Bob Moses, a pivotal figure in 1960s Civil Rights Movement and founder of the U.S. Algebra Project, gave a public lecture at Mills on Thursday, Sept 20. The discussion was mediated by Ruth Cossey, an Education professor at Mills.
Moses discussed the importance of improving the math skills of minority students, the history of our country and how that relates to the oppression in the education system.
His message to the Oakland community is that the system needs to focus on quantitative literacy in the education system, meaning that math skills are just as crucial as reading and writing skills.
According to Elizabeth Coffin-Karlin, a member of the audience, students are struggling because “they believe that they are broken, not the system.”
Moses engaged with the audience by distributing copies of the Constitution, reading it aloud, and asking the question, “What is it doing as opposed to what is it saying?”
He highlighted the clause in Article IV, Section II, Paragraph III, in which oppression was evident through racism and classism. By asking the audience what their interpretations of the clauses were, he emphasized the importance of understanding the Constitution rather than voicing whether or not they agree with it.
A member of the audience, a graduate student of Mills studying public policy, said, “I think what it is doing is already setting a distinction between class…(minorities) will be enslaved and will be brought back to where they have removed themselves from.”
Moses argued that oppression in the education system began when the Constitution went into effect in 1789. He gave a detailed history of oppression in the U.S. and has been a part of the effort to reverse its effect on minorities for over five decades. From this history, he drew the analogy of a “marriage” between freedom and slavery and as a result, the ever-present conflict among the Constitutional people.
According to Moses, the system is stunting the growth of minority students instead of nurturing it.
After the event, Janice Quan, a middle school math teacher in Alameda, said, “Equity and access is a goal, but we’re really far from it. (Moses) reinforced what it is – it’s about the teacher…and engaging the kids so they don’t feel like they’re not smart.”
Quan’s goal as an educator is to carry on Moses’ teachings and let students who don’t feel like they have equal learning opportunities know that “Yes, they can.” According to Quan, the myth of the importance of literacy overshadows the importance of quantitative literacy. She wants to erase that misconception and she feels like she is making that positive impact in her community.
“I’ve been able to affect a lot of the kids and their parents, so hopefully that will have a ripple effect,” said Quan.
His dedication to his work was evident when Coffin-Karlin shared with the audience that her father was a student of Moses’ in the early 1960s. Moses immediately remembered who her father was and impressed the audience with his detailed memory of the student.
Moses’ legacy is being carried on through the generations. He taught Coffin-Karlin’s father, and has influenced Coffin-Karlin’s practice as a teacher. She will continue to use her learning experience from the event to influence the next generation – the students in her classroom.
“It’s just amazing to see a real legend of the Civil Rights Movement, someone I read about in college classes,” said Coffin-Karlin. “More than that, inspiration as an educator to really assess every bit of my practice under this guise of…not letting yourself be that innocent person…not letting yourself make excuses…and fighting against these preconceptions of what education should be and what it means to be a kid who is an ‘under-achiever’ and why those structures are set up that way.”