Chancellor tackles color-blind politics
Dr. Curtis Ivery, who has turned Wayne County Community College District (WCCCD) into an education nest where leadership is cultivated since his appointment in 1995, is not your typical education administrator who normally sits at the top of an ivory tower giving administrative directions on how to run the day to day affairs of a college. An encounter with Ivery will reveal a man who in many ways is an education agitator, one who is deeply concerned about the sorry state of affairs in our educational system and wants to see structural and evidentiary change in the system.
That explains why Ivery, who is used to running large institutions such at the Arkansas Department of Human Services which he headed as a member of former Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton’s cabinet, has made Wayne County Community College District more than just a regular college. More than the classrooms and administrative buildings that make up the site of the District.
As Michigan’s largest community college, WCCCD is a lifeline for the 70,000 students it serves, most of whom come from Detroit. From high school graduates and international students to single parents and struggling young people seeking a better future by arming themselves with an education from WCCCD, the college is the center of gravity for these students who will be charged with driving the ship of state tomorrow.
That passion to make a difference is why Ivery has co-edited a new book with Joshua Bassett titled “America’s Urban Crisis and the Advent of Color-blind Politics,” a collection of essays that focus on education, incarceration, segregation and the future of multiracial democracy in the U.S.
“I’ve always been an inquisitive soul. I have always loved and appreciated the power of words and I remember telling my mother when I was nine years old that I would write a book. She often said that is a dream I shouldn’t let die,” Ivery said in an interview last week. “Ultimately my first degree was in journalism. So I’ve always been comfortable with words. I felt the need to encourage and have some conversation about race. Because often it’s the five thousand pound gorilla in the room.”
Ivery said the purpose of the book is to get a constructive dialogue going around issues that are tied to race in America.
“You can’t say to me that the decisions we make today are not informed by some of the social construct we are confronted with on a daily basis,” Ivery said. “For example, what we see on television, the media defines our standards, the criminal justice system, etc. We have a disproportionate number of young Black people incarcerated. If we don’t talk about it, some are going to assume that it is a genetic trait.”
“We have to believe that conscious Black people and White people will join together and talk about what’s good for our children. I think the book does that.”
Ivery said while there are multiple issues in the Black community that need to be dealt with, incarceration is one of the major ones that must be tackled if we are to see any real advancement in our community.
Striking a tone that is familiar in the political debate around incarceration, Ivery said it is time we look at whether first time drug offenders should be given jail time rather than treatment, the latter being what criminal justice reform advocates have always sought.
“We know that if you come from a prosperous community or family with resources, you probably would have gone and sought out some type of counseling as opposed to the criminal justice system,” Ivery said. “Now that the issue is here, would it not be better to talk about those young men we are releasing now, because they have to have somewhere to go. They have to have employment.”
Can higher education do anything to help or service the incarcerated population?
“Maybe it might be identifying employers and saying we have 20-60 ex-offenders and we will provide training for them and are you willing to place them in the job market?” Ivery said.
He noted that in order to create transformation we must begin to think outside the box.
Education in Detroit, he said, must be seen as “a form of constructive urgency, that every decision ought to be one of urgency.”
That sense of urgency means involving “the community in a big way” in decisions that affect the education system in the city.
“I know that it’s difficult. Sometimes we don’t feel that people are listening. They don’t understand when we say we’ve got to close X number of schools. Most parents are not interested in that aspect of education economics,” Ivery said. “Their sense of urgency is what is going to happen to their child? Will their child be safe in school? Will they have good teachers and the opportunity to go to college?”
He said as educators “we have to begin to answer those questions for any parent. The first I’m going to do if I’m moving, to this area as a parent I’d like to know about the school system.”
But he quickly pointed that Detroit is not the only city with a poor school record, and that what is happening here reflects a national pattern.
“I don’t think you are going to go to Chicago and get a better school system in the inner city,” Ivery said, adding that is because “we are talking about one common issue and that is poverty.”
He said the “unholy trinity: unemployment, under-employment and under-served” account for what is facing our community and why some are unable to get a good education.
“The common denominator is poverty. It’s always going to be how we help others lift themselves up and ensure that they have a way out,” Ivery said.
WCCCD, he said, has offered hope to thousands of young Detroiters and students from around the world who otherwise would have not the kind of grounded education the college provides.
“We’ve always said to people if they come to the college, we’ll make them proud and feel good about themselves,” Ivery said. “We are going to treat you with civility and honor your dignity. We are going to take you where we find you and help you move to the next level.”
While doing all it can to help students prepare for bigger roles in the future, the WCCCD chancellor made it clear that the college will offer no “crutch” to any student.
“We cannot give you a crutch. We will not make this an entitlement community. We cannot make this an entitlement educational setting. We want you to compete,” Ivery said. “We want you to be mentally and psychologically tough.”
In an era of globalization, Ivery said it is key for students from not only from WCCCD, but other institutions in and around Detroit to experience global exposure, along with an understanding of how the world is evolving, and why students in China, Japan, India, Africa and other places excel and are at the center of global education.
But the value of education and seeing it as a weapon to fight poverty, according to Ivery, starts at home.
“So much of it and who we are has to start at home,” Ivery
said. “For instance, by the age of three you’ve got a young person with a personality. You are not going to change that personality after three years of age.”
He said at age six children begin to develop an early self-concept that education is key and that is when they should be taught the value of education at home. Otherwise, the children risk falling through the cracks and coming into contact with the criminal justice system by the age of 15.
“By the time they are 18 years old their experience has been with the criminal justice system,” Ivery said explaining further that when those young people, who fell through the cracks come out of prison their only value system is what they learned behind bars. He called the result “a critical mass of dysfunctionality” because most of them are not really rehabilitated behind prison walls.
“Somehow we have to intercede as education advocates,” Ivery said. “Every single day I get up I’m thinking about how to make life better for another person because to be seriously under-educated is a major problem.”
It’s one thing to say what needs to be done in a community where young people for the most part do not necessarily take their cue anymore from their parents, but rather from the glaring and incessant messages of the mass media.
Does Generation Y, the iPod, BlackBerry generation have any obligation to the past or is it the reverse?
“We owe it to our children to give them a better opportunity,” Ivery said. “I think for me it’s a question of whether we are going to be able to deliver a world that will be good for our children and generations yet unborn.
“Are we going to say that now that we elected a Barack Obama that we’ve arrived and no longer should we continue to work hard to create a stronger community and stronger family in a culture we can be proud of? At some point everything I do is about what I’m going to leave behind.”
Recently, Ivery was named to the 21st Century Commission on the Future of Community Colleges, an initiative supported by The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and The Kresge Foundation to craft a bold vision for community colleges. The Commission, serving more than six million students and 1,200 institutions, will issue a report on how to attain high quality education.
“America’s Urban Crisis and the Advent of Color-blind Politics” should be read by college students, high school students seeking to enter college and everyone who wants to make a change.
Chronicle senior editor Bankole Thompson’s latest book on religion and politics is titled “Obama and Christian Loyalty,” with an epilogue written by Robert S. Weiner, former White House spokesperson under President Bill Clinton. The book, with a forward written by Bishop P.A. Brooks, guest chaplain of the 102nd Congress, will be launched Nov. 12, 10 a.m., at the Wayne State University Spencer M. Partrich Law School Auditorium. Thompson is a member of the “Obama Watch” roundtable program, Sunday evenings, 9-10 p.m., on WLIB-1190AM-New York which is simulcast in New Jersey and Connecticut. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.