virginia walden ford graduation

What Prejudice Taught Me About Advocacy

In 1966, as my twin sister Harrietta and I were preparing to go to high school for the first time, the federal government encouraged the state of Arkansas to ramp up its public school desegregation efforts that had started just a decade earlier. It was announced that more black students would be attending Little Rock Central High School that fall. Harrietta and I had been excited to attend Horace Mann Senior High School, an all black high school where our older sister had attended.  But we were selected along with 133 other black kids to go to desegregated Central High School instead.
Just a decade after the “Little Rock 10” had famously desegregated that school, traces of resentment and discomfort lingered. Being a young woman still trying to sort out my own life and wants and needs, I was hesitant to be a trailblazer. Like many young people, I just wanted to do my own thing and not draw much attention to myself. The idea of “all eyes on me” at a time that I just wanted to fly under the radar made me anxious — and as a young black woman growing up in volatile times, attending Central High School made me a little scared, too.
So when our parents told us we would be attending Little Rock Central High School, we told them that we didn’t want to go there.  Harrietta and I wanted to go to Horace Mann, just like our sister had. My parents knew the significance of what having my sister and I, and others like us, go to the traditionally “white” school meant though. They would not waver on their decision about our educational future.
They told us that although we were young, we had an important task to attend the newly integrated school and stand up for those who would follow us.  My mother reminded us that many people had fought for the opportunity to show that black children could excel and thrive in the same educational environments as our white peers. This was very difficult for us to accept but as the first days of school grew closer, we finally began to understand our role in facilitating positive change in educational opportunity in Little Rock and beyond.
Even though there were many positive changes in how black students were being treated in those days, Harrietta and I still experienced a lot of racism and prejudice.
Some teachers ignored us and never called on us in class, as if we were invisible.  I had always been a good math student. But I was devastated during my first semester at Central when I received a failing grade in geometry.  I had already told my parents that my teacher never let me answer questions in class. Knowing that this was a subject that I would never fail, my parents met with the teacher to ask what was wrong.  She explained that I had never participated in class, and that this was a large part of our grades. Of course, I told my parents that I had tried to raise my hand many times but she never called on me, so I finally gave up trying to participate.
The principal investigated the situation and he quickly learned that the teacher had failed all of the black students, believing that none of us should have been there.  I was allowed to retake the class and earned a passing grade.
Unfortunately, my geometry teacher wasn’t alone in thinking that we shouldn’t have been there.  Other teachers and students made it clearly known that they believed we belonged somewhere else. Most of the white students wanted to be receptive to us but were often afraid to befriend us and were sometimes encouraged by adults to stay away from us.  It was tough for us to go through the normal challenges of high school with that kind of pressure.
I’ve always believed that if the black and white students had been supported at that time by some of the adults we would have had a much more positive experience in high school.  In fact, 50 years later, my classmates both black and white have worked to put all those uncomfortable memories behind us. Our recent Little Rock Central High School Class of 1969 reunion was a joyful one, with positive interactions among all the attendees.
But back in the moment, in those days, I begged my father to allow me to transfer to Horace Mann.  I was just too unhappy. He gently but firmly explained to me that I had a responsibility to continue there to set an example for my younger sisters. And I took that challenge very seriously. I vowed that I would stay at Central High School and do my best. Of course, I had my twin Harrietta for support and we have always believed that together we could accomplish anything. It was also comforting that many of the 133 other black children who were attending there were my childhood friends. Many of us had been classmates in segregated schools since first grade and we helped each other.  On May 28th, 1969 we graduated with pride and joy. Standing there receiving our diplomas with over 700 students was incredible.  The look of pride on our parent’s faces helped us understand that no matter what our difficulties had been, it was definitely worth it.  We had been educated in the best high school in Little Rock and the doors were wide open for us to be successful in the future.
In retrospect, those difficult days at Central High School were the start of my lifelong call to advocate for educational opportunities. I learned that being uncomfortable, and making others feel uncomfortable, are all part of the necessary process of positive change. If I’d simply hid my head in the sand, like I’d wanted to do before my freshman year, I would have missed out on a world-class education alongside peers from all backgrounds. I developed greater confidence around who I am as a person, just as I am, and learned to speak up for others who may experience unfair treatment.
The true spirit of advocacy is founded in a place of necessity and fueled by a passion for positive change. I learned that in my formative high school years and continue to follow my heart today, even when the path may be uncomfortable.

