The Civil Right to Radical Math
Algebra, Moses perceived, was a "gatekeeper" subject: Without it, middle school students couldn't advance in math, technology, and science. And without those courses, they wouldn't be able to meet the requirements for college.
So far, research has judged the Algebra Project a success. At Lanier High School in Jackson, 55 percent of the students following the project's curriculum passed the state exam the first time, compared with 40 percent of students in the regular curriculum. At junior high school sites, Algebra Project students scored better on standardized tests and went on to more advanced math classes at significantly higher levels than other schoolmates.
In part, the success is due to innovative curricula (developed by Moses) that translate the abstract language of algebraic equations into understandable, concrete activities. Moses also employs his leadership lessons from the civil rights movement. "You can't make change on a large issue just by advocating from the top," he says. "It has to be a demand from the bottom. That means building grass-roots networks pushing that demand forward." It means working within the community, he says, with families and students and schools.
A listener. Another way to put it is that Moses is always listening to the community. "I got into the habit of listening as a youngster," Moses says, explaining that he would tag around with his father and "hear him talk about events of the day from the point of view of the little guy."
Later, in Mississippi, civil rights leader Ella Baker set another example. "I don't know how many meetings I sat through with her not saying anything, not contravening," he says. She taught him the importance of "creating a space where someone else can step in and lead," he says. "There had to be a real laying down of the groundwork," a sense of participation that allowed people to direct the movement themselves.
And then, after Moses has listened long and hard and intently, he speaks, in a gently modulated voice that hits its target all the more powerfully for being so understated. In that regard, "Bob is like an alligator," says Timothy Jenkins, past president of the University of the District of Columbia and a longtime civil rights activist. "He might seem passive, but he's incisive. What he says is considered-and people listen."
Just the way they have been listening for 40 years and counting-and perhaps years beyond counting, as his algebra lessons grow exponentially from student to student, generation to generation, and from equations to equality.