No education, no life

August 5, 2009

Chris Goodman is a student at Morgan State University; a hip-hop artist with two albums, What I Rap is SCARY and his latest Uncle Sam Has a Different Face; and youth organizer of the Baltimore Algebra Project, which employs teens to tutor and build math literacy among other teens, in addition to other grassroots organizing.

Chris sat down with SocialistWorker.org columnist Brian Jones to discuss the Algebra Project and the struggle to make quality education a right in an interview for the SleptOn Web site.

TELL ME a little about yourself: where did you grow up? How old are you? What has your experience been with school so far?

I WAS born in Prince George’s County, Maryland, not far from the University of Maryland. After my brother Asa was born, three years later, we moved to Baltimore. I grew up on the east side of Baltimore City, where I still live and work today. I'll be 21 on July 31. I'm a junior studying psychology at Morgan State University.

I didn't enjoy high school much because my work in the Algebra Project taught me that I wasn't receiving the quality education I deserved. So each day, I waited for the bell to ring so I could leave and work in the program, where I learned so much more.

I began organizing in high school and was nearly expelled for organizing a student strike. Now that I think about it, most of my focus in high school was on organizing students to speak out, to demonstrate and to demand quality education.

After graduating, I attended the University of Maryland's College Park for a year before transferring to Morgan State University. My experience at College Park opened my eyes to a new world full of fun and safety, unlike that of Baltimore City, where police brutalize youth daily, and homicide is the norm.

A student-led protest organized by the Baltimore Algebra Project brought the demand for quality education to the capital of Annapolis
A student-led protest organized by the Baltimore Algebra Project brought the demand for quality education to the capital of Annapolis (John Duda)

I felt disconnected from reality at College Park, but I did enjoy the abundant resources and the relationships I made there with professors and students. There were some great organizations on campus, like Community Roots, the Cultural Center, NAACP, Hip Hop Club, etc.

After doing my applications late, I had little to no financial aid, and my grades were low because I spent more time writing songs and playing basketball instead of studying. So I made the decision to go back home and attend Morgan State, where it's cheaper. But I needed to focus more on my studies.

Now, at Morgan, I'm on the Dean's List, while working with the Algebra Project as an educational organizer. I'm moving into an apartment with my girlfriend, Abeni, who's attending University of Baltimore in the fall, and I just released my third solo mix tape, titled Radio TakeOver three weeks ago.

WHAT IS the Baltimore Algebra Project?

THE BALTIMORE Algebra Project is a youth-run tutoring program where students are employed to build math literacy among peers. Our mission is to raise the socio-economic status of inner-city youth by building math literacy.

The informational age of today demands knowledge-based work versus the physical labor of the past era. Math is a key element of this information age, where inner-city and rural children are deprived quality instruction, in turn setting children up to continue the cycle of unskilled labor and poverty.

Alongside the math tutoring is the youth organizing component, where a committee of tutors commit themselves to demanding quality education as a constitutional right. This demand may take many forms, from the student bus ticket extension campaign to student strikes and blocking traffic to demand that school officials appropriate the billions of dollars owed to Baltimore City public schools.

WHAT WAS it like for you going through the Algebra Project's program?

THIS IS my eighth year in the program. I've been a member since I was 13 years old. As you can imagine, this experience shaped my development as a person, as a student tutor leader, and as an organizer.

I owe most of my political education to my firsthand experiences in the program. How many students are employed to organize, attempt to meet with officials, and, through direct action and other means, challenge this racist educational system in Maryland?

I have eight years worth of great and challenging experiences, but one crucial component is the annual opportunity to travel and network with youth across the country doing similar work.

THE PROGRAM'S slogan is "No education, no life." What does that mean to you?

TO ME, "No education, no life" means that the poor or sharecropper's education--as Dr. Bob Moses puts it--is not designed to produce citizens or full human beings. Instead, it's designed to make students hate learning, while not teaching them the skills needed to survive in this capitalist world. Without the skills or knowledge to earn money to sustain families, people are forced to resort to crime and other destructive means to earn a living. Poor education leads to ignorance, poverty, prison, crime and death. No education, no life!

SO IT'S like you're learning critical thinking and communication skills, then you turn around and use those skills to organize in the community. Is that right? Do you think this is a model that could work in the public schools?

