Link to video of ceremony
Thank you. I would like to begin by extending my sincere and heartfelt thanks to Caroline Kennedy, the members of the Profile in Courage Award Committee, and the members of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. I also would like to thank my family and friends, including North Carolina State Representative Susi Hamilton, Wilmington, North Carolina Mayor Bill Saffo, New Hanover County School Board member Dorothy DeShields, and former New Hanover County School Board member Nick Rhodes, for traveling here to Boston to share this moment with me. Thank you.
I stand before you today truly humbled to receive this award. Shortly after Caroline Kennedy called and rocked my world with the news I was to receive the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, I hopped online and began looking at the very prestigious list of past recipients. I had a vague recollection of whom I might find on the list, but was left feeling quite unsettled when I saw the elite statesmen and stateswomen I was about to join. I may be an attorney and an elected official, but let's be honest: I am a school board member in the second smallest county in the state of North Carolina, which puts me at the bottom of the political food chain. I am also the mom of three young children who logs a large number of miles running carpool. I have a hard time envisioning past recipients Kofi Annan, Gerald Ford, John McCain, or Victor Yushchenko toting a minivan full of kids to and from soccer practice...
I poke fun at myself to drive home the point I am a very ordinary person who made the intentional decision to submit to what I perceived to be the will of an extraordinary God. This is the source of my political courage. In early 2007, I had been listening to a podcast of a sermon series on the book of Genesis. I would listen while I ran or folded laundry. There was something I recall the pastor saying I could not shake: we are all made in the image and likeness of God and, therefore, are all worthy of being treated with dignity, value and respect. These words echoed in my head and made me question myself. If I truly believe this, then how do I order my life to reflect this principle?
Fast forward to a rainy fall day that same year. I had gone to pick my two youngest children up from school. All the moms were huddled under a roof overhang to stay dry. As I stood there chatting, I recall one of the moms saying she had heard the school board was preparing to redistrict all the elementary schools and they were "going back" to neighborhood schools. I did not hear another word as the realization of what neighborhood schools meant in my community dawned on me. In New Hanover County, our housing patterns are racially segregated. Neighborhood schools would mean our schools would become resegregated. The words I had heard earlier in the year washed over me and I thought there is no dignity in segregation. There is no value. There is no respect. Although I wrestled with the idea for months, that moment became the catalyst for me to seek a seat on my local school board.
By the time I was elected, the elementary schools had already been redistricted and, due to overcrowding and the need to fill seats at a new $27 million building, it was time to redistrict our county's middle schools. To put it mildly, the process was contentious, pitting neighborhood school supporters against those who favored diversity. We were already several months into it when a parent, a truly dear woman whom I had invested a great deal of time fleshing out the issues associated with redistricting, sent me and my colleagues on the school board an e-mail in which she asserted all neighborhood school supporters care about children in struggling schools and bussing students to shift ratios was not the answer. How was I to respond? I have to admit the e-mail stirred a great deal of passion within me. Isolating schools by race and socioeconomic status would set our inner city schools up for failure and I would have no part in it. We had never discussed the very taboo issue of racism, and I had in the past one too many encounters with neighborhood school supporters where it was made abundantly clear they did not care about the poor and minority children of our community. I prayed and made the decision to be brutally honest on both counts. Although many neighborhood school supporters did not have racist motives, they just wanted their children as close to home as possible, there were some that did and I wrote about it. When my e-mail found its way into an editorial in our local newspaper several days later, this is the part that unleashed the fury of a community against me.
After eight long months of debate, four heated community forums, and the creation and elimination of numerous proposed redistricting maps, our school board majority achieved its goal of creating neighborhood middle schools, but failed to adequately address the issue of overcrowding. 316 or one third of the available seats at our new $27 million middle school were left vacant, and the utilization of trailers, or "educational cottages," allowed the board majority to leave six of our eight middle schools overcrowded.
Our direction, regardless of our collective intention, determines our destination. "Going back" to neighborhood schools brought my community to a place where too many of our elementary and middle schools are isolated by race and socioeconomic status. Imagine the faces of 676 children, and in that sea of faces, there are only 12 black faces staring back at you. Now imagine a second set of faces. This time the faces of 467 children are before you, but only 23 of those faces are white. This describes what you would see if you were to visit just two of our schools today. You might not be surprised to learn the percentage of students living in poverty at the school where the majority of children are white is 14%. On the other hand, you may be shocked to learn the percentage of children who live in poverty at the school where the majority are black is 95%.
None of this would have been a surprise to the members of our school board. In fact, in the last few months of middle school redistricting, our board even took the unprecedented step of moving specific neighborhoods in and out of school attendance zones with surgical precision in order to appease vocal neighborhood school supporters.
What I have described is not unique to my county. The last twenty years have seen the erosion of Brown v. Board of Education; however, I stand firm in the conviction separate will never be equal. Moral issues aside, years of research has proven high poverty concentration, which often goes hand in hand with racial isolation, is a recipe for failure. In fact, only 1.1% of high poverty schools are consistently high performing. In the business world, would anyone ever dream of proposing a project with almost a 99% chance for failure?
The fact socioeconomic segregation perpetuates failure does not mean children living in poverty cannot learn. Our local data, as well as national data, demonstrates poor children perform better in low poverty schools. During our many redistricting forums, we had parents who were emphatic their children were not to be used as "guinea pigs" in what they considered to be a failed social experiment. However, the benefits run both ways. With diversity in the classroom, children learn how to be productive members of a multicultural society. Real change happens in the context of relationships. When diversity is absent, we cannot build relationships and instead build walls that breed fear of others not like ourselves. The Jim Crow laws battled by President Kennedy and his administration seem so alien to us now, but will they be unthinkable as our students who attend schools isolated by race and socioeconomic status mature into adults? We must be mindful our direction determines our destination.
We shortchange ourselves as a community, as a state and as a nation when we set high poverty and minority students up for failure. These students drop out of school at alarming rates, around 45% in New Hanover County, and are then much more likely to become a burden on society. We cannot afford to get this wrong. There is simply too much at stake as we raise and develop our future citizens and leaders.
May God bless the conversation that follows. May He open our eyes to see and our hearts to address injustice rather than to recoil from the mention of it.
Remarks delivered by Elizabeth Redenbaugh on accepting the 2011 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, May 23, 2011. (As Prepared for Delivery)