Mathematics as a Tool of Liberation

In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become a part of a society that is meaningful, the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed. This means that we are going to have to learn to think in radical terms. I use the term radical in its original meaning—getting down to and understanding the root cause. It means facing a system that does not lend itself to your needs and devising means by which you change that system. That is easier said than done. But one of the things that has to be faced is, in the process of wanting to change that system, how much have we got to do to find out who we are, where we have come from and where we are going. . . . I am saying as you must say, too, that in order to see where we are going, we not only must remember where we have been, but we must understand where we have been. Ella Baker

Algebra and Civil Rights?

Math literacy and economic access are how we are going to give hope to the young generation. The lesson I draw from the history and the statistics I have just recounted is that the idea of citizenship now requires not only literacy in reading and writing but literacy in math and science. And the way we guarantee this necessary literacy is through education conceived of much more broadly than what goes on in classrooms.

The new technologies process information at unprecedented speed and quantities, filtering into unanticipated nooks and crannies of society’s (indeed, the world’s) economic arrangements— think of the relative suddenness with which computers have become personal, popular, and cheap—thereby creating demand for competent workers who understand these new technological tools. ‘‘Business’’ is forced to pressure ‘‘education’’ to produce students with the requisite understandings and competencies.

But this technological shift and the attention it brings also create some crawl space for those concerned about things other than the needs of corporations. Within this crawl space the Algebra Project has staked out the goal of establishing math literacy for freedom and citizenship.

And why focus, as we do, on algebra, of all things?

The computer, of course, is the symbol of the great technological shift that has occurred since World War II. Everybody knows that there’s something going on with computers out there; E-mail, the Internet, memory, bits, and bytes have entered into common usage. In the time between ENIAC and Windows 2000, the computer has become a cultural force as well as an instrument of work. (The only equivalent to this impact that I can think of is the automobile.) Strictly speaking, ‘‘culture’’ is not visible; what we see are the ways culture manifests itself. Everybody is willing to accept that what is powering these now-indispensable computers is a mathematical, symbolic language. So, while the visible manifestation of the technological shift is the computer, the hidden culture of computers is math.

That sets the stage; you have something in there that you can organize around if you’re concerned about math literacy.

Algebra was assigned a certain role, a certain place in the education system. Students learned how to manipulate abstract symbolic representations for underlying mathematical concepts. Now here comes history, which brings in a technology that places abstract symbolic representations front and center. These representations are the tools to control the technology, and in order to use this technology to organize work you have to understand these symbolic representations and the place that society has assigned for young people to learn this symbolism—this is algebra. So, now algebra becomes an enormous barrier.

Before, in the old system, it was a barrier in the sense that along with foreign languages algebra acted as one of the gates through which you entered college. If you didn’t take algebra, you had to take a language and do well in that. Algebra could not stop you from going to college—not having it could hinder you but it couldn’t stop you. And it was okay to be in college unable to do math. People boasted like the parent I discussed earlier: ‘‘Never could do that stuff,’’ they said, on the college campus then.

But those days are over. It’s not so cool or hip to be completely illiterate in math. The older generation may be able to get away with it, but the younger generation coming up now can’t—not if they’re going to function in the society, have economic viability, be in a position to meaningfully participate, and have some say-so in the decision making that affects their lives. They cannot afford to be completely ignorant of these technological tools and languages.

So algebra, once solely in place as the gatekeeper for higher math and the priesthood who gained access to it, now is the gatekeeper for citizenship; and people who don’t have it are like the people who couldn’t read and write in the industrial age. But because of how access to—the learning of—algebra was organized in the industrial era, its place in society under the old jurisdiction, it has become not a barrier to college entrance, but a barrier to citizenship. That’s the importance of algebra that has emerged with the new higher technology. It didn’t have to be algebra; that’s the decision the mathematical community made over the years. In France, geometry is the driving force of the math and technology education. So, there’s nothing that says that it has to be algebra. There’s nothing that says it has to be geometry. It could be a mix of a number of things—and some people would argue that it should be. There are educators and people who are driving math reform who want to make it a mix, but they’re dealing with teachers and parents who understand that geometry is one subject, and algebra is another. They don’t understand unified math. So I don’t think there will be cultural change around that anytime soon. For the time being, it’s going to be algebra.

