The civil-rights and parent-choice activist talks to Daniel P. Schmidt and Michael E. Hartmann about philanthropy, education reform, and the principles driving his work.
Born in January 1941 in Shreveport, La., Howard Fuller is one of the country’s foremost civil-rights and parent-choice activists. As described in his autobiography No Struggle No Progress: A Warrior’s Life from Black Power to Education Reform, written with Lisa Frazier Page, Fuller’s family moved to Milwaukee after his preschool year. In Milwaukee, he attended St. Boniface for grade school and then North Division High School—for which he played basketball, and well.
After getting his undergraduate degree at Carroll College in the western-Milwaukee suburb of Waukesha and his master’s degree at Western Reserve University in Cleveland, he was a community organizer in Chicago and Durham, N.C.
In the 1970s, Fuller returned to Milwaukee. He continued his activism—later helping organize efforts to save North Division from closure, for example, and to protest the death of Ernest Lacy while in the custody of the Milwaukee Police Department, among many other activities.
Fuller went on to earn a Ph.D. from Marquette University in 1986 and then filled several top positions in public service, including with Milwaukee County and the State of Wisconsin. He was Superintendent of the Milwaukee Public Schools system from 1991 to 1995, after which he founded the Institute for the Transformation of Learning (ITL) at Marquette and assumed a high-profile role in the fight for parent choice, including nationally.
With many others, of course, Milwaukee’s conservative Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, where we worked, supported many choice groups and projects—including several with which Fuller was and is affiliated, ITL and the Black Alliance for Educational Options among them. Other choice supporters, including of Fuller’s work, included the Walton Family Foundation.
Fuller is now a distinguished professor of education at Marquette and emeritus board chair of the Dr. Howard Fuller Collegiate Academy, which was founded in 2004 and renamed earlier this year to honor him.
Fuller is charismatic and approachable. He is decidedly unafraid of controversy. And he is conversational and forthright.
Below is the second of two parts of an edited transcript of a discussion that he was kind enough to have with us at his ITL office in July. The first part, in which he talks about basketball, his early life, community organizing, and being an organizer, is here.
At the beginning of this second part, after relaying that which he tells young people about organizing and being an organizer, he addresses some questions about his philanthropic support.
Fuller: I think that when you do the kind of work that I tried to do over the years, and this is what I tell young people, everybody has to draw a line, and they’ve got to decide when I will cross that line or whether I will cross that line—ultimately, how you define the principles that drive your work.
As you all know, for a lot of people, taking money from the Bradley Foundation was considered to be a betrayal. For me, it was an issue of trying to get resources to do the work that I wanted to do. I learned this principle of Interest Convergence Theory from Derrick Bell in his book Silent Covenants, and I also got to know Derrick Bell.
He explains how during the civil-rights movement, the reason why Black people were able to make progress was because of our own struggle, yes, but also because at that time, the United States was trying to convince the rest of the world that democracy was a better form of government than Communism. It’s hard to compete with Bull Connor sicking dogs on people. At a certain point in time, people say, hey you can’t do that, because your messing up a larger agenda. Our interests then converged with the interests of the people who were running the country, and the movement was able to happen.
I’ve sat in rooms with people whose worldview I don’t share, but for a moment in time, our interests converged. For some of these people, that convergence could never be permanent, because we were coming at it from two totally different worldviews. Also, in a political sense, I believe that there’s no such thing as permanent.
Schmidt: You don’t consider yourself a utilitarian. You’re not a Benthamite. I mean, you’re able to keep in mind what your principle is.
Fuller: Yes. This clarity of what constitutes principle …
Schmidt: Can’t be changed.
Fuller: Right. What changes is the strategy and the tactics.
For some people, what I would characterize as a strategy, they would characterize as a principle. For example, and you all know this and I’ve said this to people, I’ve said, look, the Bradley Foundation has never told me to do anything. I’ve gone to them and said, here’s what I’m doing. They have either supported or not supported it. One of the more-interesting things, I say to people, is that the Bradley Foundation was much more hands-off than Gates and some of these so-called liberal foundations.
