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Economics and education – a work in progress

    If we didn't hear enough conversation about the economy during the 2012 presidential campaign, the day following the reelection of President Barack Obama (Nov 7) the conversation was still top of mind – but in a different setting.

    The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Black Enterprise teamed to present a symposium on economics and education reform, entitled "Today's Business Crisis: Educating Tomorrow's Workforce." The setting was the Grand Ballroom of the Peabody Hotel downtown.

    From the opening remarks by Earl "Butch" Graves Jr., president and CEO of Black Enterprise, to the welcoming remarks of Memphis City Schools Supt. Dr. Kriner Cash and Dawn Chirwa, chief of staff-U.S. Programs for the Gates Foundation, there were many recurring themes. Most notable were education and economics; families – particularly parental involvement; culture; community organizing; teachers; thought leaders and partnerships.

    "When it's all said and done, this is a conversation about opportunity, more than anything else," said Graves.

    Presenter, Rahim Islam, president and CEO of Universal Companies, framed the 3 ½-hour exchange this way: "This conversation is about how to make business and education work."

    Two panels drove the discussion.

    One featured Kenya Bradshaw, executive director, Stand for Children; former NBA All-Star Penny Hardaway, entrepreneur and a local owner of the Memphis Grizzlies; and Irvin Scott, deputy director of Education for the Gates Foundation. They dialogued on "Helping our Schools."

    The second panel brought together Dr. Roderick Richmond, chief of School Operations, Academic Operations, Technology & Innovation; Yetta Lewis, chief academic officer at Gestalt Community Schools; and Reginald Porter, a member of the Memphis/Shelby County Board of Education. They exchanged ideas on "Developing School Models that Work."

    You can't talk education, economics and business without including technology and social media. So it was no surprise that the entire symposium was filmed and Tweeted, using #EDUreform.

    'Average is over'

    Fresh from an educational conference at the Council of Great City Schools, Cash reflected on some takeaways from the conference.

    "The day of average is over. It's only about good, better and best. And that's what we're trying to do here in Memphis," said Cash.

    "It's no longer about cheap labor but about cheap genius," he said, pointing out that 43 percent of Asians attending American universities had a perfect 800 on their SAT test. "That's who we're competing against in the twenty-first century. We are competing with China. Let's get globally competitive and let's do it now."

    According to Cash, "The new literacy is how quickly we can learn and relearn; to be quick and agile; bringing value added to the table."

    Graves complimented Cash when he affirmed, "our missions are totally in harmony."

    "When my father started this company his focus was education. Black Enterprise has made education our top priority. American education is broken and we're all responsible for its repair," Graves said.

    Islam, also agreed.

    "Education and economics, that's what Universal Companies is all about. They are the two systems we need to focus on," he said. "We've discussed political rights, religious rights, civil rights, legal rights, but no one is focusing on economic rights."

    Any plan tackled must be a plan that's focusing on neighborhoods and it has to be comprehensive and it has to be at scale, Islam said.

    "We have to have a strategy; a back-end and front-load strategy... because when white America gets a cold, African Americans get pneumonia."

    Islam delved into the disparity of deeply entrenched cultural issues, putting on the floor "the legacy of slavery." He said hate and fear have to be dealt with. Noting violent crimes and particularly the murder rate, he then referenced black joblessness, the leadership gap, and kids acting crazy because their parents are acting crazy.

    "It's bad," Islam said, "but there's hope."

    "We need to stop letting others come in and fix our problems. African Americans have to lead the effort. There are only two areas that African Americans can fix: restoring our culture and rebuilding the African-American family."

    It's not possible to address "the whole issues of African-American families without addressing the whole being – even spiritually we're messed up," he said.

    'Step up to the plate'

    At one point, Graves noted the brilliance of the day's speakers, and injected a pivotal observation. "But you guys have to engage us (the business community) and help us find a way to get involved. Because at the end of the day, if we don't employ them, who will?"

    The propositions and proposals from the panelists were mixed with best practices.

    "To start, we need more men – men willing to step up to the plate," said school board member Porter. "We're looking for men in the teaching profession, but also in the visibility profession."

    Children, said Porter, need a wider range of exposure.

    "If you really want to get involved," he said, "start a charter school and give real application to practical issues. I'd love to see an ESPN school where athletes take physics, as it relates to sports; a FedEx school, where kids learn the practical application of technology and business, and a Black Enterprise School where they learn hands of journalism."

    Bradshaw credited Memphis Challenge for giving her exposure to things she didn't know existed in Memphis, even though she grew up in Orange Mound. Now a local and state organizer of Stand for Children, Bradshaw's team was out front in the unsuccessful move to garner voter approval for a half-cent sale tax increase to fund education.

    "We've never really educated all of our children," said Bradshaw. "We are underfunding our schools on every level – local, state and federal. People in our community are going to have to speak up for our children. They are our children whether you birthed them or not."

    'Completely involved'

    Now coaching basketball at Lester Elementary School, Hardaway said, "You have to wear two hats for the kids nowadays, because for some parents, their kids are not a priority, but they come with lots of issues. You have to first find out what's going on in the household."

    The home has to be the root of it, he said, giving credit to his grandmother, who raised him.

    "I wanted to come back home and make an imprint in the community because I was these kids," he added.

    Irving said his career path became education instead of athletics because of his teacher.

    "I admire great teachers who push their kids. I had a teacher who didn't criticize us, but she introduced us to Robert Frost. She even made me do my own poem," he said.

    "I didn't want to be an educator. The person I really wanted to be was Tony Dorsey of the Dallas Cowboys, when I was in the ninth grade. I'm glad I didn't go out for the Cowboys. I'm glad I'm a teacher. I'm so much happier."

    Lewis, whose charter school in Hickory Hill is getting national attention, said, "We focus on building community schools. To build education, we focus on being completely involved in the education process. For me, education and the community are hand in hand. You can't do one without the other."

    'Real changes'

    Richmond directed plenty of thanks to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for its funding support

    "Thanks to them we're looking at both leadership effectiveness, teacher effectiveness and accountability. We have to make sure everyone from the top down is accountable. It begins with leadership," he said.

    Graves, apparently pleased with the first in a series of such symposiums, posed this question: "Why did we choose Memphis?"

    "I can't think of a better place to begin this conversation," he said. "There's a real challenge here between the schools – Shelby County and Memphis City Schools."

    Six other symposiums are planned in 2013, said Graves.

    "It's our hope that Memphis can serve as an example of public and private partnerships working to improve schools and the educational workforce," he said.

    "I don't mean corporate America and city owners, but I mean African-American businesses, such as professional black executives who will take an interest and form some sort of group or compose something similar, like Memphis Tomorrow; who can come together to make changes – real changes and substantative changes in the culture and the community."

    (Dorothy Bracy Alston is a journalist, author, freelance writer and adjunct English professor. Visit Dorothy's blog at; join her on Facebook at www.facebook .com/dorothybracyalston, email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or call 901-570-3923.)

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