Organizing Algebra: the Need to Make a Demand

The Algebra Project is founded on the idea that the ongoing struggle for citizenship and equality for minority people is now linked to an issue of math and science literacy. This idea determines strategies and choices made about the organization, dissemination, and content of the curriculum. It’s important to make it clear that even the development of some sterling new curriculum—a real breakthrough—would not make us happy if it did not deeply and seriously address the issue of access to literacy for everyone. That is what is driving the project. The Algebra Project is not about simply transferring a body of knowledge to children. It is about using that knowledge as a tool to a much larger end.

One of the implications of this position has been that we have not spent a major portion of our time developing a full curriculum for any grade level. What we have done is take what we thought was a minimum intervention and try to maximize its effects. In that process we began to define what we’re calling a ‘‘floor’’—an acceptable goal or standard for the mathematics component of math-science literacy at the middle school level. The floor is this: you have all the middle school students ready to do the college prep math sequence when they get to high school.

There are two things to clarify about this floor. First, it’s the floor, not the ceiling. We’re not trying to put constraints or limits on what any group of children might learn. Second, in many ways the college prep math curriculum is a moving target. It differs from place to place, and it’s changing. So for each school, there’s a local target. My metaphor is that you’re running to get on board the bus. The bus is moving, and you can’t get on it from a standstill position. As your speed begins to approach the speed of the bus, you have a chance of hopping on.

In terms of curriculum, this means that for each middle school student there is a standard curriculum out there, which is the college prep sequence in high school. What you want for Algebra Project students is this: whatever is out there, they engage it. In their school system, whatever is in place as the standard college prep curriculum, you want them to engage that. It’s important, however, that whatever else is coming in to supplement or replace that curriculum has to be a bona fide college preparation. It can’t be something that is put in place to continue a tradition of separate tracks for some students.

It is not clear that the expression ‘‘standard college prep math curriculum’’ means something coherent in terms of mathematical content. It certainly does mean, however, something in terms of what colleges are going to accept as admissions requirements. It must mean, at a minimum, that when you finish it you arrive at college ready to do college mathematics. That’s another floor that we have to be concerned about, although our work is largely with middle schools. Our aim is to change the situation that currently exists, where large percentages of minority students who get through a high school and get admitted to a college have to take remedial math in order to get to the place where they can even get college credit mathematics courses.

Part of the literacy standard, then, the floor for all students, must be this: when you leave middle school, you are ready to engage with the college preparatory sequence in high school. It’s a moving target, but however it’s defined, it must then be seen as another floor: when you leave high school, you must be ready to engage college curricula in math and science, for full college credit.

Consider the role of mathematicians here. There is nothing in the training of mathematicians that prepares them to lead in such a literacy effort. Yet the literacy effort really cannot succeed unless it enlists the active participation of some critical mass of the mathematical community. The question of how we all learn to work across several arenas is unsolved. Those arenas are large and complicated. They include the curriculum itself, instructional philosophy, schools, school systems, and individual classrooms. Communities and their processes of social change must also be centrally involved, and in some broad sense, national and local politics. Really working in all these arenas will require that many people adopt a more holistic outlook than they have ever done before.

Organizing around algebra has the potential to open a doorway that’s been locked. Math literacy and economic access are the Algebra Project’s foci for giving hope to the young generation. That’s a new problem for educators. It’s a new problem for the country. The traditional role of science and math education has been to train an elite, create a priesthood, find a few bright students and bring them into university research. It hasn’t been a literacy effort. We are putting literacy, math literacy, on the table. Instead of weeding all but the best students out of advanced math, schools must commit to everyone gaining this literacy as they have committed to everyone having a reading-writing literacy.

This is a cultural struggle, the creation of a culture of mathematical literacy that’s going to operate within the black community as church culture does. And that means that math won’t be just school-based, but available as reading and writing are. Kids now routinely assume that someone will be able to explain some word to them, or teach them how to read a sentence if they don’t understand it. They also take it as a matter of course that no one can help them with their ‘‘higher’’ math studies. Projecting several generations down the road we can see a youngster who has grown up in a black neighborhood being able to get his or her questions about mathematics as easily answered in the neighborhood.

It is a little bit like guerrilla warfare. You’re striking. You’re pulling back. You’re looking at where you are. You’re striking again. You’re looking for an opening. You’re looking for a soft spot, trying to find out where you can penetrate. And you are working with and against various structures. You’re in them, but you’re working against them at various levels.

In several Algebra Project sites students have formed the Young People’s Project (YPP). The beauty of the YPP is that its members are in the schools, but organizationally it is not part of the school system. YPP members have carved out their own crawl space in the schools that allows them to operate and get some presence, some visibility there, some legitimacy. That’s a big step for young people, to get a piece of turf in school. They’re not going to be easy to dislodge.

