal about 160 years, away from Emancipation Proclamation. Do you have any different vantage points, you having lived this long, “Hey, we’re only two Howard Fullers away from then.” or did you get some insight earlier in life that has given you a sense of historical bearings, all the way through? ‘Cause I think as I’m getting older, I’m realizing wait a second, things I thought were pretty far away, they weren’t that far away. They aren’t that far away. And it fills me with a greater sense of immediacy , I gotta make as much progress as I can. But what’s your take on that?
[00:55:49] Howard Fuller: Yeah, that’s a good point, Jed. I talk about it in the book. I talk about my mother and my grandmother, ’cause see, to me there’s like the historical figures that made me who I am today. I was at Cory Methodist Church when Malcolm X delivered the ballot and the bullet speech. I was sitting there, [laughs], right? Up in the balcony at Cory Methodist Church. That speech changed my life. And it also taught me a lesson about when I speak, that it’s important to realize that you never know who’s listening to you, and what impact your words may have on their life because it happened to me, right?
So Malcolm X was the historical figure that changed the way that I viewed the world. But the people who were the foundation for what I am today was my mother and my grandmother. And understanding what they went through in order for me to be on this video with you today, you know it’s all about my mother and my grandmother, [laughs]. It’s all about the sacrifices that they made to get me to this point.
So what I live with every day man, is I live with my mother and my grandmother, I live with what Malcolm X said, I live with what Bill Russell did, I live with what Ella Baker meant. I live with the fact that people died in order for people to vote. I live with the fact that people died so that you wouldn’t have to ride the back of the bus. And so for me Jed, these things are not like just history, they’re current in my reality. And so when people say to me, “Well, you know, like, you’re 81.” Well, yeah I am, but I actually don’t think a lot about it, [laughs], I just kinda get up and do what I have… What I can do on any given day”.
But what I do know is, for as long as I can like, breathe, for as long as I can like function, I have no right not to fight. I have no right not to get up and try to make a difference every single day, because of all of these people that I mentioned, and then because my mother and mt grandmother sacrificed so much for me to be at this point that I am today, that it would be sacrilegious for me not to fight.
And I understand that the nature of the fight is, there are gonna be all kinds of people who don’t agree with you, people don’t like you. I mean, that all comes with it, right? But I’m willing to like, take the weight for everything that I do. I’m willing to like, be held responsible for what I do, what I didn’t do and et cetera. I will never shirk from that. And it’s because of the Bill Russells, of the world. Because I feel so deeply about what people have done prior to me, right? I will never not have that be a part of who I am.
[00:59:23] Jed: Well, you just ooze a sense of groundedness in the historical struggle and the seriousness. And I think Howard, you really do create a kind of tether, a kind of anchor for our entire movement. So I cherish every moment that we have together and just constantly inspired by what you’re doing and the progress that you’re making at school and elsewhere. So on behalf of I know a lot of people who would just say, “At least say thank you to Howard.” just thank you for what you’re doing. Just keep going. I look forward to… Hey, if we do this every two years, I got at least 10, 15 more interviews, you know, but just keep going Howard, and thank you so much for spending time with us.
[01:00:11] Howard Fuller: Thanks, Jed. It’s been great man, I appreciate it. Have a great day.
[01:00:14] Jed: Okay. See you.
[01:00:15] Howard Fuller: All right.