Two Groups Launch Drives To Promote Minority Involvement in School Reform

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Prompted by a perceived cultural gulf between at-risk students and the predominately white business people trying to reach them, two national education and business groups have launched drives to promote minority-business input into education reform.

As a first step in its effort, the National Association of Partners in Education last month convened a minority business caucus to discuss the lack of minority voices in the growing business-education partnership movement.

And next month, the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce will launch an effort to encourage its business members to become active players in the school-improvement arena, said Veronica Gouabalt, the chamber's Washington liaison.

"We had identified that there just wasn't a presence of black, Hispanic, or Asian-Pacific businesses involved in the partnership movement to any significant degree," said Connie Spinner, vice president of the nape board of directors and the director of the parent-involvement, volunteer, and community-services unit of the Washington, D.C., schools.

Representatives of the nation's major business organizations, as well as educators and community activists, all agree that minority involvement in education-reform efforts is needed.

Advocates maintain that minority businessmen offer important role models to students, whose ranks are increasingly dominated by minorities. And, they say, minority business leaders tend to have a clearer understanding of the cultural backgrounds of at-risk students.

But, while many minority-owned businesses and minority business leaders are heavily involved in education and child-welfare issues, observers say, their contributions are often discounted because of their lack of money and influence.

In addition, they say, their voices have not been heard because they have not been asked to participate in discussions conducted by the major corporate players in school-improvement efforts.

"I don't think that minorities have been asked to the table," Ms. Spinner said. "They represent the very constituency group the big corporations are trying to help, and quite often they're just not listened to."

The major corporations that have become identified with the corporate community's efforts in education "always ask the question, 'why can't those people' ... 'how come those people,"' said Ed Stanley, the assistant manager for issues and media relations at C&P Telephone Company in Washington.

"When you use the phrase 'those people,' you're removing yourself," added Mr. Stanley, who, as a black executive and a former C&P supervisor of education relations, has pushed the phone company to become involved in education programs. "What you really need is empathy."

At the upper echelons of two of the nation's major business organizations that have pushed business involvement in school reform--the National Alliance of Business and the Committee on Economic Development--minority business representation is minimal. At a third, the National Business Roundtable, it is nonexistent.

Spokesmen for the three groups say no specific drive to encourage minority involvement in business-education partnerships is planned.

"There is a need for the Business Roundtable and the power sources of America to begin to look to minority men and women for some guidance," said Kent Amos, the president of a Washington-based management consulting firm and a former director of corporate urban affairs for Xerox Corporation.

"Their perspective is not consistent with the requirements of the community" they are attempting to serve, he said.

Many business leaders stress, however, that the problem is not a lack of minority involvement in education and child-welfare issues.

Instead, they say, the problem is that minority business leaders cannot compete with the influence and money wielded by the chief executive officers of major multinational companies. Nor, they add, can they command the impressive amounts of publicity for their efforts that the major firms can.

While it is true that the CEOs of such major companies as Xerox, International Business Machines Corporation, Apple Computers, and Procter & Gamble Company have been recognized as leaders in education reform, observers note, minority-owned businesses and minority business leaders have also long been active in education and community affairs.

However, because of their limited resources, observers say, minority business leaders cannot channel funds to the kinds of intervention and school-improvement projects that have grabbed headlines in recent years.

"While we may not have all the money the Standard Oils have," said Gwendolyn Laroche, director of the education department of the Chicago Urban League, "we still have a significant number of people representing the black business community who are out trying to do things."

No representative of a minority-owned business sits on the Roundtable because no minority-owned business is among the Fortune 500, said Richard W. Anthony, the Roundtable's executive director for public relations.

In fact, the combined annual revenues of the top 100 black-owned businesses would not equal the $543 million cutoff for the current Fortune list, according to Earl Pace, president of Pace Data Systems in Washington.

The call for business involvement in education "has to be tempered,'' he said, "by the resources of minority business."

Given their lack of resources, minority businesses have worked to improve schools or the lives of at-risk students primarily through their participation in small, hands-on activities sponsored by local churches or Junior Achievement chapters. Typically, they have offered in-kind services, made themselves available for speaking engagements, or provided space, even their homes, for partnership activities.

"The question is not whether they are helping," said Karen Harris, manager of the employment education bureau of the Washington-area Board of Trade. "The question is whether it's recognized if there's no traceable line to a checking account."

Others question whether minority businesses have done all they can do, said Lieut. Drew Brown III, a former Navy fighter pilot who now flies for the Federal Express Corporation.

