Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Us Round: The Fight for African American Educational Freedom and Success in the CSU

By Dr. Shonda Goward

On April 23, 2024 the Network held a convening reflecting on the 70th Anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas 1954 Supreme Court decision to end school segregation. In that convening, we learned from the San José State University Ethnic Studies program that the fight for educational justice and equity in California began well before Brown, going back to 1885 with the Tape v. Hurley case challenging anti-Asian American student segregation. We also heard from two of our CSU Office of the Chancellor collaborators about their family history with regard to school segregation, and how they see the CSU System helping California to move forward. We encourage you to view the recording of the convening.

In its essence the Brown case was about freedom. Linda Brown’s parents wanted her to be able to attend the school in her neighborhood rather than have to travel a great distance for an education. In my own life, neither of my parents were born with Civil Rights, and both were participants in school desegregation efforts: one here in California, and one in Arkansas. My own early schooling in Hayward, California in the 1980s involved being bussed to an elementary school in a different part of town despite there being an elementary school within walking distance of my home. In many ways it is disheartening to think that the legal fight for educational equity goes back to at least the late 1800s, and progress has only advanced slightly. 

Nonetheless, we press on and “ain’t gon’ let nobody turn [us] ‘round” as the Civil Rights Movement freedom song taught us (Marable & Mullings, 2009). As we keep doing the work of desegregation we, in the California State University System, won’t be turned around from going beyond mere access for our students, and focus on student success. In our Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas reflection, academic librarian and professor Kyzyl Fenno-Smith stated: “Education systems ration access to the economy.” Her words broke me because although I know it is our systems that prevent student success, hearing it put so succinctly, that in many ways it is us as institutional actors, through our overly complicated policies, unclear and undocumented procedures, and inequitable processes that are preventing students from graduation, and thus limiting their economic freedom. This limitation is especially true for Black and Latinx students as our institutions of higher education still haven’t figured out how to adapt and serve them well. 

The term “student success” has been around since at least the early 2000s. However, higher education scholars began questioning student attrition going back to the 1970s, most famously with Vincent Tinto’s review of the literature on what was then called “student dropout,” which then led to his theory of student departure. Tinto posited, at the time, that student attrition was a result of students not integrating themselves into the campus and campus culture. Critics of Tinto’s work specifically argued that students of color should not have to integrate themselves into an institution, but rather it is the role of the institution to conform itself to the students it serves. Two prominent scholars who brought forth this perspective are Californians: Sylvia Hurtado (UCLA) and Deborah Carter (Claremont Graduate University) in their 1997 work “Effects of College Transition and Perceptions of the Campus Racial Climate on Latino College Students’ Sense of Belonging.” I call forth these older germinal works, because most recently an educational tech company pitched to me software that would help “at risk” and “drop out” students, both old terms that higher education has moved away from, using Tinto’s work. When I asked if the startup had read any of the scholars of color that challenged Tinto, I did not receive an answer. Even though Tinto himself revised his idea, the old ways are still being taught in graduate programs, and used to undergird poor practice -practice that puts the onus on the students rather than the institution.

Nevertheless, we press on and “ain’t gon’ let nobody turn [us] ‘round.”

I first heard this song sung while doing my Black history homework during the summer. I am from the East Bay, and my very religious grandparents would put us in Vacation Bible School (VBS) each year. However, our VBS was not the typical VBS. We had Jesus in the morning, and Civil Rights book reports in the afternoon. My grandparents made sure we watched the first seven episodes of the documentary “Eyes on the Prize” that was produced by Black production company Blackside and aired on PBS in 1987. The 1987 airing chronicled the Civil Rights movement leading up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. What many do not know, or remember, is that there was a second set of seven episodes that aired in the 1990s and detailed what happened after the Civil Rights Act was passed. Those episodes are hard to find, but available through libraries. Such rich history would be lost to time if it were not preserved in digital library collections, but that is a blog for another day. 

The after effects of the passing of the Civil Rights Act grounded my talk at the CSU System Juneteenth Symposium on June 13 and 14, 2024. The theme this year was “Breaking Chains and Elevating New Heights” and the symposium was dedicated specifically to the “celebration and recognition of African American achievement while supporting the anti-racism work underway across the CSU’s 23 campuses.” My talk was entitled, “The Keys to the Kingdom: Building Equitable Student Success From the Middle” and explored how we, as middle leaders, can:

  • influence policy and procedures, and build programs using campus data; and 
  • operationalize research to support closing equity gaps in the CSU System. 

“The Keys to the Kingdom” is the title of the last episode of the 14-part “Eyes on the Prize” series, and details challenges to anti-discrimination laws in education. Sadly, what is past is prologue. 

Nonetheless, we “aint gon’ let nobody turn [us] ‘round.” And we’re going to do the hard work of reconfiguring our structures to support not only student access to college, but student success. 

References

Hurtado, S., & Carter, D. F. (1997). Effects of college transition and perceptions of the campus racial climate on Latino college students’ sense of belonging. Sociology of education, 324-345.

Marable, M., & Mullings, L. (Eds.). (2009). Let nobody turn us around : An African American anthology. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Incorporated.

Tinto, V., & Cullen, J. (1973). Dropout in Higher Education: A Review and Theoretical Synthesis of Recent Research.

Tinto, V. (1987). Leaving college: rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.