Many people will see our vision as impossible. There’s a sense in which most people are not going to believe or accept any of this agenda until they are confronted with the products of such an effort: students who come out of classrooms armed with a new understanding of mathematics and with a new understanding of themselves as leaders, participants, and learners. As I said before, in the sixties everyone said sharecroppers were apathetic until we got.

them demanding to vote. That finally got attention. Here, where kids are falling wholesale through the cracks—or chasms—dropping out of sight, becoming fodder for jails, people say they do not want to learn. The only ones who can dispel that notion are the kids themselves. They, like Mrs. Hamer, Mrs. Devine, E.W. Steptoe, and others who changed the political face of Mississippi in the 1960s, have to demand what everyone says they don’t want.

Drawing on the Past: The Roots of Our Movement

The Algebra Project is first and foremost an organizing project— a community organizing project—rather than a traditional program of school reform. It draws its inspiration and its methods from the organizing tradition of the civil rights movement. Like the civil rights movement, the Algebra Project is a process, not an event.

Two key aspects of the Mississippi organizing tradition underlie the Algebra Project: the centrality of families to the work of organizing, and organizing in the context of the community in which one lives and works. As civil rights workers in Mississippi, we were absorbed into families as we moved from place to place with scarcely a dollar in our pockets, and this credential—being one of the community’s children—negated the white power structure’s efforts to label us ‘‘outside agitators.’’ In this way we were able to sink deep roots into the community, enlarging and strengthening connections in and among different communities, absorbing into our consciousness the community’s memories of ‘‘where we have been,’’ forcing us to our own understanding of our collective experience.

We are struggling to frame some important questions: Is there a way to talk with young people today as Amzie Moore and Ella Baker did with us in the 1960s? Is there a consensus for young Black people, Latinos, and poor white people to tap into that will drive such a literacy effort? What price must they pay to wage such a struggle.

Like Ella Baker, we believe in these young people, that they have the energy, the courage, the hope to devise means to change their condition. Although much concern about the education of African-American young people is voiced today, I am frequently asked why I have turned to teaching school and developing curriculum—teaching middle school and high school no less. There is a hint of criticism in the question, the suggestion that I am wasting my time, have abandoned efforts at attempting real, meaningful social change. After all, in the end, such work ‘‘merely’’ leads to youngsters finding a comfortable place in the system with a good job. Nothing ‘‘radical’’ about that, I am told. This is a failure to understand what actually is ‘‘radical,’’ so it might be useful to repeat what Ella Baker posits as necessary to the struggle of poor and oppressed people: ‘‘It means facing a system that does not lend itself to your needs and devising means by which you change that system.’’

The key word here is you. Our efforts with our target population is what defines the radical nature of the Algebra Project, not program specifics. To make myself very, very clear, even the development of some sterling new curriculum—a real breakthrough— would not make us happy if it did not deeply and seriously empower the target population to demand access to literacy for everyone. That is what is driving the project. What is radical about the Algebra Project is the students we are trying to reach and the people we work with to drive a broad math literacy effort— the Black and poor students and the communities in which they live, the usually excluded. Ella’s words finally mean, whether for voting rights or economic access, ‘‘You who are poor and oppressed: your need, you must make change. You must fashion a struggle.’’ Young people finding their voice instead of being spoken for is a crucial part of the process. Then and now those designated as serfs are expected to remain paralyzed, unable to take an action and unable to voice a demand—their lives dependent on the goodwill and good works of others. We believe the kind of systemic change necessary to prepare our young people for the demands of the twenty-first century requires young people to take the lead in changing it.

These are radical ideas the way that forty years ago constructing the MFDP so that sharecroppers and day workers could have a voice was radical. What made it radical was the work, the effort, at encouraging this group to empower itself. This was Ella Baker’s great lesson, and still a touchstone for us today: that the target population should also make a demand instead of just having their needs advocated by well-intentioned ‘‘radical’’ reformers. You might say that it radicalizes radicalism. That’s what we learned in Mississippi, that it is getting people at the bottom to make demands, on themselves first, then on the system, that leads to some of the most important changes. They have to find their voices. No matter how great Martin Luther King, Jr., was he could not go and challenge the seating of the Mississippi Democrats at Atlantic City. He could advocate for them and support them, but he could not lead the challenge. The only people who could do that were the people from Mississippi. And people will not organize that kind of seminal effort around somebody else’s agenda. It’s got to be internalized—this is our agenda

