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Bob Moses and Daughter
Society and Community:
American Education and Civil Rights
More on This Story:
Bob Moses, Crusader

NOW's profile of Bob Moses tells the story man who has spent the past forty years trying to keep the promise of American democracy functioning. During the 1960s he was an integral participant in the civil rights movement, organizing voter registration drives, sit-ins and Freedom Schools for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Today, he runs The Algebra Project and brings crucial math skills to poor communities to help kids get a shot at workforce equality for the 21st century.

Below are excerpts from Dr. Moses's book RADICAL EQUATIONS: MATH LITERACY AND CIVIL RIGHTS, reprinted by courtesy of The Beacon Press. (You can find out more about Bob Moses and his life by visiting the sites in our Resources section.)

From How Mathematics Became a Civil Rights Battleground
When I first came to Mississippi, most Black people were living in the rich cotton-growing land of the Delta, where they were a majority of the population, were living in serfdom on plantations. They had no control over their lives — their political lives, their economic lives, their educational lives. Within industrialized U.S. society, a microcosm of serfdom had been allowed to grow. The civil rights movement used the vote and political access to try to break that up.

We are growing similar serf-like communities within our cities today...What is central now is the need for economic access; the political process has been opened — there are no formal barriers to voting, for example — but economic access, taking advantage of new technologies and economic opportunity, demands as much effort as political struggle required in the 1960s.

Sixty percent of new jobs will require skills possessed by only 22 percent of the young people entering the job market now. These jobs require use of a computer and pay about 15 percent more than jobs that do not. And those jobs are not dwindling. Right now, the Department of Labor says, 70 percent of all jobs require technology literacy; by the year 2010 all jobs will require significant technical skills.

Mathematics as a Tool of Liberation
Why focus, as we do, on algebra, of all things?

The computer, of course, is the symbol of the great technological shift that has occurred since World War II. Everybody knows that there's something going on with computers out there...Everybody is willing to accept that what is powering these now-indispensable computers is a mathematical, symbolic languages. So, while the visible manifestation of the technological shift is the computer, that hidden culture of computers is math.

That sets the stage; you have something in there that you can organize around if you're concerned about math literacy.

Algebra was assigned a certain role, a certain place in the education system. Students learned how to manipulate abstract symbolic representations for underlying mathematical concepts. Now here comes history, which brings in technology that places abstract symbolic representations front and center. These representations are the tools that control the technology, and in order to use this technology to organize work you have to understand these symbolic representations and the place that society has assigned for young people to learn this symbolism — this is algebra. So, now algebra becomes an enormous barrier.

Shaping Demand
I believe that the kind of organizing we have been doing for years in the Algebra Project represents a radically different and new approach to the problem of how to create system changes of our schools. Indeed, I think the idea of systemic change of our schools is itself a radical idea. And some of the most important lessons for how to continue this effort lie in the history of those remarkable years of Black civil rights transformation.

In the final analysis...the story of the voter registration drive in the South in the decade of the 1960s is a story of people struggling for greater control over the decision making that affects their lives, of people who learn to step forward to make a demand on society in their own voices. Ultimately, this is what must happen with our young people today, especially young people of color and young people from the poorest of our communities.

Reprinted by courtesy of The Beacon Press.

Education Resources:

The Algebra Project
Founded by civil rights activist and math educator Bob Moses in the 1980's, the Algebra Project is a national mathematics literacy effort aimed at helping low income students and students of color — particularly African American and Latino/a students — successfully achieve mathematical skills that are a prerequisite for a college preparatory mathematics sequence in high school full citizenship in today's technological society. The site includes information about the history and programs of the organization, as well as providing resources and links to find out how to participate.

Online News Hour — The Algebra Project
The Online News Hour reports on Bob Moses' Algebra Project. The report gives the historical background of the Algebra Project, which was inspired by Moses' belief that math literacy is a civil right. Interviews with students and teachers document the program's success; demonstrating that math, taught in a practical way, helps students' confidence and provides essential life skills.

The Next Civil Right — Success in Math
The Christian Science Monitor's Amelia Newcomb document's The Algebra Project's Youth People's Project (YPP). Founder Bob Moses believes that "the demands of a high-tech age make math literacy as much an issue today as voting was in the Jim Crow South half a century ago." In this vein, the YPP acts a traveling carnival of students, sacrificing spring break, to hit the road and teach math to low-income and minority students.

The Heinz Awards: Robert Moses
In recognition of his work with low-income and minority children through the Algebra Project, Bob Moses became the sixth recipient of the Heinz Award in the Human Condition. The Heinz Award in the Human Condition seeks to honor those individuals who have created programs that protect and empower disadvantaged individuals.

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