A Dream Yet To Be Realized

MLK Day keynote speaker Dr. Maisha T. Winn speaking at a brown-bag luncheon

How can the world Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of—with justice, equality, and opportunity for all—be realized when so many American youth are sent to prison or remain uneducated? Dr. Maisha T. Winn, associate professor in language, literacy, and culture at Emory University, discussed these questions during her keynote address for Middlebury’s Martin Luther King celebration.  Speaking to a packed audience in Bicentennial Hall, her talk, “Literacy, Social Justice, and Dr. King’s Legacy,” served up some harsh facts.

In a kind, open, and warm way—which would disarm even the most entrenched skeptic—Winn discussed the realities of life in the U.S. for millions of African Americans and Latinos. Quoting civil rights advocate Michelle Alexander, she said that “the United States incarcerates a larger percentage of blacks than South Africa did during the height of apartheid.” Referring to Dr. King’s final manuscript Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? Winn described present-day problems that are very similar to problems Dr. King wrote about. “The text is a scathing indictment of the shortcomings of the United States and its citizens who, Dr. King argues, are uneasy with injustice but unwilling to pay a significant price to eradicate it.”

Maisha Winn’s talk at Middlebury:

According to Winn, our education system is the source of the injustice for many young people. “It emphasizes discipline and control and minimizes creative possibilities.” With zero-tolerance policies, many schools have resorted to having police in the buildings. She described the common practice of sending children “straight to jail” instead of to the principal’s office, and she noted that the civil rights community is “oddly silent” about it. Situations that used to involve a meeting, or a call home, or detention after school are now referred to the police, creating what is referred to as the “school to prison pipeline.” Juveniles with records will have to “work harder to prove themselves in a system that seldom grants second chances,”  she stated.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the heavy emphasis on “high-stakes standardized tests” has contributed to the detention of children, she explained, because sending some students away gets “kids off the roster who pull test scores down.”  Yet it is those very kids who need the educational system to work for them most of all. Without literacy, Winn said, these individuals face “civic death”—with diminished access to jobs, voting rights, and health care.

What kept Winn’s talk from being overwhelmingly depressing were the experiences she recounted as a public school teacher herself and when she worked with incarcerated girls in playwriting and performance workshops. She had numerous heartening and encouraging examples of success, and she turned well-worn stereotypes on their heads: for example, the mistaken notion that juvenile offenders have no interest in learning. In the right environment, the girls were able to develop “deep reserves of resources.” They learned to “think and act for themselves, ” she said. The environment, as Winn described it, was respectful, not punitive, not blaming. The adults treated the girls more as equals, and everyone was trying to figure out “where do we go from here.”

One activity used to foster the girls’ creative thinking involved brainstorming about a fictional problem. Groups were instructed to pretend they were trapped on a deserted island and the only tool they had was a coffee can. They had to think of all the possible uses for the coffee can. Among the ideas: use it for fishing, storing beets, drumming, sending letters out to sea, and catching butterflies. Winn found it heartening that a student could imagine the beauty of butterflies in such difficult circumstances. “This type of programming allows girls to re-enter their schools, the workplace, and their community with a sense of integrity and possibility,” she said.

When Winn took questions from the audience, the interest was high and the questions plentiful. A student asked how to foster parental involvement? Winn had lots of ideas, and described how she had called all the parents of 150 students during the first few days of school to say something nice about their children. She wanted the first call from the teacher to be about something good. An administrator asked how higher ed can help K-12 schools? Let the schools decide what sort of help they need.  Someone asked if Winn has any influence with the Department of Education? She has been involved in some activities that include people working with the administration.

At the heart of Dr. King’s dream is a community pulling together to create possibility for all of its members, and a Middlebury community engaged in discussing Winn’s ideas seemed like a good beginning.

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  1. How about a copy of this address!

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