Persistence: Reflections of a Life-Long Activist

Spring of 1992, I suffered a serious back injury. It was my second year on the University of California at Berkeley’s crew team and I was sitting in the front seat (“stroking”) the Junior Varsity 8 for a dual with the University of Washington. It was an important race. The 6’2” stroke of the Varsity 8 crossed the finish line and quickly headed to the dock so my crew could jump in for our race. We frantically switched places leaving no time to lower my rigger (the arm that holds the oar) before hastening to the starting line despite being more than 6 inches shorter than my teammate. Crew “duals” are brutal. On a good day with the best of equipment you experience seven to eight minutes of excruciating pain and oxygen debt that requires mental toughness and physical persistence that, despite playing many competitive sports growing up, I haven’t experienced in any other setting. About 3,200 agonizing strokes later, I tried to celebrate our personal-best time but was in too much pain to enjoy it.

Why such a tight turn around for our crews? Despite rowing for a school with alumni patrons like Dean Witter and generous sports budgets, the women’s team only had one boat modern enough to give us a chance of winning. We had an incredible and improbable season, but my back was in terrible shape forcing me to sit out several races and battle pain. I was frustrated. Why did the men’s team have a full complement of boats — any one of which was “race quality” — while we, despite training just as hard and getting better results, slept on the floor of alumni houses when we traveled, worked out in an outdated and unsanitary gym, and paid for race gear out of our own pockets?

I thought long and hard and then did what I had been taught to do — take action.

My Mother is an “activist.” Raising 12 children — nine adopted and three biological — she has always been a trailblazer, personally and professionally. She has long believed that adoptions should be open and that interracial adoption can work as long as white adoptive parents are willing to confront their own privileges and the impact of racism on children of color. She’s been outspoken on prison reform, the role an incarcerated parent can play in their child’s life, and the responsibility of adoptive parents to remain open-hearted to the birth families of their adoptive children. My father began his career as an organizer in Watts after the riots. Tapped when he was just 40-years-old to serve as Mayor Tom Bradley’s Community Development Department head, he has been at the forefront of economic justice for low-income communities, neighborhood revitalization, and the role of government to empower communities. He “retired” from the city a few years ago to return to organizing in Watts.

My folks modeled a fierce focus on equity and justice. Equally important, they taught me to question everything including sacred cows and conventional wisdoms in pursuit of what is possible rather than simply what is. They encouraged me to speak truth to power, to be aware of systemic oppression, to be part of the solution and to lead with values and heart.

So, as a college student, I organized a group of female athletes to challenge the university on the basis of gender inequity. We had amazing mentors — my aunt who was a university employee and is a sports enthusiast, the Title IX officer for the University of California, a free-lance journalist who knew a lot about the Title IX law and movement. After a thoroughly-researched, public letter threatening a lawsuit was distributed far and wide, dozens of meetings, and several news stories — the university agreed to massive changes. Female and male sports budgets merged, across all sports, and head coaches were mandated to ensure equity. Literally, overnight, we bought three new boats, moved in to share the men’s boat house, gained access to the best weight rooms at the university, and began to fly — instead of driving 15 hours — to races.

All these years later, everyone involved takes great pride in that victory, and we should. But, that’s not actually what I think is interesting about this story. Persisting to demand equity was one of the hardest things I have ever worked with a group of people to accomplish. And I learned some tough lessons.

Many of my own teammates turned against me. This was shocking to me. I was certain everyone would join in. Who wouldn’t want to fight for what we deserved? Some of my teammates expressed concerns about “raising our head” too much for fear of angering the men’s team or generally appearing to be agitators. Female athletes were friends with male athletes and to say that is was unpopular to point out that what had been happening for decades wasn’t fair is an understatement. Others feared the consequences of equity. We prided ourselves on doing well despite being underfunded. What if we actually had what we needed? Well then there would be pressure to win.

In many instances, “natural allies” turned against us because of parochial interests and fear. Other women’s teams opted not to get involved. They assumed this was a “zero sum” game where some teams would lose and others would win. If push came to shove, they thought they might lose more than they currently had even if what they had wasn’t just. Some worried about being too loud especially because they believed the university would never change, so why take the risk? Many said they were “with us in spirit” but refused to sign their name or speak out because of fear of reprisal and/or concern that they would have stuck their neck out to no avail.

Intimidation was not subtle, nor was the use of power to try to silence our complaints.

University officials took me and several members of our coalition to the University Club to tell us to be “very careful” about our accusations. Coaches from the men’s team issued stern warnings about how I was going to cause irreparable harm to the program and that I would alienate all of my “friends” who were male athletes. Rumors abounded about crew, as a sport, being cut altogether — or that private funding from individual donors didn’t “count” as inequity. These falsehoods were so often and strategically repeated, that many began to take them as fact.

Many benefited from the status quo and were angry about the loss of it — and therefore attacked my character to try to discredit me as a change agent. Upon receiving a scholar-athlete award, the men’s coach (after effusively introducing the male recipient), said of me: “We all know Cami, she is — well — vocal,” (and he didn’t mean it as a compliment). Several people spread rumors about my motivation suggesting my advocacy for equity was a secret plot to get our coach fired and make a name for myself. By the end of the campaign, I truly did not recognize the person — the character — they were making me out to be.

Ironically, the politics of gender played out in a very overt way. Stereotypes abounded. On the one hand I was a “whiner”, a complainer who was so weak that I had to fight battles through letters. On the other hand, I was too aggressive, opinionated and unyielding in my beliefs — the way women who are persistent and goal-oriented are often branded when men with the same qualities are lauded.

Nearly 25 years later, and in honor of women’s history month, I find myself reflecting on those lessons very deeply — the ones I learned from my parents and the ones I learned from the school of hard knocks. As a college student, I found all of this pretty devastating and certainly did not handle every twist and turn with sound strategy and grace. But, our coalition recovered from mistakes and persisted towards resolving a critical issue. And we were blessed to stand on the shoulders of activists who pushed gender equity before us and mentors who helped us stay the course.

As Superintendent of Newark Public Schools (NPS), I am no stranger to controversy and feel many of the dynamics I experienced in my Title IX days — and throughout my life as an activist — are at play in the fight for educational equity (in Newark and nationally). Vilifying the leader is a way of discrediting them and preventing them from earning the trust they need to lead. Fear, intimidation, and gender politics are alive and well. More people benefit from a broken public education system than may otherwise be obvious including people who should be “natural allies” for change. In the face of abject failure, even mediocrity is celebrated and challenging that is difficult. It is wildly unpopular to say what we have been doing is failing and even more controversial to make bold proposals that challenge sacred cows — and adult interests embedded in the status quo.

In the face of recent challenges in our quest to ensure 100 excellent schools in Newark, I remember all of these tough lessons. I reflect on all of what I have learned as a life-long activist. We — the incredible principals, community leaders and NPS staff members who are demanding that we do better for our kids, also garner strength and resolve from students who come to school every day in the face of extraordinary obstacles. We remain focused, reflective on what more we can do to build a diverse coalition, and completely, unapologetically committed to our ambitious goals. If our students can persist to achieve academic excellence, we can persist to deliver on their potential.

A version of this article appears on The Huffington Post.