Radical equations: an interview with Bob Moses

Radical equations: an interview with Bob Moses – Interview

Legendary is to Bob Moses what dull is to thud; the adjective has been used so often in proximity to his name it seems to have become a part of it. Moses first gained national attention in the early 1960s, when he was one of the co-founders of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. He and many of his co-workers were beaten and arrested for their activities organizing African Americans in the Deep South, but no matter how extreme the situation, Moses never lost the calm, stoic demeanor for which he became known. For the past 20 years, Moses has turned his attention to a surprising but, he argues, no-less vital project: generating community interest in promoting math literacy. Today, the Algebra Project serves 10,000 students in 28 cities nationwide. Moses runs the Project out of its headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but teaches in Jackson, Mississippi, during the school year. CRJ spoke with Moses in late October 2001.

What is the Algebra Project?

One way to think about it is that it is establishing a “math literacy floor” for poor black and Latino students in urban and rural schools. The idea is that the computer age has ushered in a math component, in the way that the industrial age brought in a need for reading and writing. Literacy became necessary for citizenship, for participation in politics. So today the focus is on putting a floor under this target population, so that students have choices, so that it isn’t a question that they can’t access certain domains of knowledge. So far, the focus has been on middle schools, on training teachers. We’ve had our best successes down South, in states from North Carolina to Louisiana.

How did you first get the idea to focus on math? Was it a sort of eureka moment?

No, it happened gradually. In my family, I was responsible for our kids’ math education. We have two boys and two girls, and came back to this country from Africa in 1976. Our oldest kid was in M.L. King Open School in Cambridge, and I was back in graduate school. When she hit eighth grade, they weren’t offering algebra. That year I won a McCarthur, so I was working with her, and the teacher said, “Why don’t you come in and help a couple of more kids?” So the question arose, who was taking algebra, and why. We wrote a letter to the parents of every incoming seventh-grade student and asked them what they thought. Universally they said, “Well my kid should take algebra, but I’m not sure every kid should.” On that basis, we offered it to every child. That was the beginning of the Project, with the idea that we would put a floor under every child and develop math literacy–which wasn’t being done at that time.

How is the Algebra Project similar to the kind of community organizing you did in the 1960s?

In the 1960s, we were using the right to vote as an organizing tool. The 1957 Civil Rights Act provided a minimum amount of crawl space that allowed us to organize around the right to vote. When we had been doing direct organizing in Mississippi, when we had been doing the freedom rides, we got slapped with long jail sentences and heavy fines, and we couldn’t sustain that. But as long as we were focused on the right to vote, they couldn’t put us in jail and throw away the key. We were using the right to vote as a lever for broad political access. In the Algebra Project, we’re using math literacy to achieve the broad goal of economic and programmatic access, but we’re using it as an organizing tool.

Another connection is that the meeting place became a real tool for us. When we think of the civil rights movement, we think of eloquent leaders speaking to masses of people in public spaces, but just as important was empowering people. The question became, how do we empower the people we were working with? and we came up with this format that allowed them to discuss issues in small groups and then go out and see what they could do about those issues. The sharecroppers had a lot of people advocating for them, but it was only once they demanded the right to vote that it happened. In the Algebra Project, we’re working the demand side of the equation. We’re seeing young people who participated in the Project earlier in their lives becoming math literacy workers.

How many people does the Project reach?

We’ve got programs in New York City, Boston, New Jersey, Baltimore, Chicago, and California. We also have projects in the South, in Louisiana, Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina. This year, we’re reaching about 10,000 students, in about 120 schools.

How is the Project grown, how is it propagated?

Mostly people come to us, as an organization, they make contact, say they want to do this project. Our first response is to see if we can get a local group to sponsor and own it. We’re not trying to run the Project at the grassroots. We want to go where the interest is. But of course we want them [the prospective teachers] to go through training and everything. Last summer in Arkansas, we had about 80 teachers involved in the training. So now we’re training the trainers.

Have you been measuring the results of the program?

