NOW Home Page
Politics & Economy
Science & Health
Arts & Culture
Society & Community
TV Schedule
For Educators
Topic Index
Student in the Algebra Project
Society and Community
Transcript: The Mathematics of Success
More on This Story:
Bob Moses

BILL MOYERS: Bob Moses left a comfortable life here in New York, back when the battle for the nation's soul was being fought over civil rights in the Deep South. The fault lines in America have changed since then. But we are still a deeply divided and unequal country. And Bob Moses has no intention of resting on his laurels. He's back in the South. And he's using the Talents that have shaped his own life to teach young adults how to improve theirs.

KEITH BROWN, NOW PRODUCER: It's like any urban high school in the country.... only here at Lanier High in Jackson, Mississippi this former civil rights activist is on a crusade to change the course of his students' lives — and he's doing it through mathematics!

Meet Bob Moses, founder of The Algebra Project, a national program aimed at providing poor and minority students with the math skills needed to compete in the 21st century.

BOB MOSES: For poor kids, they have to get ready to go to college. I don't think that poor children have an option out here today. The message has to be very clear to them, you may not think you want to go now, but you have to prepare yourself so when the time comes, you have an option to go.

KEITH BROWN: To Moses it's clear — a solid math education provides students with that option — and can begin to free those whose families have been trapped for generations in poverty.

In the sixties, Bob Moses put his life on the line here in Mississippi organizing so that Blacks could gain the right to vote. Now he's back, involved in another struggle, a battle he says is as crucial as the one waged here almost forty years ago.

ARCHIVAL FILM: We don't serve niggers here.

KEITH BROWN: At the dawn of the 1960s America was just beginning to see the racial injustice of the South, and the protests against it.

So in 1961 Harvard-educated Bob Moses headed South... leaving his comfortable teaching position at a private New York City school.

He eventually became a field director in the Mississippi Delta for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Moses led with fierce, even revolutionary determination.

BOB MOSES ON ARCHIVAL TAPE: The world is upset and they feel if they are ever going to get it straight they are going to have to upset it more.

KEITH BROWN: Moses remembers how daunting the task was before him. At the time Mississippi was 42 percent Black, yet only 6 percent of Blacks were registered to vote.

BOB MOSES: That is, how do you get the people that are targeted, who are oppressed by this system to actually rise up. The issue was are you going to be able to actually create in this oppressed targeted population this demand for their political access.

KEITH BROWN: Moses's strategy to gain voting rights was slow and steadfast: change from the bottom up, registering voters sharecropper by sharecropper, church by church, town by town.

But what does any of this? Have to do with this? Everything say his students.

STUDENT: Back then he was trying to get everybody to vote because voting was the key to make themselves better. And now we need to know math. And math is the key for us to do any kind of job.

KEITH BROWN: She's right. According to the Department of Labor, the highest paying and fastest growing job sectors all require significant technical skills. Without advanced math Moses believes many poor and minority children will be effectively cut off from a living wage.

BOB MOSES: I think we're growing serfs in our cities, young people who graduate with eighth grade education that can't access economic arrangements to support families.

KEITH BROWN: In Mississippi more than 40 percent of Black children are growing up in these serf-like conditions. Changing that is what motivates teacher Peggy Quinn.

KEITH BROWN, ADDRESSING QUINN: This is more than just math to you. This is political.

PEGGY QUINN, ALGEBRA PROJECT TEACHER: It's very political to me because....

KEITH BROWN: How is math political?

PEGGY QUINN: I think that we are shortchanging a majority of students in our country and we don't make the demand for math literacy the same way that we do for reading literacy.

KEITH BROWN: Quinn is as passionate about math literacy today as she was about civil rights in the Sixties when she was organizing in Mississippi. She recently took a year's sabbatical from her high school in Connecticut, to work with Moses.

PEGGY QUINN: You have to be able to use a calculator, a computer, and you have to really have all the skills that they provide to students in the wealthier areas of this country and we have to make that demand for all students.

KEITH BROWN: Where schools across the country have failed The Algebra Project is making inroads.... by making math relevant and above all, making it fun!

Teachers use innovative methods like this stock market game. Playing interactive games introduces complex mathematical concepts and principles.

GINA WILKERSON, YOUNG PEOPLE'S PROJECT VOLUNTEER: You're interacting and you're learning instead of just sitting there -- your teacher just talking and talking and you're not understanding nothing she's saying - but if you're up and both of you are interacting and asking questions and answering them - it's better.

KEITH BROWN: Gina Wilkerson is a member of what's called The Young People's Project. It's a group of upper classmen and college students - who've studied with Moses. Now they pass on their math knowledge to younger students.

STUDENT: When I was in middle school I was the class clown. One day Dr. Moses had me to get up and start explaining something to the whole class so once I made my explanation I thought about it I was like I got a whole lot of attention from somebody for being smarter than being silly.

GINA WILKERSON: I can go out here and I can change the world if I wanted to because I don't have to accept what the people or the system is giving me.

MAISHA MOSES: I see that they definitely have a sense that they can go out in the world and do something.

KEITH BROWN: Maisha Moses has been working with The Algebra Project for the past 10 years. In fact, 1982 she was the program's catalyst. As an eighth grader Maisha was ready for algebra but her school didn't offer it. So her father Bob Moses decided he would fill the void.

MAISHA MOSES: I had already learned what the teacher was able to teach. He showed up in my class one day and I had to do his math in school.

KEITH BROWN: The instruction paid off in ways Moses could not have predicted. Maisha - a Harvard graduate - didn't just learn math, she's been instrumental in helping to make her fathers vision a national reality. Today The Algebra Project is in close to 40 schools, in 10 different states, reaching close to 10-thousand students each year.

MAISHA MOSES: The fact that he has given his life to it I think made us want to also do the same. I understood that there was a really deep connection between him and Mississippi. And as I got older - what I came to understand was that he really found his life in Mississippi.

KEITH BROWN: And he found his life's work in Mississippi.

MAISHA MOSES: He found his life's work.

KEITH BROWN: An account of that work can be found in Moses' book, RADICAL EQUATIONS: MATH LITERACY AND CIVIL RIGHTS. Recently before educators and employees of the U.S. Department of the Interior in Washington, DC, Moses discussed the book. He shared with them - as he does with his students in Mississippi - the sacrifices and rewards of social change.

BOB MOSES: In this country, there's a tradition of people who have lived a life in struggle, one of the best things about the country is that you can actually live a life of struggle in the country. You can find yourself, in relationship to your history and your people. You can have really deep purpose in your life.

KEITH BROWN: Are you in this until the end?

BOB MOSES Yes. I'm here.

about feedback pledge © Public Affairs Television. All rights reserved.
go to the full archive