Black Youth Advocate Bianca J. Baldridge Works To Save Afterschool Programs From Privatization, Trump Budget Cuts

Ebony Grimsley-Vaz
Written by Ebony Grimsley-Vaz
afterschool programs
Afterschool programs are facing budget cuts. They’re crucial spaces of refuge for youth to be themselves, says Black youth advocate Bianca J. Baldridge. Photo provided by Bianca J. Baldridge

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently visited Milwaukee as a part of her nationwide 2019 Back-to-School Tour. DeVos stopped at St. Marcus Lutheran School, a predominately Black charter school with 900-plus students that is often looked at as a model for success. While DeVos was inside touting her proposed Education Freedom Scholarship — a potential $5 billion federal tax credit for those who fund it — her opponents were outside protesting.

The proposed Education Freedom Scholarships would create a $5 billion annual federal tax credit for businesses and individuals who voluntarily donate to scholarship granting organizations. Those organizations would provide scholarships to families to choose the right education option for their elementary and secondary students, which may be an independent or faith-based private school or a home school.

Parents, teachers, and activists met DeVos to show their disapproval of her policy shift from focusing on improving public schools to sending kids to private charter schools. In an ideal world, charter schools are supposed to increase the chances of higher test scores and high school graduation rates. However, this is not always the case.

“Many charter schools have suffered from chronically low graduation rates of below 50 percent since 2010-11,” Education Week reported earlier this year.

One of the DeVos protestors in attendance, Chris Walton, told a local Fox affiliate, “The schools that are taking money and not doing the job they should be doing — they should not be getting this money.”

Folks from the business sector who don’t know much about education have particular ideas of what they think they know about the Black communities they operate in and who “at-risk” kids are. We end up with a distorted viewpoint of looking at Black communities.

Dr. Bianca Baldridge, assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin Department of Educational Policy Studies and author of the book, “Reclaiming Community: Race and the Uncertain Future of Youth Work.”

Many have stated concern that charter schools are not held to the same standards as public schools.

While the proposed Education Freedom Scholarship program addresses parents’ rights to choose their child’s educational path, it is not addressing the fact that charter schools being selected for funding may not be providing the level of education and environment needed for students to be successful.

The proposed Education Freedom Scholarship is supposed to empower states to expand school programs into summer and afterschool education programs — programs which the Trump administration hoped to slash from the federal budget as a part of the $8.5 billion proposed cuts discussed earlier this year.

For the third year in a row, the Trump administration wants to eliminate the 21st Century Community Learning Centers initiative, which funds local afterschool and summer learning programs in 50 states and the U.S. territories. Elimination of these funds for local programs would devastate 1.7 million children and families who stand to lose access to afterschool as a result, according to the nonprofit Afterschool Alliance.

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Afterschool and community-based programs are already suffering, says Dr. Bianca Baldridge, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin Department of Educational Policy Studies The proposed program will focus on $5 billion in tax cuts for a potential $8.5 billion overall Department of Education cut.

Afterschool and community-based programs help students retain what they have learned, build self-esteem and more.

For Black youth, schools may be sites of harm and violence. I felt like learning always took place outside of school. Studying community-based organizations and learning about sociopolitical and cultural development within a community organization was just as important if not more than what took place in schools.

Dr. Bianca Baldridge, assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin Department of Educational Policy Studies and author of the book, “Reclaiming Community: Race and the Uncertain Future of Youth Work.”

Moguldom: What is it like being an educator and talking about socioeconomic issues and racism in a state not known for being diverse?

Dr. Bianca Baldridge: Wisconsin is predominately white. The state also proclaims to be a liberal progressive space that works toward social justice. But there are lots of racial and economic disparities here, particularly between Black and white residents. Black youth are less likely to graduate here. About 24 percent of Black youth live below the poverty line. So, there is a lot of racial inequality here and it is often difficult to talk about and address here.

Moguldom: What made you focus on education and youth community-based organizations?

Dr. Bianca Baldridge: From the earliest time I can remember, I knew I wanted to be an educator. But I knew that I didn’t want to be in schools. I’ve always been a part of community-based organizations and afterschool programs. I felt like learning always took place outside of school. Because of that, I knew that studying community-based organizations, and learning about sociopolitical and cultural development within a community organization was just as important if not more than what took place in schools. I also realized, particularly for Black youth, that schools may be sites of harm, and violence. For Black youth community organizations, there are often signs of wreckage from the harm youth might experience in school.

Privatization of education is making education a business. When you think of education as a business, you end up treating people like objects. And when that happens, you disregard, overlook or ignore the students’ humanity. Things become measured solely by what you can count.

Dr. Bianca Baldridge, assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin Department of Educational Policy Studies and author of the book, “Reclaiming Community: Race and the Uncertain Future of Youth Work.”

Moguldom: As an African American educator focused on telling the story about what is happening to Black and brown youth, what are your views on why privatizing education could be harmful to the community?

Dr. Bianca Baldridge: When you think about the privatization of education, it is making education a business.  When you think of education as a business, you end up treating people like objects. And when that happens, you disregard, overlook or ignore the students’ humanity. Things become measured solely by what you can count, what you can measure, like test scores or grades. And at that point, everything else falls by the wayside. Thinking about sociocultural learning, emotional learning, cultural development, identity development, political awareness — those things are jeopardized. Education and schooling will then exist to just take tests. It really diminishes the opportunities for other kinds of learning.

