Dr. Ray Owens lectured to a room of nearly 100 students and faculty at Oklahoma State University about African-Americans’ relationship to American education in the latest installment of the Department of Africana Studies’ series titled “Critical Conversations” on Tuesday evening.
Owens began with a phrase his grandmother instilled in him from a young age: “To match your white counterparts,” Owens said before motioning the crowd to finish the sentence, “you’ll have to work twice as hard.”
A pastor by trade, Owens said that he has used to his congregation participating vocally in his sermons, and he urged the audience to do the same.
His grandmother’s phrase is one echoed in many black homes, and as Owens’ research points out, for good reason. Owens gave a laundry list of statistics such as “African American seniors perform at the same level as white 8th graders. Only nine percent of black eighth graders in Tulsa are proficient in math.” These are the signifiers of the “so called Black-White achievement gap,” Owens said.
The cause of this gap is up for debate between two schools of thought. The “structuralist school” focuses on institutional inequity that black students are subjected to, while the “behaviorist school” leans toward African-American culture being the culprit. Owens gives credence to both sides, “No reasonable person can deny inequitable education, but exclusive attention to structural issues blinds them from some solutions.”
His solutions are derived from ideology that dates back to reconstruction-era African-American leaders, Owens said. They are based on two principles: education is the path to freedom, and African-Americans must “design, develop and deliver” that education.
Early African-Americans viewed education and religion as united, Owens said. “Literacy empowered one to scripture and holy insights and to preaching. African-Americans erected education into a divine institution.”
When they had power to be elected officials under reconstruction, black Republicans pushed for free public education, and even after Jim Crow laws barred them from going to those schools, they built private schools with their own money, Owens said.
A transformational experience at the University of Texas is an example of why he believes that people learn best from those who look like them.
“I went back to school and took African-American history and for the first time I had a black teacher with a Ph.d,” Owens said. “It gave me a sense that I belong in this space and that experience made all the difference in the world. It was a sacred experience”
He has taken this knowledge and used it to create his own school, the Greenwood Leadership Academy in Tulsa. The goal is to remove some of the structural inequities in public school systems by having “culturally competent” staff and administration while providing enough resources for the students. In doing so, Owens believes the black-white achievement gap will close in his community.
Oklahoma State freshman Kemi Rufai is proud of Owens' efforts.
“I’m from Tulsa, so seeing this being implemented in my own community made it even more personal," Rufai said.