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How To Be A Citizen: Education

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As you may have heard, we are celebrating NPR's 50th birthday this year. NPR has always been about giving you the kind of information you need to help you be an informed citizen, but we've been having conversations about other ways to be a good citizen. So far, we've heard about running for office, serving as a staff member to an elected person, and the role protesting can play.

Now we want to focus on education, which has become a hot topic, but it doesn't necessarily have to be this ugly political football. Kenisha Tucker is going to tell us about that now. She is an educator and co-founder of the Hidden Figures of Madison. That's a project focused on unearthing and showcasing stories about African Americans in Madison, N.J., whose stories have not been told.

Madison is located about an hour outside of New York City. Kenisha Tucker describes it as a predominantly white town that's a great place to raise a family. She came up with the project last year after the death of George Floyd, when a series of community dialogues about race made her curious about the history of Madison's Black community. So she and her sister had an idea.

KENISHA TUCKER: We're both educators, so we thought that the best way to - you know, to bring our vision forward about making sure the conversation continues is to actually impact and share with the young people, who would then share with their families, with finding out these wonderful stories. And thankfully, you know, we were able to integrate it and implement it into the school district with the support of the superintendent and teachers that were willing to integrate it into their lesson plans. Even though it was such a tough year for all teachers, they were able to push it in. And we've really gotten some wonderful work.

MARTIN: Yeah. It's - some of the stories are just amazing. I mean, there's a website that people can go to.

TUCKER: Yes.

MARTIN: And then they can click on the pictures of each, you know, person. And first of all, just some of the beautiful wedding dresses and the cotillion...

TUCKER: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Dresses and the prom dresses are just so adorable and, you know, gorgeous. And they just - you know what I mean? It is so - it's so delightful to look at. It's like looking at a family album, right? But...

TUCKER: It is. It is.

MARTIN: ...You also have, you know, information about folks. And there's - they run the gamut. Like there's, like, Don Newcombe, who was the third Black...

TUCKER: Right.

MARTIN: ...Player to pitch in the - in a major league game. And he was...

TUCKER: Major league.

MARTIN: ...The first player...

TUCKER: Yes.

MARTIN: ...To win all three major awards. He was Rookie of the Year. He was a Cy...

TUCKER: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Young winner and an MVP. I had no idea, you know? You had founders of historically Black churches. I mean, how on earth - how did you even know where to look?

TUCKER: I just Googled. I really started by Googling. And then gratefully, I did end up with some family connections. Their name is the Sallie family. And I knew that they had a strong presence in Madison by numbers. We know that there's - oh, they're related to this cousin. And so if you met them, you would know that they're related to probably three or four families that exist in town.

And so I reached out to her. And by her connection - her name is Dionne James - then she was able to connect me with other family members and citizens that - some who are still in town and some who are not very far away and then others that were quite far away. So it was really just networking and talking to people. And because they were so excited to finally have their stories told, they were very open and shared a lot and shared many contacts with us. And so I was able to really just organically gather all of this information. And also with the help of some other citizens, I was also able to get a website, which you referred to. And so, again, it turned into this wonderful thing, again, where all of these stories really can never fade away into history, as many of our stories have.

MARTIN: You mentioned that Madison is a predominantly white community. And yet the...

TUCKER: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Schools have embraced the project. What do you think - why do you think that is? And what do you think is the value for white students? Because as you see in some parts of the country, the argument has been that learning about slavery and racism and things of that sort makes the white kids uncomfortable. It makes them feel bad. So what do...

TUCKER: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...You think has been the - but that - you know, it seems that the school system there has really embraced, you know, adding these stories to the curriculum. So what do you think is the value for white students?

TUCKER: You know, as far as it being important to white students, I think it's important to all students. I think the underlying kind of glue that holds everything together is the ability to connect to the human story, the ability to connect to another person's perspective and experience and have compassion for that other person. And how can you know that if you don't know their hurts, their triumphs, their trials, you know, just history, the fuller part of it?

And again, sometimes family is messy, right? Sometimes love is messy. And I remembered the Bible verse that said God corrects who he loves. And so I love my town. I love my nation. And so I am now welcoming, especially as a parent, to speak correction in love. This is not a message of other. This is not a message of anger. It's a message of love and saying, you know, this is necessary. And if you love me and you love my children and you love the contributions that my people have had, then we are OK sharing these stories and even your stories in commonality, right? You know, it's not a otherism conversation. It's within the bigger conversation and even education process that already happens.

MARTIN: Are there one or two stories that really stand out for you?

TUCKER: I'm fascinated by the Lassiters, who really - not only in Madison but really all over New Jersey - had this impact. They were painting murals in one of those hotels that you see in Newark, these grand buildings. I know that the patriarch had a painting business - the Lassiter patriarch. And his son Kenny Lassiter was a teacher and an educator at the Bordentown School - finding out about the Bordentown School that's in New Brunswick - the space is still there - and knowing that there was an elite Black boarding school that was training African American students long before desegregation happened.

Knowing that Dr. Martin Luther King's mentor raised his family here and was an educator at one of the three universities here in town was also amazing. I think I actually even knew him as this really sweet man that used to just smile at me and say hello. But - and I said - I was joking. I said, if I had known, I wouldn't have been so much of a distracted teenager. I probably would have carried a journal around but - you know? But I think just getting to know all of these wonderful families and, again, having that connection to history in such a meaningful and tangible way has been such a joy and a pleasure.

MARTIN: If somebody wanted to do what you've done, like, what's the first thing you would tell them to do? Like, how would you recommend someone get started? If they see something that they feel is worthy of being taught or they - something that they feel doesn't necessarily get the attention that deserves and they feel that this would be of value to the community, how would you recommend they get started?

TUCKER: If I rendered it down to one key thing, I think the lesson for me during the past year, which - with what 2020 was, it's not to quiet your voice. So if you have a deep passion for something and a deep point of advocacy for something, really use your voice and share it, and use your resources, you know, your God-given talents that you have and not be afraid to voice it. I joke that I said, you know, in that meeting, the community conversations, that I had one small suggestion. And it turned into a wonderful journey of learning. And I'm so excited for the community to learn along with us.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, what does it mean to you to be a good citizen?

TUCKER: I think it's the ability to be compassionate. I definitely lead with compassion. I might not always agree, but I have to know that that human experience or the person that I'm engaging with, their experience matters. I think the ability to listen is so important and, again, the ability to advocate for those that can't advocate for themselves.

As an educator, I've heard this - I've heard it said that your best indicator of whether or not you're a good teacher is to look not at your best student, but actually the one struggling. And are you helping that student to thrive? So I think a good citizen is always aiming to make sure that all of their citizens are thriving and are able to lend assistance and support for the citizens that are still struggling.

MARTIN: Kenisha Tucker is an educator and co-founder of the Hidden Figures of Madison. That is a project that is shedding light on stories - little-known stories of African Americans in Madison, N.J. The project is being celebrated this weekend with a series of events. Kenisha Tucker, thank you so much for joining us, and congratulations.

TUCKER: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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