Monthly Archives: January 2012



On MLK Day, stare with hope at the stars


In his transformative final speech, on April 3, 1968, to exhausted, dispirited Memphis sanitation workers, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. reminded them that even though the days looked bleak and desolate, there was no better time to be alive. He imagined a conversation with God, in which he is given his choice of periods to live in: “Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, ‘If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th Century, I will be happy.’ ” In his prescient conclusion, he said he had looked from the mountaintop to see a Promised Land he knows they will reach, even if he might not get there. He was assassinated the next day.

Considering our present situation in Rhode Island — anxiety greeting pension reform, suspicion meeting education reform, distrust surrounding political ambition, anger mounting over government gridlock — one can easily empathize with the anxiety, suspicion, distrust and anger that welcomed the Reverend King to Memphis for that fateful speech. Just as Dr. King saw reason for hope, so do we, as we look to educate, inspire and uplift the youth of Rhode Island in our respective schools. As Dr. King opined, “But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.” And from our perspective, the sky is brilliantly lit with guiding stars right now.

During this quiet (and dark) time of year, most of us, settling in for an austere time, determine to improve ourselves through stern resolution shaped by December’s indulgences and often forged by groaning scales or shrinking bank accounts. We have the luxury to celebrate a man and a movement that chose action over inaction, right over wrong, people over institutions. This day, which is the only national holiday that celebrates a man who was not a president (unless you include Christmas) — a day that inspires us to consider the future — provides us with the opportunity to serve others and to reflect meaningfully on who we are, what we want to do, and why. No other holiday asks us or allows us — demands of us — to be so reflective, so purposeful.

And as we reflect, we should consider how we can better prepare our children for the world that they will inherit. As far as we have come since 1968, their world will be filled with many of the same challenges that we have faced for centuries — and more — but we need to give our children the tools (and the courage) to address these challenges with more care, more kindness and more determination to reach the Promised Land. Our children need to be more, because the world is more complicated. They need to embrace differences, not merely tolerate them; they need to see injustice and bring justice in its stead; they need to understand despair and share hope; they need to experience darkness and shed light. They need to be and do more, because the urgency of the time demands it.

As educators at a public charter school and an independent school, we see our responsibility and we welcome it. Even though our schools seem different on the surface, they are similar in this important way: We want to teach our children that the highest form of wisdom is kindness and that the greatest gift that they can give to their community is their fully developed, intellectually curious, emotionally strong selves. Our job is not merely to disseminate information; rather, it is our charge to ignite the flame of curiosity.

We accomplish our task in wonderfully diverse communities because we realize that our strengths lie in our differences, lie in embracing what makes each one of us singular. Or, as the Diversity Statement at PCD states, “Diversity is the wealth of our community. When we embrace the many perspectives among us, we are enriched with an increased cultural awareness and sense of belonging.” We must constantly challenge our students to step out of themselves and seek to comprehend their world. In short, we must breathe life into Dr. King’s words, so that the sacrifices that he and the devotees of the civil rights movement made are not in vain.

Even as a complex human race, we are more alike than we are different — because of the courage that the Rev. Dr. —King showed, because of the light that he shed on the path to a better tomorrow.

As he stood before the sanitation workers on the eve of his death, he exhorted his audience to prepare for the Promised Land, because we will get there as a people. We, too, embrace that truth, and pledge to make real his dream, make honest his words, and stare at the stars above.

Michael C. Obel-Omia is head of the Paul Cuffee School, in Providence, and Vince Watchorn is head of the Providence Country Day School, in East Providence.

Originally published in the Providence Journal

Show Respect

Show Respect
By Michael C. Obel-Omia, Head of School at Paul Cuffee School, Providence, RI

Like many Americans, particularly African Americans, I followed with great interest Dr. Henry Louis Gates’ arrest by the Cambridge Police. The facts are simple enough: Dr. Gates, a preeminent scholar and Director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University, returned to his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Because his front door refused to budge, he summoned his driver to assist him in opening the door. The sight of two African American men on the steps of a lovely home in a tony neighborhood of an upscale community triggered suspicion, and a neighbor telephoned the police. A police officer arrived and demanded entrance to Dr. Gates’ home. Agitated and feeling harassed, Dr. Gates harangued the officer, questioning his motives and verbally insulting him. The officer arrested Dr. Gates for disorderly conduct, and in his police report described the scene with Dr. Gates as “chaotic.”

Yet, as simple as the facts are, they raise several puzzling questions. I have met Dr. Gates and nothing about him threatens. Even though I have heard him eruditely lecture on a number of topics, perhaps my most enduring image of him is his riding his tricycle along the bicycle paths of Martha’s Vineyard. The quintessential absent-minded professor, he plods along and sweetly greets all who pass him. That is the Dr. Gates I know and respect. How could this man contribute to a “chaotic” scene at his home?

The incident vexes me, but affirms what I try to teach my children: the police see an African American as a threat and will use any slight for detention. Even Dr. Gates, one of the least-threatening people I know, wound up arrested at his home. He had every right to be agitated, but he should have used everything in his power to defuse the situation. As an African American, he should have known better.

The police have stopped me several times, most often when I am driving. Oftentimes, I am rightfully stopped for speeding, and I always defer to and placate the police officer. The police officers usually respond to my calmness with respect, and the encounter ends peaceably. On occasion, however, there is no reason for my being pulled over, but I still use everything in my power to respond without anger. When I was younger, I challenged the officers, frustrated for the real reason behind my being detained: DWB – Driving While Black. Now that I am older, with three children depending on me, I maintain my cool, respond with too many, “Yes, Sir’s,” “No, Sir’s,” “I’m sorry, Sir’s,” and “Thank you, Sir’s” and hope that my politeness will allow me to continue on my way. Dr. Gates knows this rule, but it can be hard to respond deferentially, especially when the incident occurs in one’s home.

My real frustration with this situation, which resolved well with beers at the White House, is that very few have the political clout of Dr. Gates, so most of us have to recognize the potential for being tested every time we exit our house. Although it is the job of the police officer to defuse potentially dangerous situations, our teens, regardless of color, need to be prepared for these scenarios. Being detained by a police officer is an inherently anxiety-producing situation, like being called into the principal’s office. My job as a father is to prepare my children to respond with the patience of adulthood and suppress their adolescent impulses.

I recommend that parents speak candidly with their newly-minted teenage drivers, reminding them that they should respond with respect, patience, and calm in every encounter with a police officer. Remind your children that they have the most to lose in this situation – their license, freedom and time – so it’s best that they listen and respond politely. The consequences of not doing so are too unsettling to contemplate.

Being Retarded

Being Retarded.