Public Talk and Reception in Honor of Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings
A Multigenerational Legacy
|Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings has impacted a generation of
teachers and academic administrators.
During her speech, the reoccurring theme was dreams. And she noted that while for some in society, dreams were a welcomed thing, for others, dreams could be
dangerous and often deadly.
“In the Old Testament story, Joseph went public with his dream to 10 of his 11 brothers,” Ladson-Billings said. “And in the dream, he declared that the sun, the moon
and 11 stars bowed down before him. His dream infuriated his family. But it was a dream that spoke to the future that Joseph would eventually have. His elders
hated him because of the dream and what it implied. And they began to plot against him with his dream or his accurate metaphor for what would happen. He was
being persecuted for sharing it in public. In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. also had a dream. Some might argue that his dream was also dangerous and it contributed to
the hatred that resulted in his death by an assassin’s bullet. Sam Cooke had a dream, one that meant owning his own music, creating a label so that Black artists
could hold onto their music. His dream frightened mobsters and record folks and probably led to him being set up to be murdered. Dream sharing can be incredibly
dangerous and particularly to do it among people with limited vision and who work toward true democracy that involves equity and justice.”
In the community where she grew up in Philadelphia, dreaming was rather limited in scope, hoping to take the next modest step in one’s family’s development.
“The Black working-class residents of West Philadelphia did not have the luxury of dreaming,” Ladson-Billings recalled. “The experience of most adults was
consumed with working from dawn to dusk just to make enough money to pay the rent and put food on the table. The children, our days were filled with school,
playing with friends and doing chores. I was, as LL Cool J said, an around away girl. We knew not to expect extravagant gifts, expensive sneakers, fancy leather
jackets or expensive toys. We got most of our ‘new’ things from the pawn shop and as hand-me-downs from siblings and cousins. In my neighborhood, you shared
your dreams for one purpose, to figure out what the legal numbers were that dream represented, so you or your parents could play and get rich quick. We were
reluctant to share big dreams like going to college or becoming doctors or attorneys or owning our own businesses because we saw so much disappointment. Our
typical life trajectories included completing high school, entering the work world — and often the very work place of our parents — or enlisting in the Armed
Services. A few of us had aspirations to enter community college. But we did not dare articulate a lofty dream. Four year colleges were for the children of those who
had attended college themselves. Even within the Black community, there were haves and the have nots. I was born into a family of have nots. My parents were
members of the working class. And working describes them perfectly. My father had a 3-4 grade education. He worked tirelessly. He generally had 2-3 jobs. He
labored in a laundry plant during the day. And I the evening, he worked as a janitor and cleaned office buildings. And he often maintained what we called a ‘side
hustle.’ He painted people’s houses. He did door-to-door sales. And he helped his brothers at whatever enterprise in which they were engaged. My mother had a high
school diploma and went from being a store clerk in Gimble’s department store to a ticketer for the Marine Corps where she placed tickets on pieces of fabric that
would eventually be assembled into uniforms for members of the Armed Services. Over time, she worked her way up to a clerical position where she completed her
30-year government career.”
The dream was for the children to finish high school. But Ladson-Billings and her brother went far beyond those dreams. Her brother enlisted in the Air Force and
eventually earned an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. Ladson-Billings wandered in the desert, sort of to speak, before she
found her promised land of intellectual pursuit after graduating from college.
“Now I’m aware I broke a lot of folks’ nice bubbles about having noble, lofty aspirations to be a teacher,” Ladson-Billings confided. “But the truth is I did not start out
to be a teacher. The one thing that I loved most was writing. I just couldn’t figure out how to get paid doing that. And my family could not afford me the luxury of time
to find my writing voice. I needed to do something that would allow me to earn a living and that thing became teaching. It took walking into a classroom, interacting
with students and learning how to teach that helped me become a teacher and fall in love with the work of teaching. It helped me understand that one of the most
effective ways to affect a democracy is through the classroom. When I sought a degree to which students rely on their teacher and the school environment for
shaping their sense of themselves as individuals, community members and as citizens, I understood that I could actually impact the society in which I live. It took
my 10 years in Philadelphia classrooms and another three in California classrooms to help me focus and formulate my dreams. This means that I was about 33-years-
old and I was just figuring out what I wanted to be when I grew up. So you undergraduates over there, don’t let mom and them put you out of the house. It takes time
to figure out what you want to be.”
Ladson-Billings’ dream began to take shape, but the graduate school at Stanford University where she attended was researching the opposite of the equation that
Ladson-Billings wanted to pursue in terms of Black student achievement.
“During my time in graduate school, the literature I read essentially asked the question, ‘What is wrong with Black children,’ and by default, their parents, their
community and their culture,” Ladson-Billings said. “An entire education research industry was built upon the conception of Black students as deficient, devious and
disobeying. Tons of scholarship asserted that their parents didn’t speak enough words to them or read enough to them or provide enough toys for them. The research
further asserted that Black children’s language was an impediment to their ability to learn mathematics. We decreed that they were ‘culturally deprived, at-risk’ and
more recently people have begun talking about the children as coming from ‘the culture of process.’ This perspective argues that there was something wrong with
the students’ entire culture and that the role of the school was to make them comply and bring order to their lives. Nothing in this literature speaks to improving
students’ academic outcomes.”
Part 2 of 3
By Jonathan Gramling
Dr, Gloria Ladson-Billings is a Woman for All Seasons: professor, researcher, theorist, author, wife,
mother, soror, church deacon and overall community activist. Ladson-Billings came to UW-Madison
26 years ago and made her mark on the UW-Madison School of Education, UW-Madison, Madison and
the national education scene.
In January 2018, Ladson-Billings retired from UW-Madison, but has been anything but retiring. On
March 21st, the UW-Madison School of Education hosted the Public Talk and Reception Honoring Dr.
Gloria Ladson-Billings at the Gordon Dining and Event Center. Ladson-Billings’ faculty members,
colleagues, former students and community friends all came out to fill the upstairs at Gordon Dining
to celebrate the career Ladson-Billings.
Ladson-Billings got out of the experience what she could.
“What I was able to get from Stanford was a good set of research skills and exposure
to theories and concepts,” Ladson-Billings said. “I got to interact with some of the top
scholars in the field and got to learn the ways of the academy.”
During her first job out of Santa Clara University, Ladson-Billings paid her dues doing
the grind work of higher education.
“It wasn’t a tenure track job and it certainly was not a tenure track job in a
powerhouse school or college of education,” Ladson-Billings recalled. “I was the
coordinator of teacher education, making student teaching placements and organizing
aspects of our teacher certification program. I also taught courses as an adjunct
professor in the program, seven courses to be exact. But in the midst of this no-stop
busy work, I was still dreaming.”
And her dreams would carry her the distance.
Next issue: The road to UW-Madison and beyond