Bob Moses’s Algebra Project Empowered Students with Math as a Tool of Liberation
August 11, 2021
By Robert P. Moses and Charles E. Cobb, Jr.
Bob Moses left us with a legacy to honor and live up to in the spirit of the civil rights movement today. His work to organize Black voters in Mississippi in the early 1960s famously transformed the political power of communities. Nearly forty years later, he organized again, this time as founder of the national math literacy program called the Algebra Project. The following passages are highlights from Radical Equations, which he wrote with Charles E. Cobb, Jr., that delve into what the Algebra Project was all about and the importance of its foundation in civil rights movement building.
The Algebra Project is first and foremost an organizing project—a community organizing project—rather than a traditional program of school reform. It draws its inspiration and its methods from the organizing tradition of the civil rights movement. Like the civil rights movement, the Algebra Project is a process, not an event.
Two key aspects of the Mississippi organizing tradition underlie the Algebra Project: the centrality of families to the work of organizing, and organizing in the context of the community in which one lives and works. As civil rights workers in Mississippi, we were absorbed into families as we moved from place to place with scarcely a dollar in our pockets, and this credential—being one of the community’s children—negated the white power structure’s efforts to label us “outside agitators.” In this way we were able to sink deep roots into the community, enlarging and strengthening connections in and among different communities, absorbing into our consciousness the community’s memories of “where we have been,” forcing us to our own understanding of our collective experience.
We are struggling to frame some important questions: Is there a way to talk with young people today as Amzie Moore and Ella Baker did with us in the 1960s? Is there a consensus for young Blacks, Latinos, and poor whites to tap into that will drive such a literacy effort? What price must they pay to wage such a struggle?
Like Ella Baker, we believe in these young people, that they have the energy, the courage, the hope to devise means to change their condition. Although much concern about the education of African-American young people is voiced today, I am frequently asked why I have turned to teaching school and developing curriculum—teaching middle school and high school no less. There is a hint of criticism in the question, the suggestion that I am wasting my time, have abandoned efforts at attempting real, meaningful social change. After all, in the end, such work “merely” leads to youngsters finding a comfortable place in the system with a good job. Nothing “radical” about that, I am told. This is a failure to understand what actually is “radical,” so it might be useful to repeat what Ella Baker posits as necessary to the struggle of poor and oppressed people: “It means facing a system that does not lend itself to your needs and devising means by which you change that system.”
So, to understand the Algebra Project you must begin with the idea of our targeted young people finding their voice as sharecroppers and day laborers, maids, farmers, and workers of all sorts found theirs in the 1960s. Of course, there are differences between the 1960s and what the AP is doing now. For one, the time span between the start of the sit-in movement and the challenge by the MFDP in Atlantic City was incredibly brief, sandwiched between two presidential elections (Kennedy-Nixon and Johnson-Goldwater). When I look back it feels like twenty years folded into four; I still can hardly believe how short a time period that was. Math literacy, however, will require a longer time frame. There is a steep learning curve and what we’re looking at with the AP is something evolving over generations as math literacy workers/organizers acquire the skills and training through study and practice and begin tackling the system. Young people, however, may speed this up as youth clearly did in the civil rights movement. And, whereas the right to vote campaign took place in the Deep South, the math literacy problem is throughout the entire nation.
Yet to understand the Algebra Project, you need to understand the spirit and the crucial lessons of the organizing tradition of the civil rights movement. In Mississippi, the voiceless found their voice, and once raised, it could not be ignored. Organizers learned to locate the vast resources in communities that seemed impoverished and paralyzed at first glance. The lessons of the movement in Mississippi are exactly the lessons we need to learn and put into practice in order to transform the education of our children and their prospects for the future. As with voting rights four decades ago, we have to flesh out a consensus on math literacy. Without it, moving the country into systemic change around math education becomes almost impossible. You cannot move this country unless you have consensus. That’s part of what we learned in Mississippi. We learned it on the ground, running.
The Algebra Project is founded on the idea that the ongoing struggle for citizenship and equality for minority people is now linked to an issue of math and science literacy. This idea determines strategies and choices made about the organization, dissemination, and content of the curriculum. It’s important to make it clear that even the development of some sterling new curriculum—a real breakthrough—would not make us happy if it did not deeply and seriously address the issue of access to literacy for everyone. That is what is driving the project. The Algebra Project is not about simply transferring a body of knowledge to children. It is about using their knowledge as a tool to a much larger end.
Organizing around algebra has the potential to open a doorway that’s been locked. Math literacy and economic access are the Algebra Project’s foci for giving hope to the young generation. That’s a new problem for educators. It’s a new problem for the country. The traditional role of science and math education has been to train an elite, create a priesthood, find a few bright students and bring them into university research. It hasn’t been a literacy effort. We are putting literacy, math literacy, on the table. Instead of weeding all but the best students out of advanced math, schools must commit to everyone gaining this literacy as they have committed to everyone having a reading-writing literacy.
This is a cultural struggle, the creation of a culture of mathematical literacy that’s going to operate within the Black community as church culture does. And that means that math won’t be just school-based, but available as reading and writing are. Kids now routinely assume that someone will be able to explain some word to them, or teach them how to read a sentence if they don’t understand it. They also take it as a matter of course that no one can help them with their “higher” math studies. Projecting several generations down the road we can see a youngster who has grown up in a Black neighborhood being able to get his or her questions about mathematics as easily answered in the neighborhood.
Many people will see our vision as impossible. There’s a sense in which most people are not going to believe or accept any of this agenda until they are confronted with the products of such an effort: students who come out of classrooms armed with a new understanding of mathematics and with a new understanding of themselves as leaders, participants, and learners. As I said before, in the sixties everyone said sharecroppers were apathetic until we got them demanding to vote. That finally got attention. Here, where kids are falling wholesale through the cracks—or chasms—dropping out of sight, becoming fodder for jails, people say they do not want to learn. The only ones who can dispel that notion are the kids themselves. They, like Mrs. Hamer, Mrs. Devine, E. W. Steptoe, and others who changed the political face of Mississippi in the 1960s, have to demand what everyone says they don’t want.
About the Authors
Robert P. Moses (1935-2021) was the founder of the Algebra Project and was the winner of many awards, including a MacArthur fellowship and a Heinz Award in the Human Condition. He was the coauthor of Radical Equations: Civil Rights from Mississippi to the Algebra Project.
A journalist for major magazines for thirty years, Charles E. Cobb, Jr. is senior writer at allAfrica.com. He is the coauthor of Radical Equations: Civil Rights from Mississippi to the Algebra Project.