Education Is The Civil Rights Issue Of Our Time

Esther BushEsther Bush is being honored as a Champion of Change for her efforts in Educational Excellence for African Americans.


I am honored to be designated a Champion of Change for African American education, an issue that has been close to my heart for as long as I can remember, and one that I am fully committed to.

I can still hear my parents’ voices as they told us that nothing was more important than going to school and getting an education. They were right, of course.

Few things matter more to a community's well-being than the quality of its public education. You can see its long-range impact in virtually every aspect of daily life, from our employment rates to crime rates, from the number of houses being bought to the number of teen pregnancies. As a teen, I attended Westinghouse High School in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I began my professional career as a high school teacher. I know firsthand how important great teaching and quality education is to our future.

Here in Pennsylvania, we know that to have healthy and productive communities, education must be our Number 1 priority. That's especially true among low-income black students enrolled in the most at-risk, low-income schools.Since 2008, we've seen slow but steady strides made in closing the “achievement gap” between black and white students. One of the proudest occasions of my life was facilitating and witnessing the birth of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh Charter School in 1998, where the achievement gap between black and white students has virtually been eliminated.

For the past several decades, I have worked tirelessly to build diverse coalitions and to unite diverse leaders in Baltimore, New York, Hartford, and Pittsburgh to advocate for education reform and equity. As President and CEO at the Pittsburgh Urban League, I am called on to be a voice of reason and a coalition builder. To that end, three years ago I was asked to convene African American visionaries representing the region’s corporate, nonprofit, government, religious, civic, and community sectors to respond to the needs of low-performing students in Pittsburgh Public Schools and to affect a culture of academic achievement and success for the region’s African American youth. This group has evolved to be the African American Achievement Trust (AAAT.)

The Collective Focus, led by the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh in partnership with the AAAT and supported by the Pittsburgh Public Schools and the United Way of Allegheny County, has identified a two-pronged intervention approach wherein African American Achievement Trust participants volunteer as sixth grade mentors and twelfth grade Graduation Coaches.

Joining the ULGP in driving education reform in Pittsburgh and across Pennsylvania are the Urban League of Lancaster County, the Urban League of Philadelphia, and the Urban League of Shenango Valley. Collectively we are known as Pennsylvania’s Excellence and Equity Project Consortium, a part of the National Urban League’s Equity and Excellence Project (EEP). EEP seeks to improve outcomes for underserved students in public schools by building the capacity of parents and communities to successfully advocate on behalf of children and youth in Pennsylvania, Tennessee, New York, and Ohio. This project is an important part of the National Urban League mission: to enable African Americans to secure economic self-reliance, parity, power and civil rights.

Education is the civil rights issue of our time. History has taught us that change and equality are won in the classroom. All American children deserve a quality education. And, with history as our teacher, I am pretty certain that the classroom is where the battle for change and equality will continue to be fought and won. Not by me or any one of us alone, but by many of us working together. I am humbled to be singled out as a Champion of Change for African American education. I accept it on behalf of the hundreds of individuals who are working with me in Pittsburgh and throughout the United States to make such change possible.

Esther L. Bush is the President and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh

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