From Civil Rights to Computational Thinking: Thoughts on the 100th Anniversary of the NAACP

9 years ago

For a while now, I've been telling friends that I feel a bit like a wanna-be Bob Moses. He's the legendary civil rights activist who organized the 1964 Freedom Summer voter registration drive, and later founded the Algebra Project, an organization that promotes equal opportunity by developing and championing innovative ways of teaching math to students from groups that have historically been under-represented in high-tech professions.

Like Moses, I've become increasingly immersed in the effort to improve educational access, through my involvement in the National Science Foundation's Broadening Participation in Computing program.

I've just returned from a meeting for BPC researchers in Charlotte, North Carolina, where I met a dedicated and diverse group of people convinced that infusing computer science in education is essential to realizing the opportunities made possible by the Civil Rights Movement.

That conviction is shared by the leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which was founded 100 years ago yesterday, on Feb. 12, 1909. Among other accomplishments, the NAACP led a decades-long battle against legal segregation in schools, housing and public accommodations, culminating in such victories as the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, which declared that separate schools were inherently unequal. Some critics argue that the NAACP has been adrift in recent years, focusing on issues such as the representation of blacks on television, or discouraging use of the N-word.

However, the organization's new leader, Ben Jealous, says that in its "second century of activism" the NAACP will focus on "human rights" -- ensuring that everyone is able to enjoy equal education, health care and economic opportunity. In an AP article reproduced on the NAACP website, Jealous says it's about fulfilling the promise that the Civil Rights Movement made possible:

"The aspiration of [Brown v. Board of Education] was being able to go to the same GOOD school ... that good schools are a human right."

In an essay for TheRoot.com, historian Patricia Sullivan and NAACP Board Chairman http://www.naacp.org/about/leadership/directors/jbond/Julian Bond meditated on the coincidence that while the organization was founded on the centennial of Abraham Lincoln's birthday in response to the shocking 1908 riots in Springfield Illinois, its centennial occurs as an African American man who started his political career in Springfield sits in the Oval Office. For his part, Pres. Obama paid tribute to the NAACP in his proclamation in honor of African American History Month.

Despite Obama's election, race and gender inequalities persist in education, incarceration rates, health status and wealth accumulation. At the BPC conference, I had a conversation with Jane Margolis, an educational researcher from UCLA, whose book, Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race and Computing explores why we are still failing to attract sufficient numbers of students of color to computer science. Margolis told me that many schools are "technology rich" but "curriculum poor," partially because of a shortage of qualified teachers, but also because of narrow beliefs about who is capable of being a computer scientist:

I also spoke to Andrew Williams, a computer science professor at Spelman College, a historically black college for African American women, who beat the odds to become a robotics engineer. Williams not only led a team of Spelman undergrads to victory in the prestigious international Robocup competition, he is spearheading a the multi-school, multi-state Artsi Alliance, which engages students from middle school through college in robotics. His book, Out of the Box: Building Robots, Changing Lives, recounts his inspirational journey.

 

Of course, the National Science Foundation isn't pouring money into this effort in the interest of social justice. This is a vital issue of economic, social and political progress -- not just for the United States, bur for the world. But the truth is, the quest for equality has always been about pushing America to realize its true promise for everyone.

Related: The Changing Newsroom

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