Remembering Ramona Edelin – Changing Language, Changing the World, and Changing People One By One

Weekend greetings, CharterFolk.

During my years at High Tech High, one of the mantras that Larry Rosenstock would return to again and again was the idea that, if you want to change the world, you had to first change the language that the world uses.

In my days in Charterland, I have met many people who have changed language and thus have changed the world.

But none surpassed the language and world changing that Ramona Edelin achieved.

The language that Ramona is most famous for having changed, of course, is her minting of the term African-American.

Dr. Ramona Edelin, president of the National Urban Coalition, said: ”There were bitter battles when we went from ‘Negro’ to ‘black.’ We don’t want that this time.” Dr. Edelin said that when she brought up the idea for adopting the term African-American at a meeting of 75 black groups convened by Mr. Jackson late last month, there was ”overwhelming consensus” favoring the change. The meeting attracted scores of people from fraternities, sororities and civic and social groups.

Not only did she first surface the idea but when it gained currency in the public realm …

… she championed the idea in many settings, as she did in her appearance on the PBS Newshour in 1989.

Her compelling championing was a function of the fact that, on all matters civil rights, Ramona was unmistakably, monumentally credible …

… with a track record dating back to her service as a professor at Northeastern University in the mid 70’s.

The coining of the term African American is but one example of the language and world changing Ramona did across the entirety of her remarkable life.

Without doubt, she changed also the language that anchors the national charter school movement, conferring credibility on our shared conviction that the quest for improved public education is one of the most important civil rights struggles of our time.

It is language she injected into the public sphere over and over …

… sometimes at great cost to herself …

… and often in the highest stakes settings such as her testimony before the highest legislative body in the land.

She was also one who understood deeply that it was essential that those who were most deeply connected to the communities wherein we operate schools …

… must be recognized and respected and involved as leaders so that the language that they use to describe our work could be infused into our advocacy efforts. Because she knew that the language they bring to the discussion would ultimately change the world.

For Ramona, one of the ways we best honored and incorporated the voices of those closest to communities was reflected in how we govern our advocacy efforts. She always believed it was essential that charter school advocacy would be led by membership associations, organizations that were authentically owned by the very movement they sought to represent. Organizations that built structures of shared decision-making that authentically gave voice to all within the movement.

It led her to found the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools …

… and to lead it effectively for nearly two decades. During that time, the charter school movement in DC became one of the most successful in the entire country, helping generate an all-boats-rising story in our nation’s capital as profound as any that we have seen anywhere in the United States.

For many years a two-organization advocacy approach proved formidable in DC, but Ramona knew that one day a unified effort would be needed. And when she had convinced the world that that unified effort would need to be a membership organization, she embraced change. Some in the DC charter school community were not at first convinced. But when they learned that Ramona was fully in support of the new idea, they were assured. And so the idea went forward.

And thus was born the DC Charter School Alliance …

… an organization led today by Ariel Johnson …

… and recognized to be the strongest advocacy structure the DC charter school movement has ever had.

It’s yet another of Ramona’s many legacies.

I had the privilege of working with Ramona over the last two decades of her life. It began when I took the job at CCSA and was brought into the world of people leading state associations. Ramona had been doing it for years and had much to teach me about advocacy and the history of our movement. And we found that we had many ideas in common. So it was natural that, when I was ruminating on an idea I had to create something new in Charterland, I would turn to Ramona for advice. I specifically remember her being among the very first I asked about the name.

“What would you think, Ramona, if we called it “CharterFolk?”

Oh, how she liked that idea! That great smile that spread across her face in the instant I shared it was all the answer I needed.

My delight only grew when she agreed to serve as an inaugural member of the CharterFolk Board, a position she held until her passing.

Over the years, she served as a key sounding board …

… on some of the pieces …

… that have been most difficult to write here at CharterFolk over the years.

I was also delighted that Ramona wrote one of our earliest Contributor Columns …

… a post that is still among my favorites that we have published, a chance for Ramona to remind the world of the brokenness that existed among so many district public schools in the era before chartering …

… and of the stunning progress the charter school movement has catalyzed.

It was work that supplemented the continued efforts that Ramona made all the way through the very end of her life …

… drawing in the leaders of DC’s charter school movement …

… with the deepest connections to community …

… so that the language that they use would be infused into the very vernacular of our movement so that we would be better postured to change the world.

Since getting back from the Camino last fall, perhaps the professional moment that has touched me above all others came at the December meeting of the CharterFolk Board of Directors.

It was the first meeting of our expanded Board when we wanted our new Board Members to hear from our inaugural ones about what it is that we are trying to achieve with our shared effort to advance CharterFolk.

Board Chair Emilio Pack went first.

Ramona went next.

CharterFolk, I’ll never do justice to what she said. But they were words that filled me. Words that propel me on. As only Ramona could have offered them.

The kind of language that not just changes the world.

But changes people too.

One by one.

Ramona certainly changed me.

Perhaps as profoundly as any CharterFolk ever has.

Just as I know that she has changed countless, countless others.

And so, CharterFolk, on we go.

Infused with the language of Ramona Edelin.

A woman who profoundly changed the world.