Black Like Them: Why a ‘Surge’ of Color Could Change the Face of Ed Reform

This post was written by Marilyn Rhames and originally appeared at It is reprinted here with permission. For more about the author, scroll down to the end of the post.

Last year, I substituted a couple of times in a third-grade class that had two little black girls in it amid mostly Latino and a few white children. All the kids loved me for introducing them to the Roald Dahl book, The Witches, but afterwards I noticed something: While the other kids in the class eagerly waved at me while passing in the hallway, those two little black girls went out of their way to give me a hug every time they saw me.

That’s the power of affinity. I got excited hellos from the kids who enjoyed having me as their teacher, but I got a running embrace from the girls who from someplace deep within their 8-year-old souls needed me to be black…black like them.

This year, in a school with a staff of 60, there’s just me, one paraprofessional, and an all-black kitchen staff. I make no excuses for that. It is what it is.

These little black girls filled the void with hugs that said, “Mrs. Rhames, please don’t leave us. We need you.”


I’ve written many times about the personal complications of being an African-American teacher in a profession that is 82% white, and the impact it is having on children of color who are now 50.2% of the national public school population and upwards of 80% of kids learning in urban districts, like mine in Chicago.

But the racial disparities go all the way to the top: A 2010 survey of more than 1,800 school superintendents from all 50 states found that only 2% identified as African American and 2% as Latino.

In essence, we have upper-middle class whites who usually live in predominantly affluent, white communities controlling the educational options of millions of disenfranchised black and brown children who usually live in impoverished, racially segregated communities.

Why then are we baffled that, despite our well-intended reforms, there’s such a persistent achievement gap between black and white children?

The gap starts at the top and cascades, not trickles, down.


Thankfully, I’ve been selected as a new Surge Fellow to help reverse that trend. Surge seeks to remove the tired excuse that highly qualified African American and Hispanic education leaders are hard to find. We’ve always existed, and Surge is laser-focused on equipping us with skills for greater success and then making our presence and worth undeniable.

Surge is an authentic for-the-people, by-the-people education reform movement, not the outside-pushing-in style of reforms we see today.

Justin Cohen said it best in his Citizen Ed piece entitled If People of Color Aren’t Leading It, the Ed Reform ‘Movement’ is a Myth. He wrote:

Men and women of color led the civil rights movement and are leading the current movement for racial justice, which includes Black Lives Matter. Gay men and women led the fight for marriage equality. Women led the movement for women’s suffrage and equal rights, and women are still leading efforts for gender equality.

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