The Civil Right to Radical Math
Harlem-born, Harvard-educated Robert Moses is a radical in the most traditional definition of the word: He goes to the root of the problem.
First as a civil rights leader and now as an advocate for the poor and founder of the math literacy program the Algebra Project, Moses has looked at the ideal of equal opportunity and compared it with the reality-then set about balancing the equation.
In the 1960s, that meant leading voter registration drives in Mississippi, even if it led to pistol-whipping by white supremacists and the murders of colleagues who had marched alongside him. Staying with the work was the only way he could make sense of the injustice-and he has continued to stay, just in another mode.
In 1966, he left for Canada when, at the age of 31, he received a draft notice. After a stint teaching math in Tanzania, he returned to the United States when President Jimmy Carter granted amnesty to draft resisters. Soon after, he started working on a different formula for breaking down racial and economic barriers: teaching inner-city kids math-algebra, to be precise.
As Moses explains it, the connection between civil rights and the right to math literacy is logical. The civil rights movement ensured that minorities had a voice; now they needed economic access-and that started with education, specifically the math and science skills essential to succeeding in a tech-dependent society.
Connecting. The Algebra Project, at its peak, has provided help for some 40,000 minority students annually, in the form of kindergarten-through-high-school curricula guides, teacher training, and peer coaching. "I've been in the classroom and watched these students ... soar and grow," says actor Danny Glover, an Algebra Project board member.
These days, Moses divides his time between Jackson, Miss., and Miami, where he teaches high school math. His son Omo, who runs an Algebra Project offshoot, says Moses "has always been able to connect with young people. He's never embarrassed or uncomfortable; he'll try a math rap song, share his lunch, or sit on a bus with 50 students on a spring break trip," he says. "He has a genuine interest in them as people."
Despite a packed travel schedule, Moses gives no visible sign of fatigue. A vegetarian of long standing, he practices yoga regularly and tries to swim at least 1/4 mile daily. He portrays an aura of stillness that suggests that he'd rather listen than speak.
Introducing Moses at a recent conference, Shirley Ann Jackson, the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, commended Moses for "getting to the heart of the issue," which, as a physicist, she knows well: "You can't do calculus, physics, or engineering if you can't do algebra," she points out-which is exactly the point and why Moses originally founded the Algebra Project.
It was 1982-the year that Moses won a MacArthur Foundation genius grant-and Moses was completing his Ph.D. in philosophy at Harvard. His oldest daughter, Maisha, entered eighth grade, ready for algebra-only to discover that the local public school did not offer it. Moses, who had taught math decades earlier at New York's Horace Mann High School, was determined that Maisha would take algebra-even if he had to teach it at the school himself. Which he did.