Defining Loyalty

August 16, 2012

Gov. Mitt Romney and ‘blind trust,’ June 7, 2012. (

One of any number of concepts I’ve had trouble wrapping my head and heart around over the years has been loyalty. At least, what others in my life have defined as loyalty. For the most part, loyalty for the vast majority of these folk has meant surrounding themselves with yes-men and yes-women, to have people around them who’d prefer the method of going along to get along. True loyalty, of course, is more about supporting a person and their ideals, ideas, calling and purpose, and not just agreeing with their every word and deed, no matter the contradictions, no matter who it hurts.

I’ve seen it in my own life, so many times, in high school, college, grad school, academia, the nonprofit world, and in church. Over and over again, people who believe that leadership means everyone should fall in line and follow someone else’s vision, without question or contribution. It’s the ultimate form of American entitlement, the one thing that all people in authority — secular or spiritual — have in common in our society and culture.

Republican operative Ron Christie, the ultimate yes-man, November 9, 2010. ( In public domain.

One example of this was my former boss Ken, who complained about what he claimed was my lack of loyalty to the New Voices Fellowship Program when I made the decision to move on to another position at the end of ’03. He talked about loyalty as if I was a feral dog who needed to be broken and tamed in order to be useful. I said that loyalty “isn’t just about the person, it’s about the work that needs to be done.”

But I’d go a step further than that now. Loyalty in the workplace requires not only the ability of two or more individuals to trust each others’ judgment and quality of work. It also requires a synergy of vision, a sense of purpose that obligates the people in question to provide transparency, constant communication and certainly criticism in the journey to make any vision a reality.

I remembered this a few years after moving on from New Voices, at an interview I had with the head of the Center of Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He began with the question, “So how are you going to contribute to my vision of building the kind of world-class center that will attract the attention of scholarship everywhere?” The director lost me with his emphasis on “my vision.” I’m thinking, “I don’t know you, but somehow, I’m supposed to trust your vision purely because you say so. Are you kidding me? I’m to be loyal to you just because — you’re Black, you’re a decade older than me, you’re at an Ivy League university? Really?” To this day, that was the weirdest interview in which I’d ever been a part.

I saw this also at the church to which I’d been a member of the longest in my adult life, Covenant Church of Pittsburgh (which was in Wilkinsburg, by the way). From ’91 to ’97, I attended services, was part of the men’s choir, tutored high school students and went on retreats. I sometimes turned a blind eye to the occasional hypocrisy around sex, money and marriage in sermons versus what I actually witnessed.

One February ’97 Sunday after I finished a year’s worth of battles with my dissertation advisor Joe Trotter — another person who wanted my false sense of loyalty (see my “Running Interference” post from April ’11)  — I couldn’t take it at CCOP anymore. After a month-long drive to raise $250,000 above our normal tithes and offerings to buy a plot of land to build a megachurch in Monroeville, our pastor made an announcement and delivered a fiery sermon. The announcement was that God had told him to now up the ante to a three-million dollar campaign for money to build the church on this new property.

Man on a leash, June 12, 2010. (dtoy2009 via In public domain.

Before I had time or faith to absorb that bit of information, my pastor delivered a forty-five minute sermon that blamed Wilkinsburg’s fifty-percent unemployment rate, gang violence and despair on “homosexuals and whoremongers.” I’d heard other statements and similar sermons like this before, but not for nearly an hour, not after an appeal to worshippers to give more than one-tenth of their gross income to CCOP for a new church.

I knew for a fact that some of my fellow CCOP members were giving as much as one-fifth of their disposable income already. I also knew that their were some CCOP members who were in the closet. To require loyalty to a vision without building a consensus on such, while also denigrating the very people from whom you demand loyalty was just downright disgusting to me. So I left CCOP, never to return.

This year’s presidential election cycle, particularly on the GOP/TPer side, seems to demand the same kind of blind loyalty that my former boss, potential boss, former dissertation advisor and former pastor all wanted from me or people like me. I learned a long time ago, though, that what people like Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan want isn’t loyalty. They want lap dogs, people willing to overlook their own interests in order to help them achieve theirs.