THIS MODEL can definitely work in public schools. Critical thinking is necessary when analyzing the conditions of our communities and politics. When you're creating a plan to change your environment or tackle an issue such as the educational system, you must think critically.

One reason why critical thinking skills aren't developed in public schools is because the big decision makers don't want to produce active citizens, but passive workers. The Algebra Project develops active citizens who challenge themselves, their peers and the larger society.

I SEE the Baltimore Algebra Project using progressive teaching techniques to get students to think critically about science and mathematics. But it's taking another step--you've got students organizing street protests, hunger strikes and sit-ins around a range of issues. Why is it necessary to be involved outside of the classroom? How do these two things fit together?

OUTSIDE THE classroom is what matters. Think about it. You spend years and years in a classroom to prepare for interacting with society. So many Black students are intentionally taught in a way where lessons cannot relate to their communities or personal experiences. If you can't relate to what you're doing in a classroom with yourself or your community, it's worthless.

Dr. Moses--the civil rights organizer and founder of the Algebra Project--has a five-step Algebra Project Pedagogy that gives students a sense of ownership of the math they're learning:

Step 1: Physical Experience: An activity or game (e.g., twister as a probability problem) is played.

Step 2: Pictorial Representation: Students draw the physical experience.

Step 3: People Talk: Students talk about the activity and the math problem.

Step 4: Feature Talk: People Talk is transformed into mathematical terms called features.

Step 5: Symbolic Representation: Students create their own equation to solve the problem from the feature talk.

The organizing connects to the classroom because quality education will not be achieved without a struggle and a demand by masses of students. To me, the math connects with our organizing because we're math tutors. Going over math so often sharpens our skills--of analyzing problems, mathematical and political, etc.

YOU ORGANIZED young people to fight for bus pass extensions. Their bus passes expired at 6 p.m., and you wanted them extended until 8 p.m.. Why was that an important issue?

THE TRANSPORTATION issue is so important because youth need to be able to travel around the city to be active in positive programs, attend community events, create their own networks, and activities and work. Adults can't argue that youth aren't involved in various programs and then not provide transportation, knowing that families can't afford to pay $3.50 for youth to travel each day.

From this struggle, I've learned to be more optimistic about getting meetings with heads of businesses. I thought that it would take more than one rally to meet with Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) Administrator Paul Wiedefeld.

I also learned that after building a struggle, relationships with city council members and school system representatives, and the lines of communication improve. The 8 p.m. student bus ticket extension would have been more of a struggle if the Baltimore Algebra Project didn't have the relationship we have with the council and school system.

But the struggle isn't over yet. Like the youth of Brasilia, who recently won a multi-year campaign for free public transportation for youth, we still plan on demanding full-day passes.

HOW DID you get started organizing to have student bus tickets extended?

THE ALGEBRA Project is a part of a larger youth coalition called Peer to Peer Youth Enterprises. A group we work with, Youth Council, began a campaign to extend the student bus tickets to 8 p.m. They made petitions and were on a radio station at one point to spread the word about the work they were doing.

Youth Council members reached out to the Baltimore Algebra Project Advocacy Committee for some advice and support because this was their first campaign, and some students were becoming uninterested in really organizing. After attending a couple of meetings, Advocacy members (organizers in the BAP) encouraged Youth Council students to continue to fight for the extension.

By the end of the meeting, we committed to team up with the Youth Council in their fight. Before we knew it, we were in meetings with city council members, MTA representatives, school system representatives and other young leaders, discussing details of how the tickets could be extended.

The Advocacy Committee felt the officials weren't moving at a reasonable pace, so we demonstrated outside the MTA headquarters, demanding "all-day passes" for students and a meeting with Paul Wiedefeld. The meeting was scheduled, and shortly afterwards, a pilot program was set up to extend the tickets. And now they're officially extended to 8 p.m.

WHAT ARE you working on now?

RIGHT NOW, I'm working on my music. Of course, I'm working with the Algebra Project this summer--a six-week program. I'm co-facilitating a session on organizing skills, including facilitation training, rhetorical and public speaking development, civil disobedience training, and questions like "Why organize?" and "How do the movements of the past relate to today?" So far, the sessions have gone really well.

As for this upcoming year, we have some plans on drafting a Student Bill of Rights to take to the larger national network. We're going to continue to build the organizing groups in as many high schools as we can (Red X Parties), while at the same time doing some major actions, and hosting conferences and parties.

First published at SleptOn.com.

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