To me, the Bradley Foundation, they were straightforward. We’re going to support this or not. And then you don’t hear from them. It wasn’t like people are calling you, asking if you’re doing this or that. I don’t ever remember [former Bradley president] Michael Joyce or any of you saying, you’ve got to do this. I remember you saying whether you agree with this or not agree with it.
People get mad at me for saying this, but it’s like a group of Black people get in a room and have a discussion about which White people’s money is okay. Like Soros’ money is okay, not Bradley. How do you make those decisions? I make them based on principle, strategy, and tactics.
Schmidt: Has the trend in funders interfering with or controlling or trying to micromanage you, has that increased?
Fuller: That has increased. I think the funders are much more into all of these benchmarks. A lot of the benchmarks, interestingly, are the antithesis of what they say they want. Here’s what I mean by that: if you want advocacy, there’s a difference between, as you all know, organizing and mobilizing.
Organizing—Ella Baker talked about it—is really deep relationships over time. Mobilizing is episodic events that you put together now. In organizing work, you do mobilize, that’s clear. But a lot of the way that the funders operate today, because they want immediate results, you can’t do deep relationship-building. You end up, in some ways, using people almost as props, as opposed to really working with people in the kind of deep ways that we did in Milwaukee. It was really organizing work that enabled us to mobilize people, rather than what I would say is the other way around.
People ask me about one of the foundations’ change in strategy. Back when we first started doing this work around parent choice, one of the things that the unions said was, we will outlive you because your funders will get tired or they’ll change their focus. We will be here, because this is what we're about. To me, they’ve been proven to be accurate.
Funders keep saying that you’ve got to work with MPS [the Milwaukee Public Schools district]. You think that you can change MPS, but it keeps giving you the finger even as you continue to give them money. The reality of it is that the theory of change that we had, and you all can correct me if this is not right, is that we want to develop an alternative structure that will give people options and choices that they no longer have. We’ve actually built that in the city of Milwaukee, but now the funders are saying, well, we’re no longer going to support this or we’re only we’re only going to support this if you work with MPS, which to me is insane.
We’ve done exactly what we said we wanted to do, and then instead of you all focusing on, now, how do we make this alternative structure strong, you’re over here telling us the only way to change things now is you got to work with the district—when for the first time, the district is now serving only about 60% of the kids.
I look at it and say, if you take the long view, we’ve actually been successful. The question is, how do we build on that success? To me, it’s to try to make these schools better, to keep trying to figure out ways to give parents more information. But instead, what people are doing is withdrawing the support.
The last thing I would say is, and I’ve said this over and over again, I think one of the mistakes that we made, or some of us made, was to say that this whole thing will have value only to the extent that it causes all boats to rise. My view is that parent choice has a value that is disconnected from the quality of the school that they choose. You don’t want to develop options and then have those options be mediocre, I know. But at the same time, whether or not this is successful should not be defined by the quality of the school that’s on the other end of the choice. The value of this ought to be defined by whether we have created the possibility for people to have choice. I would argue that that has a value in and of itself, and I think it’s a mistake to give up on that value.
I actually understand Saul Alinsky. I've read Rules for Radicals, and I know how people who use those methods think. One of the critical things that they say is, you make a decision on what it is you really want and you clothe it in moral garments. The flip side is true. If you’re an opponent, you’re saying whatever you’re doing is immoral.
What I’m saying is, to me, the moral stand on this is the value of choice, as both a political and a moral stand in this country.
Hartmann: What about the criticism, sometimes quite harsh, of you for some of your funding allies in education reform?
Fuller: I’ve been fortunatethat in most of my adult life, I’ve been able to do the things that I actually think are right things to do and have been able to continue to make a living, but we have to go back and honestly say that is because of people like you or because of John Walton. In other words, you all could have easily at any point in time said we're not going to fund this and then that would have meant I would not have been able to do some of the things that I've been able to do.
I talk to people all the time about living in contradiction, because I believe if you do any kind of social-justice work, you have to deal with the contradictions and then take the weight for that, maybe like all of the flack that I got for taking money from the Bradley Foundation. You all know that one of the weapons that was used against us was The Bell Curve that the Bradley Foundation funded. To me, it’s poetic justice that I’m getting money from the Bradley Foundation to disprove The Bell Curve.
