Anti-Ebonics Ad Was Mistake, Head Start Group Says

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An attention-grabbing, award-winning ad has brought some apparently unintended attention to the National Head Start Association.

The quarter-page, black-and-white advertisement, which ran Oct. 9 in The New York Times, features the words "I Has a Dream" and the image of a man that the ad's creators say represents civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. symbolically turning his back on "ebonics."

The ad, a twist on Dr. King's celebrated speech at the 1963 March on Washington, calls on readers to "speak out against ebonics" and listed the Alexandria, Va.-based National Head Start Association as the contact.

Ebonics--a blend of the words "ebony" and "phonics"--is also known as "black English." Nearly two years ago, the Oakland, Calif., district adopted a resolution calling for African-American students to be taught in their "primary language" of ebonics. The policy--which also called for improved mastery of English--was later revised, but the district's action touched off a national debate on black English and black student achievement. ("'Ebonics' Vote Puts Oakland in Maelstrom," Jan. 22, 1997; "Oakland Board Revises 'Ebonics' Resolution," Jan. 15, 1997.)

'Big Misunderstanding'

But officials of the Head Start group, which represents participants and staff members in the federally funded preschool program, said they didn't intend for the association's name to be used in the ad. They added that the group's board has not taken a position on ebonics.

Head Start and Early Head Start serve poor children ages 0-5, and about one-third are African-American, according to the association.

The association initially was approached by one of the ad's creators when the ad won a prestigious award from the Newspaper Association of America. The creators donated some of the $100,000 prize to the Head Start group.

Then when The New York Times said it would run the ad for free, Lee St. James, an executive vice president of Ketchum Advertising in Pittsburgh and the ad's creative director, said Michael McGrady, the deputy director of the Head Start group, gave permission.

"I thought it would be something the association could get behind," Mr. St. James said. "Unfortunately, now it appears it was not approved by the right person."

"It was a big misunderstanding," Mr. McGrady said. "Our board never approved the ad. I wasn't as clear as I should have been."

Reaction to the ad was mixed, according to Sarah M. Greene, the association's chief executive officer. "We've gotten calls from friends, strangers, and on and on."

The New York Times has a "long-term relationship" with Ketchum Advertising and ran the ad in recognition of its award, said Nancy Nielsen, the vice president for corporate communications for the New York Times Co.

Ad information, such as the addresses or phone numbers required in advocacy or opinion ads, usually are checked, Ms. Nielsen said. "[But] when we receive an ad from someone with whom we normally do business and who we know, we don't go back and check. And since we do a lot of business with Ketchum, we didn't go back and check on this one."

The ad first ran at the height of the national ebonics debate in small, alternative weekly publications and was placed by a group called Atlanta's Black Professionals.

Robert E. Rostick, a member of the Atlanta group, said members wanted to stress that black English is appropriately used at home, but "in the workforce and out in the world, there needs to be a common language."

Mr. St. James said the ad was intended to foster discussion and demonstrate the importance of language. "What if Martin Luther King had not spoken as eloquently as he did? His credibility would have been diminished," he said in a news release last month announcing the ad award.

Vol. 18, Issue 9, Page 3

Published in Print: October 28, 1998, as Anti-Ebonics Ad Was Mistake, Head Start Group Says
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