When you acknowledge young people as human beings (with) other needs beyond academic development from a non-critical standpoint, you are actually helping and supporting students to do better in school. I think privatization of education really doesn’t allow students to embrace who they really are as individuals.

afterschool programs
Afterschool programs are facing budget cuts. They’re crucial spaces of refuge for youth to be themselves, says Black youth advocate Bianca J. Baldridge, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin Department of Educational Policy Studies. Photo provided by Bianca J. Baldridge

The other piece I mention in my book is the racial implications and policy context of charter management organizations. Folks from the business sector who don’t know much about education have particular ideas of what they think they know about the Black communities they operate in. They think they have an idea of who Black kids are and who “at-risk” kids are, and we end up with a distorted viewpoint of looking at Black communities.

Moguldom: The term “at-risk” is used a lot when talking about Black youth by people who are not Black. Is this a word educators are given to use or do we need to just throw it out because of its connotation?

Dr. Bianca Baldridge: I would advocate for throwing it out. There have been people throughout my career I have been mentored by that challenge that word. The way the term gets used now is for Black and brown kids in working-class families. It really diminishes who young people are. People would rather use the term thinking it’s somehow better than actually naming the population they’re talking about. Yet when you say it everybody knows who you’re talking about. And again, as I mentioned before, I think it just puts the blame on the people in the communities instead of the unfair systems in place. It puts stereotypes on black and brown young people and I just find that very problematic. Again, in doing so, you don’t get to name capitalism. You don’t get to name white supremacy, racism, and anti-blackness. You don’t get to name those things when you stay “at-risk.” And I advocate for naming those things. Those are the things that are harming young people and making it difficult for them to excel in school or get a job. All of those are the problem, not kids themselves.

Schools were never designed and intended to educate Black youth. The criminal justice or “injustice system” funnels Black and Latinx young people right through the system. Those larger systems of oppression are the problem and all too often it gets shifted to the youth themselves and their families. And then afterschool programs are positioned as the “savior institution.”

Dr. Bianca Baldridge, assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin Department of Educational Policy Studies and author of the book, “Reclaiming Community: Race and the Uncertain Future of Youth Work.”

Moguldom: You said, “Too often we shift responsibility to community-based after school programs to fix youth rather than investing in dismantling capitalism.” Can you explain what you mean?

Dr. Bianca Baldridge: Community-based programs have been positioned as some sort of “saving institution.” When you think about it, people imagine afterschool programs as being a place for Black and Latinx kids. And as such, it becomes framed as after school programs are good for “those kinds of students.”

What happens then is the programs are positioning the students, families and their communities as the problem instead of other systems like racism or capitalism. So, what ends up happening is people will say, “Black youth need these after school programs because something is wrong with them.”

I actually argue “no, nothing was wrong with them.” What is wrong is that schools were never designed and intended to educate Black youth in the first place. Education provides the quality of access to jobs. What’s wrong is the criminal justice or the “injustice system,” funnels black and Latinx young people right through the system. Those larger systems of oppression are the problem and all too often it gets shifted to the youth themselves and their families. And then after school programs are positioned as the “savior institution.”

What I propose in my book is that we really need to shift how we think about our school spaces, and recognize there’s nothing inherently wrong with Black and Latinx youth and that we need to put the focus back on some of these institutions and systems of oppression.

Moguldom: What do you want people to walk away with when they read your book, “Reclaiming Community: Race and the Uncertain Future of Youth Work?”

Dr. Bianca Baldridge: I think they will walk away with the fact that afterschool programs, community-based organizations are much more complex than they seem to be. That community-based workers — the adults who are in these spaces educating, nurturing, mentoring and guiding young people — are in a very tenuous position. Their jobs are very rewarding for the kind of work they get to do with young people. But at the same time, what the workers experience in organizations is similar to what teachers might be experiencing in schools as a result of privatization and education policy.

Afterschool community organizations should not be run like a school. These should be refuge spaces for young people to be themselves, to explore their identity and be creative and not told to walk in single file line like they’re in prison. The fact youth are being made to act this way and organizations acting more like schools, stifles the ability to work with young people in all aspects of their development.

Dr. Bianca Baldridge, assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin Department of Educational Policy Studies and author of the book, “Reclaiming Community: Race and the Uncertain Future of Youth Work.”

I think community-based leaders will walk away with a warning. They have to understand that after school community organizations should not be run like a school. These should be refuge spaces for young people to be themselves, to explore their identity and be creative and not told to walk in single file line like they’re in prison. The fact youth are being made to act this way and organizations acting more like schools, stifles the ability to work with young people in all aspects of their development.

I advocate for community-based organizations and after school spaces to not inflict the same harm we see in schools, or in other institutions. I want them to make sure those issues aren’t extended to these programs. I think the book will hopefully inspire other nonprofit, community-based youth workers who are in education, to continually push back and challenge ideas and policies and trends that are ultimately harmful to youth of color.

We really need to shift how we think about our school spaces, and recognize there’s nothing inherently wrong with Black and Latinx youth. We need to put the focus back on some of these institutions and systems of oppression.

Dr. Bianca Baldridge, assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin Department of Educational Policy Studies and author of the book, “Reclaiming Community: Race and the Uncertain Future of Youth Work.”