One Child: Why I Decided to Fight for Education Options for Children

My fight for school choice for all children started with a much smaller population – my own three children, and more specifically, my youngest son.

Life was challenging, raising three children in Washington D.C. in the 1990s. There was always the worry of the mean streets attracting my children.

I decided as a young mother that I would do all I could to make sure that did not happen and I made sure to stay closely in my children’s lives. That wasn’t always an easy task. I was a single mother, working hard to make ends meet while still being an involved mother. It was hard but my two older children Michael and Miashia found their places in life and school and, working together as a family, they excelled.

    With my daughter, Miashia

My youngest son, William, started off with some speech problems and as happens to many young black and brown boys in the inner city, the education system wrote him off as not capable of learning. This started a downward spiral for him that eventually started to pull him towards the rough streets.

I watched him align himself with the negative influences of our community. Drugs were prevalent around our neighborhood and the drug dealers targeted our young boys to work for them with the promise of expensive items (shoes, clothes, etc.) that they knew their single, struggling parents (mostly mothers) couldn’t afford. I saw my son choosing to run with the kids who were getting in trouble and when I asked him why, he told me that he felt safer being a part of the thug world. He said that smart kids got beat up. This was a real fear since we knew of at least one child who had been attacked because he was acting “too smart.”

William began skipping school and getting into all kinds of trouble in school with teachers and administration. He truly believe that if he acted “bad,” he would be safe. He seldom did homework because he felt like it didn’t matter to anyone whether he passed or failed.

Though a really good kid, it became harder for me to rein William in and I feared for him. When he was 13 years old, a neighbor offered us a partial scholarship to attend a private school. It meant that I would need to get a second job to pay the remaining amount, but it was a way out for him and I knew I would do whatever I could to keep him safe and ensure him a quality education. I took an evening job as a recording studio night auditor. After a nine hour day at my normal job, I’d work three nights from 9 p.m. to midnight. It was the only way I could afford this opportunity for my son and so I did it with gratitude.

          With my son William in the spring of 2018

My neighbor saw something special in my child and wanted to help. He had grown up in our neighborhood, left for a time and returned with his family. With the help of his parents, he had done well for himself in real estate. Upon his return, he saw how so many of these fatherless boys needed support from a man who believed in them and he helped them learn work ethics, working with him or with other business people he knew. With my William, this neighbor truly believed a quality education was what he needed. And he was right.

My son excelled in his new school and it was the beginning of a happy ending for our family. Yet as happy as we were, my neighbors children were not doing so well — and their neighbors’ children weren’t either. It became clear to me that something needed to be done to help all children have better educational opportunity, regardless of where they lived or where they were districted to attend school. I knew that I wanted to help and when the opportunity arose to speak out for the district’s low income and working class families, I found my voice and ultimately was joined by thousands of parents who wanted only the best for their children, too.

At the beginning, I had no idea where to start. I attended D.C. Board of Education meetings but found out early on that I was not going to be heard. Then in August 1997 I was directing a Summer Program in Southeast DC at the Fishing School, a faith-based program for low income children and got a call from the Center for Education Reform asking to speak with the parents of the children we served about a possible scholarship program.

I planned the meeting, no parents showed up and the CER Representative and I realized that the most direct way to garner attention for more educational opportunity would be to share my story of my son’s experience after receiving a scholarship.

I spoke for the first time before U.S. Representative Dick Armey and the House Education and Taskforce Committee, and the members actually listened to what I had to say. It was empowering. I knew at that moment that I could really make a difference and began to go out into the community and talk to parents about their dreams and hopes for the education of their children.

I didn’t set out to fight for school choice or speak up for other children; I started out as an everyday mother, wanting the absolute best in opportunities for my kids. I quickly found that drive was reflected in the hearts and minds of other parents who also felt trapped in an educational system that was failing their children.

I decided to fight for school choice because of MY child but I continued to fight for the children of others who deserved so much more than they were receiving.

 My kids, with their kids and loved ones