Holes in Foundation Shield of Education Funding

November 3, 2011

Leather knight shield with holes, November 2, 2011. (

As an educator and someone who has worked in the nonprofit world on education reform issues for slightly less than half of my life (I turn forty-two next month), it’s curious and disappointing to continue to see a scatter-shot and tweaking approach to education reform. An approach that often gets the bulk of the funding from private and corporate foundations.

If what Bill Gates said at the National Education Summit in Washington, DC in February 2005 is correct, that “American high schools are obsolete in their current form” — and I believe he is — then why does his foundation and others fund mostly small-scale projects? Especially ones that have few, if any, possibilities for replication or for making American high school more relevant to the twenty-first century?

But let me not pick on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as being neglectful of seeing the big, panoramic picture on K-12, K-16 or even P-20 education. Below, in general, are the parts of education process the big foundations have tended to fund over the past five to ten years:

Preschool, Pre-K Education = Annie E. Casey Foundation, Pew Trusts

K-12 Education = Gates Foundation, Hewlett Foundation

Higher Education, Education Research = Spencer Foundation (most $$$ now via AERA/NAE), Mellon Foundation

Higher Education Access/Success = Lumina Foundation for Education, Ford Foundation, Gates Foundation, Jack Kent Cooke Foundation

Student Financial Aid = Lumina Foundation for Education, Gates Foundation

Teacher Effectiveness = Gates Foundation, Hewlett Foundation, Ford Foundation

Poverty, Community Development, Race = W.K. Kellogg Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, Pew Trusts, Ford Foundation, Annie E. Casey Foundation, Gates Foundation.

They have funded and still do fund everything from early childhood education programming, credentials for early childhood educators, small schools, research for curriculum realignment, online education options for K-12, leadership programs for principals and school superintendents, to student and teacher incentive programs, fiscal and human resources allocation, early and middle college high schools, and assessments for teacher effectiveness. (By the way, that is the longest sentence I’ve ever written, at least without editing into

Ed Harris as Jackson Pollock in Pollock (2000), spreading and throwing paint, August 6, 2009. (

smaller sentences).

Seems like everything in the P-20 education universe is covered, right? Except, I’d defy anyone in or out of the education field to try to add all of this up into a comprehensive overhaul of early childhood and K-12 education that would then force reform in higher education.

The reason that we can’t assume that all of this adds up to real reform is simple. A dozen or so foundations pouring billions of dollars into a quarter-trillion dollar a year system through tens of thousands of grants, each working on a separate problem? By definition, a comprehensive overhaul isn’t possible. It’s as unlikely as Wall Street disengaging itself from American politics without a decade of Occupy Wall Street.

We could start, conceivably, with the idea of early and middle college high schools. One where school districts and the colleges and universities adopting these high schools collaborate on creating a system that would leave high school graduates with the equivalent of two years of college training or an associate’s degree. Or in the case of students who made plans to not go to college, two years of training that would make them employable in the twenty-first century workforce.

Only, these early and middle college high schools would be without the additional burden of providing remediation to ninth graders not ready for what we now call high school. Bottom line: we need a single-track college/career ready system that begins its work in preschool and pre-K programs, one in which these programs are tied to elementary schools, so that it doesn’t take the poorest of students three years to catch up. We need linkages between elementary and middle schools — or as many researchers suggest, K-8 schools — where the work to make students ready for algebra, critical thinking through writing and the arts could take shape in a more supportive and coherent environment.

More direct linkages between schools and community organizations and services — health clinics, psychological services, nonprofit organizations focused on the arts, writing, sports, science and math — are

Crane removing part of Berlin Wall at Brandenburg Gate, December 21, 1989. (SSGT F. Lee Corkran/US Dept of Defense). In public domain.

necessity to build communities that are committed to large-scale education reform. For if these organizations and systems continue to work in parallel series rather than in collaboration, all these attempts at reform are for naught.

But foundations have always been leery to link their work, to fund for the long-term, to think in ways that encourage collaboration — kind of like corporations, Wall Street bankers and the GOP. They also tend not to hire deep thinkers on issues like education. Or at least, the linkages between education, race, class, gender, community and the workforce.

Though they are doing a better job these days, especially in the case of the Kellogg Foundation on race, we need a more solid shield. One that is truly about transforming P-20 education, and not just tweak it with data and pilot programs. Funding programs without a grander vision might as well be a “make it rain” party at a strip club.


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