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Take Martin Luther King's fight for justice to the classroom

DeLano Ford is the executive director of Teach For America-Metro Atlanta.

By DeLano Ford

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s example is deeply personal and inspired me to commit my life to educational equity -- today’s social justice fight. As we celebrate Dr. King today I am reminded of his Letter from Birmingham Jail, and his clear call to serve, which remains relevant today.

During my freshman year at Morehouse College, I lived on the second floor of Robert Hall, directly across from one of King’s early dorm rooms.  This was a daily reminder of what I needed to do to meet his expectations of me as a Morehouse Brother.

Nearly 20 years later, my home is just a few yards from the basement Dr. King rented in his final years at Morehouse. This ever-present neighbor challenges and inspires me to continue the work to dismantle the social inequities that divide our city and country. We still have work to do.

As the executive director of Teach For America-Metro Atlanta, I see the critical need for all of us to engage in this work every day: the lives of our most vulnerable students are at risk, classrooms across the city lack equity and families living in poverty don’t have a clear path to middle-class opportunities.

After graduating from Morehouse, I realized the work I was doing in management consulting was rewarding and challenging but something was missing. While I was able to volunteer and contribute financially, I felt like my impact was tinkering along the margins. I changed careers and made a commitment to education. It is difficult, but perhaps the most rewarding, work I know.

When accused of being in too great a hurry for equal rights, Dr. King wrote in his Letter, “human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men…and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.”  I believe we can realize equity in our lifetime, but it will take all of us working together to get there, and I’m humbled to work alongside incredible people doing this work every day.

At TFA–Metro Atlanta, we believe your classroom is your march and your torch of justice. This belief is rooted in the lessons of our past and a magnetic pull to a future that we know our students deserve. We partner with schools, organizations, and families across our city who believe deeply in the possibility of equity and the potential of every child.

Alongside the challenges we face, I’ve also seen progress and that inspires me. It is critical people from all backgrounds join in this work, and I’m grateful to be among a diverse group of people who are choosing to work in education in our city. Among our TFA teachers in Atlanta, 16 percent are black men and 39 percent are career-changers – this brings me great hope at a time when only 2 percent of our nation's teachers are black men, and fewer people are choosing to teach. And through partnerships with organizations like Alpha Phi Alpha, the world’s oldest fraternity founded by African-American men of which MLK was also a member, I believe more people will answer the call to teach in our highest-need classrooms.

There is a lot of good work being done, but we need more people to join the effort to build equity and dissolve the systemic problems that continue to create divided communities and a divided country. We need people to exert their energy and talent toward creating education equity.

While it is exciting for our city to see the growth of new businesses, housing and communities, I encourage you think about those who have been silenced or exiled from the mainstream economy because of their historical education. Will they be able to lead in such a demanding democracy or will it simply be hurtful they may never be prepared to run the businesses we see nor live in the luxury high rises that line our streets? And then ask what you are doing right now to improve our communities and help those most impacted by systemic injustices.

MLK was born here in Atlanta 87 years ago, and the work of living into his legacy continues today. So many people who have come before us have committed to this work. While we’ve seen progress, I hope an even greater number of leaders across lines of difference will lock arms and collectively usher in change for the good, committing to this work with passion.

Atlanta needs us to be as resilient and steadfast as King modeled for us from the halls of Morehouse, the Birmingham jail, the streets of Selma, and the streets of the Old Fourth Ward.




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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.