The fact of the matter is if we had not developed—we meaning me, Michael, you guys … I think that there was a personal relationship that was built out of respect, that did not require absolute agreement on every single thing. We had a certain belief in the importance of people being able to define for themselves the direction that they wanted to go in their lives. I always felt like community organizing, parent choice, all these different things, meant that.
So I say to people, how is it that a person like me has been defined as a revolutionary, a counterrevolutionary, a militant, an Uncle Tom, a tool of billionaires, a radical, how do you get to be all of those contradictory things to a whole variety of people? I think it’s because I won’t allow people to define me, number one. And number two, I am totally at peace with myself in terms of what it is I’m doing and why.
And then it gets back to strategy and tactics versus principle.
Technocracy, in organizing and philanthropy
Schmidt: It seems the way you were describing philanthropies—you’ve bumped into a lot of them in your life—that you don’t think the trend is in a positive direction in terms of generating ideas, sparking people, giving them latitude.
Fuller: I do not think you can underestimate the power of the people who were doing the function. And here’s what I mean by that: John Walton was the most-special human being that I've ever met, and I could go on and on and I do at times in talking about him.
In another kind of way, you have to say the same thing about Michael Joyce. I mean people who you know saw Michael as this person with horns. If you if you got to know him like I got to know him, I mean we have very deep conversations about stuff that matters.
What I’m saying is that to some extent, philanthropy is impacted by the distance between the current generation and the generation or two before them, and it’s the same way in organizing. When I look at people today in that education-reform space, as they call it, I see a lot more technocrats, but I understand it.
I’m now organizing people to fight back against the assault on charters. What I’ve said to the younger people is, you all never had to fight for this to come into existence. When you came into it, it already existed. You came in talking about titles and job descriptions, but we actually had to fight to have this thing that you’re now in be a thing. Because you have to fight, you have a whole different viewpoint about it. And also when you get hit, you have a different viewpoint about it.
Sy Fliegel once said a very interesting thing. He said, look, we picked this fight because we told the existing system that we could do it better, but when you pick a fight and you get hit back, you can’t go running home to your mama. That’s what’s now happening. We pick a fight, they are now coming back at us, and a lot of us don’t know how to fight. They say, this is not fair. No, yeah, this is fair. This is fair, but because it’s a generation of people who never had to fight, they now don’t know how to respond.
If you look at philanthropy, you look at a younger generation that comes in, and they don’t have the same fervor necessarily that you might have had. They don’t see the world in the same way, and they couldn’t to a certain extent, because you can only do so based in part on what you’ve read and what you’ve experienced. When these third and fourth generations of people come, that’s when you see the change. In some ways, it’s easier to fight a revolution than it is to govern.
If you “fight a revolution” and win, one of the first things you try to do is to figure out how not to have anyone be able to revolt against you. If you look at this country, the reason why it’s so hard to do things is because this country was born out of a revolution. The founding fathers, their first thought process was, how do we create something where people will not be able to revolt against us? What we call checks and balances is really, in my view, a whole system to prevent radical change, so that the change has to be moderate.
It’s a part of the problem that we currently have, because you look at the conditions of many people in this country and the kind of “purposeful change”—to the extent that there is any, really—isn’t adequate to meet the nature of the problem.
A lot of philanthropy today, in my opinion, is looking for the safe places to be—rather than to be what they were supposed to be.
Schmidt: That’s Aristotle and Aquinas: it doesn’t match the essence. …
In some ways, martyrdom is the hardest of things, but if you believe, martyrdom in a way becomes the easiest thing.
Fuller: Yes. Or put another way, Dan, and Bell talked about this in Faces at the Bottom of the Well, the issue is why do you get up and fight even if victory is not possible? Well, the reason is because if you don’t fight, your co-signing onto the injustice.
Schmidt: And you believe. You believe in the principle. …
The problem is not becoming a technocrat, because you can become very good, and you can govern, and the government can really fulfill the purpose. The problem is when you forget that there were martyrs, and forget the tradition, your predecessors.
