Tough times, tougher optimism

Community College of Philadelphia. (Photo: Elizabeth Field/CCP)

At a time when hot-button phrases such as “critical race theory” are tossed around like political grenades by those who’ve never even bothered to find out what they actually mean, it seems we have a long way to go just to get back to any kind of consensus on fundamental American ideals.

Fortunately, the most effective solution for systemic inequity has always been the least controversial — helping people help themselves with affordable, accessible and inclusive higher education.

Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from the new book Urban Voices, Racial Justice, and Community Leadership: African American CEOs of Urban Community Colleges Speak Out (Rowman & Littlefield), a collection of essays focused on how Black presidents of six urban colleges are addressing the challenges in their communities. It is edited by Curtis Ivery, chancellor of the Wayne County Community College District in Michigan, and Christine Johnson McPhail, president of St. Augustine’s University in North Carolina.

Black community college presidents are the torch-bearers of hard-won progress over the past 60 years that has resulted in the presence of non-White CEOs at 36% of the country’s associate-degree institutions, according to a 2017 survey by the American Council on Education. The hard work will never end for the next generations of leaders who must continue to leverage that progress by doing the best job they can to elevate the condition of everyone in their communities.

We can’t do that job alone. We must look to each other for inspiration and new ideas about how to better reach the entirety of distressed communities we serve. Many promising innovations are being developed, tested and analyzed throughout the country.

One fine example of how we can broaden our impact by going beyond traditional education is offered by Donald Generals, president of the Community College of Philadelphia (CCP). Among the college’s recent projects is the CCP Institute for Community Engagement and Civic Leadership. The organizational hub was formed in 2017 to “foster a culture of engagement and collaboration that promotes experiential learning and capitalizes on the strengths of students, faculty, staff and partners to make a positive difference on social justice issues,” according to its mission statement.

It now has 25 advisory council partners representing everyone from the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia to the public schools, YMCA and the University of Pennsylvania. Recent projects have included gun-violence journalism, Covid vaccination and screening, and voter registration. All have the added benefit of involving students in service-learning activities that further strengthen their community by instilling a sense of civic awareness that’s sorely lacking in too many inner cities.

That’s exactly the sort of engagement that should be part of our basic mission. We must seek out allies — White or Black, liberal or conservative, or anywhere in between — to embrace the diversity that is the greatest measure of our humanity and nation.

About the Author

Curtis L. Ivery
Dr. Curtis L. Ivery has served as chancellor of Wayne County Community College District (Michigan) since 1995. He is the recipient of the 2022 AACC CEO of the Year Award.
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