Monday, October 5, 2009

Powerful and Unapologetic, Michelle Rhee Brings Change to Washington

By Ihotu Ali
Originally published in LIMIte Magazine

We all remember the Hillary - Barack infighting, and how the nation and all its various ethnic-racial and gender lines subsequently went haywire. Race and gender fought to hold central stage in American politics and, although we now have a black president, I dare say we still have significant skeletons in our closet when it comes to the media and powerful women. Take Michelle Rhee, Chancellor of DC Public Schools since 2007, and controversially portrayed and yes fierce, if perhaps misunderstood, advocate for DC school children.

In a city where private schools overflow with affluent sons and daughters of politicians, public schools are a near disaster. And Rhee has stepped up to the plate with so-called “tough-talk” and “arrogance” that, in my opinion, would be a necessary requirement for the job. This is DC, folks: generations of educational disinvestment and disenfranchisement. Not a walk in the park. However, Rhee has been painted as an unwanted intruder.

First off, she’s Korean, and we all know how well Koreans and blacks get along…except that this one read Dr. King as a child, was married to a (black) NBA player, and taught for three years in Baltimore, Maryland. She’s certainly not black, but certainly not a stranger to black cultures. She’s been scolded for antagonizing teachers with the front cover of New York Times image of “sweeping out” old and ineffective teachers like an old and cranky schoolmaster that wants things her way. She may want things her way, but “her way” has a pretty good track record - Rhee founded the “New Teacher Project” which trains and recruits thousands of high-quality teachers to provide to struggling school districts.

But she does not beat around the bush and does not bend over to please, which may not sit well with Washington-types. She knows her strength and is not afraid to flex her muscles. She’s quoted in the cover article of the Washington Post Magazine: “I don’t mind firing people, because I know it is going to benefit kids.” For complacent, or for earnest, but bureaucratically limited teachers, this may sound like a threat. But it seems those that meet her face to face see her deep commitment to students and passion for not just talking about reform, as many in DC do, but acting on it. In a year of promised change and reform, she seems to me a truly bright light on the DC horizon.

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