Schmidt: It gives you the sustenance to understand, yeah, they walked the walk, and that principle was worth defending, even if I can’t defend it in the way that I could have then. It’s in the forgetfulness that you end up with these palliatives, which end up sometimes being very dangerous and harmful.
Fuller: To me, Dan, part of the problem is there’s the forgetfulness, and then there’s the never knew. You never actually studied it to know. You’re going to function as if whatever it is you just said, this is the first time that this was ever said—when in most instances, if you understand history and the progression of history, it’s probably not the first time it was said.
History repeats itself, but it’s always under a whole different set of historical conditions that give you the possibility of doing something that’s been done before, but having a different result.
Children’s trajectories, and power and principle
Fuller: Mike, you mentioned the thing about the rescue mission. What I was saying there was, I just concluded that all the work that I’m doing in education is not about systemic change, that really what I’m trying to do is to rescue as many kids as I can. In reality, it’s not a systemic thing that is happening.
What is happening is, because I value each human life, the extent to which you can change the trajectory of these children's lives, that’s critical. That one life you change their trajectory, you have no idea as to what that’s going to mean to the world.
Hartmann: And you can’t prove it to a philanthropic staffer or board member who says, can you give me the numbers?
Fuller: Yeah, give me the data. Give me the ROI. That’s another interesting thing. I hear a lot more business terminology than I heard before.
Hartmann: And you mean here from liberal and conservative foundations?
Fuller: Exactly. Oh, yeah. And I’m telling you, in part, that’s why a lot of people don’t listen to you all. Or how opponents are able to characterize this as all about a business thing, as opposed to anything that’s tied to social justice.
Then, the other mistake that we make is you think that you can win people over with data. You don't ever win people over with data. You get the people’s hearts and souls and minds. You can use data at some point, but to me, I don’t ever like to lead with data. I like to lead with here’s the human purpose for which we’re doing this and these are some of our results.
Hartmann: We’ve heard you inspirationally quote Frederick Douglass saying “Power concedes nothing without a demand,” usually to crowds at choice rallies over the years. In those contexts, “demands” were being made of policymakers in power. Is the Douglas quote somehow applicable in a philanthropic context, as well?
Fuller: The question is, or one of my questions is, how does one function in a democracy, and what are the levers of power within a democracy? Or more specifically, within this particular democracy? You hear people talk about it in terms of money and people. Let’s just boil it down to that. Essentially, the notion is that the people part is supposed to be the voting and the citizens coming out and all this. The money part of this is so that in order for people to come out, in order to do some of this stuff, you need money.
Do people listen to money more than they listen to people, and under what conditions do they do all that? We’ll be arguing about that forever. To me, the role of philanthropy has always been that there’s this government that is all-powerful, and philanthropy was supposed to be the other wave, the way to bring an element into the equation that doesn’t come through the state.
It’s the alter ego, in a certain way, of the state. There was a realization that in order for people to fight, you need resources, so you either get those resources from the public sector or the private sector, at least in our society. People get all worked up because they ascribe a level of sacredness to the public sector that, to me, they shouldn’t.
For example, I make a clear distinction between public education and the system that delivers it. I don’t believe they’re the same things. We want the public to be educated, but you can create a variety of different delivery systems and we have historically in this country created a variety of different delivery systems to try to realize on the promise of public education.
I was on a panel once with Randi Weingarten and she was trying to talk to me about the public structure versus the private structure. What I said to her was, look, Randi, my people have been oppressed by the public sector and the private sector. Neither one of these sectors, to me, is sacred. It wasn’t the private sector that ran the syphilis experiment. Don’t tell me that government is some great thing.
We should look at each sector and, at a certain moment in history or time, determine which one of these provides you the best possibility of people gaining more control over their lives. In all of these things I’ve tried to do in my life, that is the principle that I’ve been connected to: how do the poorest people gain more control over their lives in this society?
At different points in time, different sectors give them the best possibility of gaining some measure of power over their own lives. That’s how I see all of this. That’s the principle, with different strategy and tactics at any given moment in time.