There had been advocates for civil rights long before SNCC and CORE field secretaries arrived in Mississippi. Indeed, the 1954 Supreme Court decision was one important victory won by civil rights advocates. And perhaps because it was primarily won by advocates, it proceeded ‘‘with all deliberate speed.’’ No one disputes the importance of such victories, but, nonetheless, it was when sharecroppers, day laborers, and domestic workers found their voice, stood up, and demanded change, that the Mississippi political game was really over. When these folk, people for whom others traditionally had spoken and advocated, stood up and said, ‘‘We demand the right to vote!’’ refuting by their voices and actions the idea that they were uninterested in doing so, they could not be refused, and the century-long game of oppression through denial of the political franchise ended.

So to understand the Algebra Project you must begin with the idea of our targeted young people finding their voice as sharecroppers and day laborers, maids, farmers, and workers of all sorts found theirs in the 1960s. Of course there are differences between the 1960s and what the AP is doing now. For one, the time span between the start of the sit-in movement and the challenge by the MFDP in Atlantic City was incredibly brief, sandwiched between two presidential elections (Kennedy-Nixon and JohnsonGoldwater). When I look back it feels like twenty years folded into four; I still can hardly believe how short a time period that was. Math literacy, however, will require a longer time frame. There is a steep learning curve and what we’re looking at with the AP is something evolving over generations as math literacy workers/organizers acquire the skills and training through study and practice and begin tackling the system. Young people, however, may speed this up as youth clearly did in the civil rights movement. And, whereas the right to vote campaign took place in the Deep South, the math literacy problem is throughout the entire nation.

Yet to understand the Algebra Project, you need to understand the spirit and the crucial lessons of the organizing tradition of the civil rights movement. In Mississippi, the voiceless found their voice, and once raised, it could not be ignored. Organizers learned to locate the vast resources in communities that seemed impoverished and paralyzed at first glance. The lessons of the movement in Mississippi are exactly the lessons we need to learn and put into practice in order to transform the education of our children and their prospects for the future. As with voting rights four decades ago, we have to flesh out a consensus on math literacy. Without it, moving the country into systemic change around math education becomes almost impossible. You cannot move this country unless you have consensus. The country’s too big, too huge, too diverse, too confused. That’s part of what we learned in Mississippi. We learned it on the ground, running.

In this book I present other people’s voices as well as my own. Voices from the movement: Ella Baker’s, for one. Voices of my colleagues: Dave Dennis’s, especially. And voices of kids: the young people’s of the Algebra Project. Part of what happened in Mississippi was the creation of a culture of change—a change in the climate of the consciousness of Black people in that state. It is the establishing of this climate and change of consciousness about mathematics in the larger community that will go a long way toward making it possible to change the classrooms—really change the classrooms; for we are talking about systemic change and as a country we don’t yet know how to do systemic change. We can’t point to any school system where we have put through systemic change around math education.

This is a very personal book. The stories and lessons I recount from Mississippi are stories and lessons of transformation in the white heat of struggle for change. The story I tell about how the Algebra Project started continues that story of struggle and transformation, in my family and my community. We see in this book the new needs of the twenty-first century, and that meeting these new needs will take us into new territory the way that need for voter registration took us into rural Mississippi. There’s even a politics: Who’s going to gain access to the new technology? Who’s going to control it? What do we have to demand of the educational system to prepare for the new technological era? What opportunities will be available for our children? These are questions that ultimately challenge power as the civil rights movement did, for that earlier movement was about more than lunch counters and ballots.


Robert P. Moses, “Radical Equations: Math Literacy and Civil Rights,” 2001


Forward by David Dennis vii

PART ONE In the Spirit of Ella: The Algebra Project and the Organizing Tradition of the Civil Rights Movement

1 Algebra and Civil Rights? pg. 3

2 Learning from Ella: Lessons from Mississippi, ca. 1961 pg. 23

3  Standin’ at the Crossroads: From Voter Registration to Political Party pg. 58

PART TWO Radical Equations: The Story of a Grassroots Education Movement

4 Bouncing a Ball: The Early Days of the Algebra Project pg. 91

5 Pedagogy: The Experience of Teachers and Students pg. 114

6 South Again pg. 134

7 Weldon, North Carolina: The Spirit of Ella Baker pg. 152

8 Shaping Demand: The Young People’s Project pg. 169

APPENDIX The Mathematics of Trips pg. 195

Acknowledgements pg. 221

Index pg. 227