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Preparing Today's Youth for a Life of Struggle for Justice

By Theresa Perry

2010 Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Theresa Perry is series editor of the Simmons College/Beacon Press, Race, Education, and Democracy Lecture and Book Series. One of the books in the series is Dr. Freeman A. Hrabowski’s Holding Fast to Dreams, which went on sale yesterday. As a preview, we’re presenting the note she wrote for the book in which she explains how Hrabowski’s work, going on strong since he joined the civil rights movement at age twelve, is making headway in education and equality. 


image from www.beacon.orgIn the spring of 2013, Dr. Freeman Hrabowski delivered the Simmons College–Beacon Press Race, Education, and Democracy Lectures, called “Standing Up for Justice, Creating Opportunity: From the Birmingham Children’s Crusade to the Creation of Excellence in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.”

This book, which is based on those lectures, eloquently captures the bookends of Dr. Hrabowski’s life and indeed the lives of many other African Americans who grew up in the Jim Crow South, fought with their lives to dismantle this oppressive system, and then dedicated themselves to creating opportunities for black students and other marginalized groups.

The atmosphere at Dr. Hrabowski’s Boston lectures was electric, filled with a sense of anticipation and hope. Similarly in Holding Fast to Dreams, Dr. Hrabowski brings us a message of hope and possibility.

In describing his young life, he embodies Du Bois’s mantra “Your child is wiser than you think.” Dr. Hrabowski offers a moving story of what it was like to become a civil rights activist at twelve years of age. He describes the agony of his parents and their initial refusals to allow him, their only child and son, to participate in the marches. He describes how the morning following their refusal, with tears in their eyes, they gave him permission to march. Dr. Hrabowski describes the brutality he experienced during the marches and while being arrested.

We see how, as a youngster himself, he gathered the strength to support and encourage the eight- and nine year-old children who were arrested and spent five days in jail with him. Dr. Hrabowski narrates how his family and community had prepared the children for this day, deliberately handing over to them a set of values, beliefs, and behaviors.

This book challenges us all to ask whether we are preparing today’s children and youth for a life of struggle for justice. In it, as Dr. Hrabowski reflects on the fiftieth anniversary of the Birmingham Children’s Crusade (in 2013), we are compelled to reflect on what we have to do in these times to educate and “raise up” the next generation. It reminds us that ours is still a new democracy, in the process of being perfected.

Holding Fast to Dreams compels us to see the connections between the struggles of the past and present, to grapple with what it means to dedicate one’s life to creating opportunity for others. In this book we encounter a profoundly humane individual, who is unrelenting in his commitment to justice. The book is inspirational, uplifting, and intellectually compelling, while also providing a road map for what we must do to educate students of color for achievement in STEM disciplines. With great precision, and using both stories and data analytics, Dr. Hrabowski describes the institutional and pedagogical practices that allowed him to create a program that is the country’s number-one producer of black PhDs in the sciences.

He discusses the importance of creating a culture where students work together, where an individual’s success is predicated on the success of the group. He challenges notions that only some students can excel in math and science. He argues for the importance of providing students with sustained and early experience doing science, including working in laboratories, while creating among students the understanding that the development of expertise requires sustained work and careful feedback, as well as building connections with students’ families.

Before the research of Claude Steele, Angela Duckworth, Carol Dweck, and Uri Treisman had become widely embraced, Dr. Hrabowski had developed a theory of practice for normalizing high achievement for black students in the STEM disciplines. He institutionalized in the Meyerhoff Scholars Program pedagogical and instructional practices that helped students develop the stamina to work hard in pursuit of a goal. Dr. Hrabowski pushed back at the dominant narrative about who can achieve, challenging the notion that “science is a gift.” He created a culture of academic excellence based on the foundation of a community of students working together for the achievement of all.

Vividly and forcefully this book captures the themes of the Race, Education, and Democracy Lectures. It instantiates the wisdom of a man—as well as his family and community—for whom education was seen as the path to freedom. In his writing and by his work, Dr. Hrabowski moves us beyond an instrumental notion of schooling. He compels us to ask, yet again, How do we educate young people to live and work in a democracy predicated on difference? This book challenges us to liberate “prestige knowledge” and make it available to all, most particularly to African American, Latino, working-class, and women students.

About the Author

Theresa Perry is Professor of Africana Studies and Education at Simmons College. She is co-author of Young, Gifted and Black, and co-editor of The Real Ebonics Debate, among other books. She is faculty director of the Simmons College/Beacon Press Race, Education and Democracy Lecture and Book Series.