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.
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.
This story appears in the October 30, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.