Mostly the evaluation is being done by the Program Evaluation Group at Leslie College. They’ve been looking at us and doing research and evaluations for eight or nine years. Last year, they looked in depth at one San Francisco school. This year, they’re at Lanier High School here in Jackson [Miss.], and they go to the Northeast next year.

If you look at the data, they all show the same thing. If you do a certain number of things, the Project can work, and the students come out with higher grades. You’ve got to train and support the teachers, which takes two or three years for them to get comfortable with the pedagogy. You’ve got to get buy-in from the students, you have to get young people involved, and you have to get the community and parents involved in some functional way.

Were you inspired at all by the Latin American example of the “pedagogy of the oppressed,” which is based on the notion that you need to impart not simply a set of skills or base of information, but a sort of critical political and personal consciousness about society?

Actually, that kind of pedagogy we had been developing on our own, in the civil rights movement, particularly in the Mississippi theater, where we were really trying to work the demand side with sharecroppers. We were trying to figure out how to get them to change, to look at struggle as a part of their lives. Somebody like Fannie Lou Hammer comes out of that tradition.

How do you answer those who say that what you’re doing now isn’t really radical?

Trying to get the right to vote isn’t necessarily radical either; it was getting those people the right to vote that was radical. The political configuration was that they were at the bottom. We weren’t content to register middle-class blacks. We were trying to reach those who were really functioning as serfs in our society. And what is still radical about what we are doing today is that we are paying attention to the bottom, and attempting to lift the bottom. Because we know from the 1960s that if you shift the bottom everything shifts. Society has to reconfigure itself when you’ve got this new mix, these new people at the table. If you’re just looking for a few young people with math talent, that’s already been done for quite a while. What’s radical is using algebra as an organizing tool, as a way to gain traction in the community. It’s not as dangerous as demanding the right to vote, but in terms of building relationships, learning how to struggle, and finding value in a particular kind of work, the effort is similar. The kids internalize a concept of themselves as knowledge workers, which is the key to becoming productive, and not just thinking of their future in terms of a dead-end job at McDonald’s.

You have some very specific ideas about how to teach algebra. How did they evolve?

It’s a refinement of what has come down as experiential learning from Dewey, Piaget, Lewin, and other people in progressive education. I studied under Willard Van Orman Quine at Harvard, and Quine said that elementary math and logic get off the ground by the regimentation of ordinary discourse, that you take ordinary language and straightjacket it. So I took this concept into the domain of experiential learning, where you have an event, then you have reflection on the event, conceptualization of the event, and finally the application. Quine fills in the process between reflection and conceptualization. It’s a leap from describing an event in ordinary street language to describing it in language which focuses on the features of the objects as opposed to the objects themselves. For example, you focus on the speed or acceleration or trajectory of the car, not the car itself.

Finally, a couple of big picture questions. As you look back over the past three or four decades, how satisfied are you with how far things have come?

What I’ve felt, up to September 11, was that this was a good country to struggle in. You could have a good life and struggle. I wasn’t particularly optimistic that in my lifetime you would see these issues of race and class turned around, but I had the feeling that you could struggle for them. Now I think it’s going to be harder in this country, and I’m not sure yet what’s going to happen. The country itself is tightening up, in response to terror and to the threat of terror, and that always hits our target population first. So the first thing you see when you come in here at Lanier is a recruiting sign, and you see more kids out joining the ROTC. I’m not sure where this is headed.

You’ve always stood in opposition to the mainstream, of course, but also, at least implicitly, to some of the major civil rights groups and civil rights figures. Where do you believe you are now?

We were in opposition to the more mainstream figures on policy issues. If you were working in the grassroots on policy issues, as we were in the Freedom Democratic Party, then inevitably you get into direct conflict with the civil rights organizations that have forged alliances with major policy groups and institutions. Now, today, the issue is the black middle class, which has taken on the role of managing schools and political institutions that deal with black people as a whole. We bump up against that, because what we’re doing is a critique of that kind of management. This issue of raising the floor is an issue because it’s their floor. They are the ones managing these institutions that have these floors. So insofar as they not really willing to develop their own critiques that what’s going on now isn’t acceptable, you are in various stages of conflict.


COPYRIGHT 2002 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights

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