By Sheila Edwards Lange, Ph.D., President, Seattle Central College
THE SEATTLE MEDIUM — On my desk, like many of you, I have a mousepad.
On my mousepad is a picture of African American students at work in a segregated classroom in 1945. Above that picture is the word OPPORTUNITY. Below, it reads, “Being able to see past traditional barriers and having an intense belief in your ideas and abilities will help you take advantage of any opportunity.”
I purchased this mousepad on a visit to the National Civil Rights Museum, mere feet from where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed 50 years ago.
Although that mousepad is a mundane detail in my day-to-day work, it is a daily reminder of the fight for opportunity at the heart of Dr. King’s work. That mission is as important now as it was 50 years ago. And, as an educator, it is a mission that I am connected to and responsible for.
In the simplest terms, education is a civil right. Access to education is access to opportunity. It is the path to career advancement. The key to closing the income gap. It can drive equity in housing. It is a proven determinant of overall health and wellbeing. It will mold the future African American leaders of industry, politics and social justice.
But as I look at the state of our education system, it’s abundantly clear that our work in securing educational equality is far from finished.
We live in a state with one of the nation’s most regressive tax structures and an education system so chronically underfunded that the Washington State Supreme Court demanded that our legislature find billions of dollars to support schools by 2018. Beyond just securing the funds our schools need, we face an uphill battle to ensure these funds are distributed equitably to the schools that need it most.
With only one in five workers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers identifying as black or Latino, we face a diversity problem and growing income gap in the region’s most lucrative careers. Closing this gap will require educational innovation and proactive policies from employers to create new paths to high-paying jobs.
And with Seattle’s changing economy and skyrocketing cost of living, these pressures will only continue to build.
That is not to say that we haven’t made incredible progress. As a community, and as a country, we have come a long way since Dr. King’s death in 1968. The fact that I, an African American woman, the granddaughter of a sharecropper and a maid, am writing this from behind a college president’s desk is a testament to that progress. But in the 50th year after Dr. King’s death, I would like to challenge our community to rediscover his sense of urgency and reignite the resolve and focus that fueled the progress of the 1960s civil rights movement.
Together, we can make Seattle an example to our nation of what is possible when education is accessible. We can define equal opportunity. We can prove that fostering professional communities made up of diverse cultures, backgrounds and perspectives is not only the right thing to do socially, it is the recipe for innovation.
I invite you to join the Seattle Colleges to help make educational equality a reality. If you are a business leader, consider partnering with us to find the employees your company needs to thrive. If you are a parent, introduce your kids to the affordable, local opportunities provided by the Seattle Colleges. If you are a teacher or guidance counselor, help your students see that a great postsecondary education can begin with community college.
Together we can create a future full of opportunity. As a community of educators, business leaders, parents, voters and activists, it is time to fulfill Dr. King’s vision.