"Black people who have made it in this country have got a disease, and it's called amnesia," said Mr. Brown, whose book chronicling his rise out of urban poverty, You Gotta Believe, is due to be published in March. "They've forgotten where they come from."

But examples of those who have not forgotten are plentiful.

During the past nine years, Mr. Amos, the president of a Washington consulting firm, has opened his home to more than 70 troubled youths.

He and his wife, Carmen, have offered the students everything from dinner and a quiet place to study to theater tickets and museum outings. They have been more than mentors, he says; they have been parents.

"I challenge the very notion of mentorship," he says. "That's a corporate term that connotes a relationship between individuals with a shared base knowledge. That doesn't exist between grown men and women in a corporation and a kid in the streets."

"You don't mentor a child," he said, "you parent a child."

Other minority business leaders have put together national efforts. Mr. Pace of Pace Data Systems organized the Black Data Processing Association in 1975 to promote upward mobility among minorities in the computer industry.

Six years ago, the national organization began reaching out to minority high-school students. Now, students from 18 cities compete for scholarship funds in an annual computer-literacy competition.

Another national organization, Concerned Black Men, was founded in Philadelphia 17 years ago to combat the stereotype that black men have not been involved as positive role models in the lives of black youths, said Ronald Wright, a member of the 150-member Washington chapter.

"I think we give the kids a more convincing answer to the question, 'Can I achieve, can I become a doctor or lawyer,' because most of us are doctors and lawyers," Mr. Wright, himself a Washington lawyer, said.

Federal Express's Mr. Brown exemplifies the special ability some minorities have to reach out to school-age children.

With corporate backing from Federal Express, Motorola International Inc., and BellSouth Corporation, Mr. Brown has spoken to 3 million students during the past three years about the merits of education and the hazards of drugs and dropping out. His style--blunt, street-wise, sometimes brutal, and usually controversial--commands the students' attention.

Children "don't listen to me so much as they feel me," he said. "Children are not born to be liars. They're not born to be racists. Children are born to hear the truth, and they hear me because I tell them the truth."

In October, Mr. Brown chastised the business establishment at Fortune magazine's education summit for hypocrisy in their education efforts.

Wearing his blue flight suit and bright yellow scarf, sporting mirrored sunglasses, and strutting in to the rap song "Can't Touch This," Mr. Brown exhorted business leaders not to "disgrace the word 'adopt' with 'adopt-a-school."' If corporate America would put as much enthusiasm into education as it does into selling shoes and beer, he said, it would have solved the problem by now.

In cases in which minorities have achieved top positions in major corporations, observers say, they have maintained their sensitivity to education and child-welfare issues.

Such black-owned businesses as Seaway National Bank of Chicago, Johnson Publishing Company, and Multi-Fac Company, for example, have been at the forefront of Chicago's public-school-improvement movement, according to Sharon Jenkins-Brown, the communications director for Leadership for Quality Education, a business coalition backing the reforms.

Ed Gardner, president and owner of Soft Sheen Products Inc., has committed significant time and resources to school-safety and drug-education programs, Ms. Laroche of the Chicago Urban League said.

After eight years in business, John Rogers, president of Ariel Capital Management Inc., has set up a fledgling philanthropic foundation for elementary education.

In Washington, Delano E. Lewis, the black chief executive officer of C&P Telephone Company, has involved his company in numerous education programs, Mr. Stanley of the phone company said.

Many of the programs C&P has instituted have involved peer counseling because inner-city students cannot relate to predominately white businessmen who refuse to accept the students' value systems, he said.

"You have to show a legitimate and honest way for them to reach their goals by not putting down their goals," even if those goals are a flashy sports car or an expensive pair of sneakers, he told the nape minority-business caucus last month.

It is that kind of understanding that nape is seeking, Ms. Spinner said.

Minority business leaders are "effective in a different way," she said.

"They bring a different vision of the problem and a different set of solutions," she explained. "They tend to be more personal because they are giving back to a system that has allowed them to get where they are."

Nape will begin its recruitment drive by asking the CEOs of its 8,000-member businesses to comb their middle-management ranks for minorities to serve as nape representatives.

Ms. Gouabalt said the U.S. Hispanic Chamber plans to distribute booklets and videotapes about business-education partnerships to the nation's 150 Hispanic chambers of commerce.

In addition, she said, the national office will advise regional offices on how to establish educational and internship programs with member businesses. One regional office has already been set up in Los Angeles, and two more planned to open next year, one each in Chicago and New Jersey.

Vol. 10, Issue 14

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