WESTWOOD — Statewide politicians, community leaders, scholars and advocates descended on UCLA Feb. 8 when the California Legislative Black Caucus held its State of Black California conference that facilitated a dialogue on policy issues affecting African Americans in California.
The conference was hosted by Assemblywoman and Legislative Black Caucus Chair Shirley Weber and state Sen. Steven Bradford of Gardena, vice chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, in the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA.
Kelly Lytle Hernandez, director of the Bunche Center, opened the conference by explaining the center’s mission.
“The Ralph J. Bunche Center is a think tank,” Hernandez said. “We work with the community, legislators and organizers to make sure that our data is improving the conditions of African Americans.”
During the event, five panels of stakeholders and community leaders discussed issues and solutions affecting the black community that included education, public safety, civic engagement and the 2020 census.
Although problems continue to challenge communities of color, Weber said, “It’s not about focusing on the problem, it’s about looking for solutions. The challenges we face are old challenges. We know what we need to do, but do we have the courage to do it? Can we mobilize ourselves to motivate black people to a better place?”
Weber, a longtime champion for civil rights, authored two caucus bills, including Assembly Bill 2635 regarding properly funding underperforming students in public schools as well as Assembly Bill 931 that seeks to improve public safety through changing law enforcement’s use of force policies.
Weber moderated an education panel titled “Best Practices for Closing the Achievement Gap.”
She cited a recent report released by the Fortune School of Education that stated that the achievement gap for African-American students continues to exist.
The study stated that only one in three African-American students is proficient in the English language and one in five are proficient in math.
“The achievement gap still persists and it is very real in our community,” Weber said. Despite the gap, the report, titled “African American Leaders Hold the Roadmap to Black Student Achievement,” stated that there are 16 public education schools in California that are beating the odds and attaining impressive levels of academic achievement.
“We are resilient people,” said Tony Thurmond, state superintendent for public instruction. “We must not be the sum of the (achievement gap) experience. As Dr. Hernandez said earlier, for us to overcome slavery, Jim Crow, and the school-to-prison pipeline, we still continue to be a resilient people.
“We will overcome the achievement gap in California and in this nation,” he said. “And I believe that from my own experience.”
Orphaned and placed in foster care at the age of 6, Thurmond and his 5-year-old brother were taken in and raised by their cousin, who insisted that the brothers strive for and achieve the best education possible. “Education was stressed daily in the household,” Thurmond said. “Education was everything to me.” Thurmond pointed out that there are persistent reasons why the achievement gap among African-American students continues to exist.
“When we looked at the test scores and why they are declining for African-American students, we saw that our students are still in racially segregated schools,” he said. “There are 25 districts in our state that have the highest concentration of poverty and the highest concentration of teachers who don’t have (teaching) credentials.
“We also know that African-American students are among the highest groups that miss school in grades as early as kindergarten.
“When I came to the Department of Education, I told them we’re going to declare that our top priority is closing the achievement gap. We are going to launch a statewide literacy campaign. We worked with the community and we talked about the impact of race on our students and how we have a majority of educators that don’t reflect the diversity of our kids.
“My office is introducing legislation to help us broaden our teacher pipeline. We’re working with Governor Gavin Newsom who has put $900 million into the state budget for all kinds of recruitment, retention and scholarships. And we will be introducing a bill that states that we want to expand the pipeline to recruit more educators of color in our schools.
“We’re also going to continue to work on implicit bias training and to address the impact of race and poverty on our student’s education,” Thurmond said. “Research tells us that when our students have a teacher who looks like them that it makes a difference in the entire community — not just for kids of color, but for everybody.”
The Civic Engagement panel featured moderator Isaac Brian, director of public policy at the UCLA Ralph Bunche Center, Lorrie Frasure-Yokley, vice chair for graduate studies in political science, at UCLA; state Sen. Holly Mitchell; co-founder of Black Lives Matter Patrisse Cullors; and Annetta Wells, deputy political director for SEIU 2015.
Brian asked the panel, “Does this moment in history feel especially significant for black voters?”
“It feels like we say every election is the most important election, but this one is really, really important,” said Mitchell, who urged more black women to step up in the political process. “I feel that black women need to be involved in an intimate, up-close way on the [national] level, here locally at the state party and black women across the state are ready for the county central committee probably like never before.
“We are tired of being overlooked and just expected to turn out to elect other people. But we have got to also be present in bringing forward a referendum as well as being integrated into the party infrastructure.
“I believe that this year we should pay attention and vote not just in the national elections, but our local elections as well. This is the most important election that you could ever vote in,” Cullors said. “We’re voting for a new district attorney and we’re voting for a ballot measure that those of us who have been directly impacted by this sheriff’s department and this county jail system can change. Let’s vote right and let’s vote for folk’s power.
“Yes on R comes out of 20 years of my own personal struggles and 15 years of grassroots organizing and fighting,” Cullors said. “It is going to do two things. One, it is going to codify into law giving our Civilian Oversight Commission some investigative power over our sheriff’s department.
“The second part of Yes on R is actually building an infrastructure in Los Angeles where we are shaping alternatives to incarceration.”
“It’s not just the presidential election that I believe is the most important, it’s every single election that’s important,” added Wells. “I stand on the shoulders of people who came over here on slave ships, crawled on their bellies to go to church and pray for freedom, that lived in the segregated south.
“We have to vote for dog catcher if dog catcher comes up on the ballot. We have to get into the practice that we are voting all the time and all the way down the ballot.”
“For those of you who have been complaining for decades that your vote doesn’t matter, well, guess what? Now is our time in California. We need to show up and show out on super Tuesday, March 3 so that we can be a part of history,” Fraser-Yokley said.