As we collectively give thanks for Nelson Mandela’s time with us, we pay a debt of gratitude by teaching his eternal lessons of togetherness among the living. As we mourn, we must continue to carry his message of unity because the tendency to segregate ourselves lives on. For instance, in the midst of Mandela’s passing, citizens of unincorporated sections of East Baton Rouge Parish in Louisiana are petitioning to “secede” from their current city/parish government arrangement by forming their own municipality—the City of St. George—with the explicit goal of creating their own school district.
It may seem too predictable to state, but predominately higher-income residents (white) want to leave the less affluent, more racially diverse (black) sections of the parish. Those who are petitioning for the move claim it’s not about race but educational opportunity. In a Times-Picayune article, Republican State Sen. Mack “Bodi” White is quoted as saying, “It’s not a color issue. It’s a who can afford to get a better education and not pay two house notes for private education for their family issue.”
So this is about freeing a financially burdened people from bondage? White goes on to describe the supporters as “wanting to save their end of the parish.”
Whenever someone of Mandela’s magnitude passes, we naturally reflect on how much that person accomplished, how much power each of us has, and how much more work needs to be done. In particular, the residents who want to leave East Baton Rouge can stand to reflect upon Mandela’s understanding of oppression and freedom.
Mandela said, “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
Baton Rouge Area Chamber of Commerce and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation released a jointly commission report on the proposed City of St. George and found that forming of a new city would have profound economic and social consequences on the people of East Baton Rouge Parish. Some of the lowlights include:
- The remaining consolidated government would lose approximately $85 million, or 30 percent, of its General Fund revenue and face a potential $53 million annual shortfall.
- Police protection, which accounts for 29 percent of the city-parish General Fund appropriations, would be compromised. The Department of Public Works, whose transportation and infrastructure work is parish-wide and not allocated based on geography, would also take a significant hit.
- Cuts would have a negative effect on overlapping services for both the City of Baton Rouge and the unincorporated portions of the parish.
Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” He did not intend that weapon to be used to hurt people. Nelson Mandela reminds us of a critical purpose of education and inevitable reforms in a democratic society. A good education empowers neighbors; a good education unites communities.
No one could appreciate a community’s desire for self-determination more than Nelson Mandela. His body of work shows his commitment to empowering ethnic and geographic communities. The architects and supporters of the City of St. George want their taxes to contribute to their own schools. These citizens feel there’s not enough return on their personal investments in the current educational structure. They are frustrated and impatient at the pace of the current educational reform efforts in the district.
Mandela said, “It always seems impossible until it is done.” Forming gated communities is not an educational solution in a democracy. In fact, if there is one explanation behind our current state of education, it’s our desire to build separate systems. This is especially true in the South.
Let the loss of the great Madiba allow us to think deeply about our direction as a community. Let’s think critically about the purpose of education. The pursuit of smartness for personal gain can’t be the deeper purpose. Quality educational systems don’t myopically make schools better—they make communities better. A quality education has much to do with tearing down walls that keep everyone from achieving. Education reform should reflect a spirit that we are all in this together.
Even in his death, the great Mandela finds ways to unite the divided. Mandela’s commitment to bringing down walls emanated from the multilingual, multicultural education he received. As a young man, Mandela framed his formal, Western education within the indigenous traditions of his Xhosa tribe. Just imagine if we all received an education that brought out the best of us all.