President Barack Obama with Felton Williams. Courtesy photo.

People Post is a space for opinion pieces, letters to the editor and guest submissions from members of the Long Beach community. The following is an op-ed submitted by Felton Williams, president of the Long Beach Unified School District Board of Education, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Long Beach Post.

The murder of George Floyd reopened painful wounds for many of us. Earlier this month I revealed publicly that my beloved older brother was choked to death while in the custody of the Sheriff’s Department in Santa Ana when he was 25 years old.  His car had stalled, and he refused to sign a traffic violation so he was placed into custody.

My brother’s name was Vernon Lewis Williams. His likeness didn’t appear on protest placards, nor did the masses chant “Say His Name” in the streets. We saw no shocking police video, no national outcry back then.

Even though a half century has elapsed since Vernon’s death, I still have difficulty talking about that traumatic loss. But I realize the need to step out of our comfort zones and speak our truths on this issue.

I share Vernon’s story to show that I understand, with greater clarity than most, the frustration and urgency of the pivotal moment we’re now experiencing in our nation and in our communities. I recognize that progress has no patience, but meaningful change takes time, thoughtful dialogue and collaboration. I have worked for decades as an educator and school board member to remove roadblocks for students of color. As we grapple in earnest with what’s next, we also need a clear view of what’s working so that we can build upon the substantive progress we’ve all made together in our local schools, colleges and universities.

I’m a 74-year-old Black man. I assure you that my brother’s death was not the first or last challenge I’ve faced solely because of the color of my skin. For much of my career, especially in the beginning, I felt that I had to work twice as hard to be taken half as seriously. Let’s be careful not to dismiss the good work that so many Black folks, with the help of enlightened allies, have done in Long Beach to improve the plight of children of color. Issues of equity and social justice are not new to our city, our schools and our community organizations, and we do not shy away from the discussion. None of us is ready to post “Mission Accomplished” banners at our public institutions. But we know how to build consensus and get results the hard way, from the ground up.

The Long Beach College Promise is one of the jewels of our community. Like many Long Beach Unified School District initiatives to close achievement and opportunity gaps, The Promise has enjoyed broad-based support since it began in 2008. From the Long Beach Ministers Alliance, to the Long Beach NAACP, Long Beach Rotary, and of course, our partners in higher education, at the Port, and in Mayor Robert Garcia’s office, each of these entities has contributed to making Long Beach a stand-out among its peers nationally.

The Promise has vastly improved college access for students of color by providing key incentives and services, including free tuition for thousands of students at Long Beach City College, guaranteed admission at Cal State Long Beach for local students who qualify, and college preparation and guidance as early as elementary school to help children understand that college is within reach. A 2019 report by the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality included The Promise as one of three case studies exemplifying “bold steps to increase educational and employment opportunity for young people.” President Barack Obama recognized The Promise as an exemplary initiative that has been replicated in many other communities nationwide.

The Promise and other local programs such as our Urban Math Collaborative, Male and Female Leadership Academies, and Coalition of Involved African American Parents, have helped our students of color to see significant gains. The graduation rate among LBUSD’s African American students is 85.6 percent, compared to the statewide rate of 76.8 percent for the same demographic group. The college participation rate among our graduating African American students is 70.2 percent, compared to 59.7 percent for their counterparts statewide. LBUSD ranks first nationally on the percentage of African American male students who took one or more Advanced Placement courses. We offer wide open access to these college prep classes, providing additional support along the way such as tutoring, Summer Bridge programs, and free PSAT and SAT testing to help determine students’ strengths and areas for improvement.

We’ve also launched a multi-year Teachers for Urban Schools Initiative with Cal State Long Beach to recruit, prepare and place more teachers of color in LBUSD classrooms. The Mary Jane Patterson Scholarship was established in 2019 to recruit students in the College of Education at CSULB who are committed to teaching children who are disadvantaged. Patterson was the first African American woman to earn a bachelor’s degree from an established four-year college in the United States.

I’m elated over the Ethnic Studies program that we have developed in partnership with Cal State Long Beach because it is having the desired impact we envisioned about issues of race and privilege. Non African-American students, through this experience, are in a better position to evaluate the value of others and develop a better understanding of their role in history that is often hidden. African American students, on the other hand, are able to legitimize their own standing and develop a more meaningful understanding of their history, giving them status and purpose. To me these effects are the most important components of changing the dialogue about race and privilege. Racism is learned and can be unlearned.

By the same token, through many avenues, including advisory groups, community forums, surveys and community partnerships such as those with the California Conference for Equality and Justice, as well as Californians for Justice, we actively engage and listen to all members of our Long Beach Unified family, including students who are most affected by poverty and racism.

Our school leaders and staff are intently engaged in system-wide ongoing professional development and collaboration to examine inherent bias.

To our community members who want to recommit to our work in the name of George Floyd, I welcome you, and I join you.

I will also continue working in the name of my big brother, Vernon Lewis Williams.