Creating an Equitable Democracy Through Leadership and Solidarity

La June Montgomery Tabron
President & CEO,  W.K. Kellogg Foundation

Our founder, Will Keith Kellogg, believed in the democratic process driven by ordinary people collaborating to solve the problems that faced children and their families. He called it cooperative planning, intelligent study and group action – cooperative leadership on behalf of the whole. His belief in it was so strong that he bequeathed his entire fortune to pursuing it in order “to promote the health, happiness and well-being of children” – all children, regardless of race, sex, creed or nationality.

Mr. Kellogg wanted children to face the future with hope and confidence in our democracy. He trusted that education – “the greatest opportunity for improving one generation over another” – would develop leaders in every community; and together they would remove obstacles to equitable opportunity.

For almost 90 years, the Kellogg Foundation has pursued our founder’s ideals – supporting leadership, racial equity and community engagement on behalf of children. But as a society, we need to acknowledge that all children are not facing the hopeful future Mr. Kellogg envisioned. We are failing too many – especially children of color.

In 2017, 46 percent of White children in fourth grade were proficient in reading compared to 19 percent of Black, 22 percent of Hispanic/Latino and 21 percent of Native American students. The achievement gap between White children and children of color signals unequal access to quality education – a systemic obstacle that reflects the legacy of segregation, concentrated poverty and the structured lack of resources. An example is the “word gap” most impoverished children must bridge before they enter school. Although researchers debate the actual size of the gap (4 million words or much higher), it would be hard to overcome under any circumstances. And when young children are subjected to the most inadequate schools and under-prepared teachers, the climb up the academic ladder is difficult and costly.

Racial equity gaps like these are not only a problem for children. They’re a problem for the entire nation – and one that democracy must fix. That’s because inequity impairs the economic growth of the nation as a whole. We all lose. A recent analysis commissioned by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation quantified the loss. If we could close the racial equity gap and prepare every working age person to participate in the economy, we could create almost $3 trillion in additional gross domestic output by 2050 – more than enough to educate every child. The question is how do we work together to make that possibility a real one for all of our children?

It will take leadership. We need leaders who are willing to collaborate and work in solidarity on behalf of the whole, as Mr. Kellogg suggested. They do exist, but we could use more. Our leadership programs have helped to develop thousands. In February, we joined the Center for Creative Leadership® to announce the newest cohort of W.K. Kellogg Foundation Community Leadership Network fellows, adding 80 more to that number. All develop personal leadership skills grounded in their understanding of racial equity and racial healing, and the power of collective action. Through that lens, they will be the leaders to take our nation forward.

That kind of collective leadership is already having an impact in places like Jackson, Mississippi, and Battle Creek, Michigan.

In Jackson, when a state takeover of failing schools was on the table in 2017, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba, the Jackson Public School District (JPS) and the Kellogg Foundation entered into a working partnership to improve student achievement in JPS and ensure children have an equitable, excellent educational experience.

The collaborative approach brought together unlikely partners, but the ripple effect of leaders acting in solidarity on behalf of children has drawn more people into the problem-solving process.

The independent Better Together Commission developed a community visioning process and produced a student-centered assessment of the district. Now JPS’s new superintendent and the Board of Trustees have a set of prioritized recommendations and a pathway to develop a strategic operating plan to ensure all students succeed. Equally important are the working relationships connecting parents and educators, state and city officials, business leaders and community advocates. Collectively, participants are coming to grips with the disparities, listening respectfully to the perspectives of community stakeholders and thinking together. The experience is building trust and laying the groundwork for collaboration.

In Battle Creek, Michigan, we’ve seen a similar impact from cooperative planning, intelligent study and group action. A 2017 study revealed that structural bias and segregation, compounded by income inequality, had concentrated poverty in the Battle Creek Public School (BCPS) district among people of color and poor white residents, perpetuating economic and racial divisions. The study acknowledged what community members already knew: there were serious disparities between schools, with BCPS faring worst after decades of disinvestment where the need was highest.

In response, leaders across the community came together to envision a place where people can work, live and play. The result is a commitment to increasing jobs and talent and creating a culture of vitality in the city. That focus is driving transformation.

Within BCPS, a juvenile justice judge is joining school staff and parents to support struggling students. Together, they are creating stronger academic programs at middle and high schools that help students focus on their future. Increased support and new curricula are already producing academic improvements – notably in math and reading scores for younger elementary students. Even more encouraging, kindergarteners who participated in a new full-time, free summer program scored 15 percent higher than peers on a key literacy assessment that indicates readiness.

Community learning in our priority places is strengthened by work with partners like the National Urban League, who are organizing and driving support for policies that advance racial equity and cross-sector collaboration. Our shared focus creates pathways for local leaders willing to act on behalf of society as a whole.

We have an opportunity to uplift leaders who act in solidarity – the women and men who are trying to bring us together rather than tear us apart. The Kellogg Foundation is committed to building that kind of leadership because our children depend on it.

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