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Washtenaw United: BHM and historical inequities of African Americans in education

Black Men Read co-founder Yodit Mesfin-Johnson.
Doug Coombe
Concentrate Media
Black Men Read co-founder Yodit Mesfin-Johnson.


Yodit Mesfin Johnson (she/her) is a mother, poet, activist and strategist with an abolitionist mind and a visionary heart, holding love as a guiding value, a way of being, an action and a politic.

She is president and CEO of Nonprofit Enterprise at Work, founder of Black Men Read and YMJ & Associates, a boutique consulting practice offering strategy, planning and design services.

She is presently leading a community-driven planning effort for a mixed-use development being developed in a historically Black business and residential area in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

She also serves as an advisor to a University of Michigan research initiative documenting Black segregation, racism and resistance in Washtenaw County.

Yodit thrives in building community around the questions that matter most; How can we unlock the potential and possibility needed to radically transform our communities, see the ecosystem and the whole, and design and act in ways that bend the long arc of history towards balance and harmony?


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and welcome to another edition of Washtenaw United. As we mark Black History Month, we want to take time to explore some of the historical issues that continue to impact the Black community today and America as a whole. We can look at where progress can be made--is being made--toward true equity and equality and where we're lacking. I'm David Fair, and our guest today is involved in a variety of ways in helping to get to that end. Yodit Mesfin-Johnson is the president and CEO of Nonprofit Enterprise at Work. She is a co-founder of Black Men Read in Washtenaw County. And, to add to her endeavors, Yodit is leading a community-driven effort to create a mixed-use development in an historically Black business and residential area of Ann Arbor. That's what she does. How does Yodit Mesfin-Johnson describe herself? Well, this way: a mother, a poet, activist, and strategist with an abolitionist mind and a visionary heart. Yodit, it is good to welcome the entirety of you to WEMU.

Yodit Mesfin-Johnson: Well, thank you, David. It's always good to be with you.

David Fair: I think talking about race for all too many is still uncomfortable and certainly difficult for a lot of white people. I think the Black community lives with issues of racism, inequity, and inequality every day. So, the conversation may be easier to have. But maybe part of the barriers to progress is a Caucasian hesitation to get uncomfortable and have hard conversation. That's just my personal, white person observation, and I'm curious as to whether that falls in line with your experience as a Black woman.

Yodit Mesfin-Johnson: Yeah. You know, absolutely. It falls in line with my experience. I've been thinking about my identity for all of my conscious, like, you know, years on Earth, right? That is not necessarily the experience of my white counterparts or fellow residents of the community. We live in a nation that has valorized whiteness, that constructed, participated in the construction of racial identities in order to order and oppress some and to benefit and privilege others. And so, while I believe it is true that white folks are under that practice, I also want to celebrate the fact that, you know, United Way's Equity Challenge and other efforts, particularly in the last few years, are inviting and calling in our white brothers and sisters to not just increase empathy, awareness, or understanding of the experience of oppressed peoples and communities, but also to understand the ways in which white supremacy and other systems like supremacy, so sexism, racism, capitalism, imperialism, militarism also harm y'all. David. I believe that our freedom and our ability to live into our God-given purpose is inextricably tied. And what I'm inviting white folks to is to unlearn and to disconnect and really abolish the system of whiteness.

David Fair: You know, Black History Month was created with addressing the issues you've just raised. And on college campuses across the country, there are ongoing student body debates about the merits of Black History Month. And to kind of distill it down to one person's perspective, I bring up Morgan Freeman's take. He said he found it ridiculous to have a Black History Month, wondering why we as a nation were going to relegate the history of African-Americans in one month. His contention being that the subject of those student debates is that Black history is American history. How do you feel about it?

Yodit Mesfin-Johnson: I feel Black history is American history. And I think that the fact that we have yet as a nation to acknowledge the original sin of this nation, that actually every industry system, form of government organization is ostensibly built on the backs of colonized indigenous communities that kidnapped and trafficked Black bodies. And so, the fact that we pause each February to honor the contributions of Black folks to this nation's history, while it may be performative, until we get to the point as a nation where we can acknowledge, reconcile, reckon with, repair that original sin, you know, it is important to continue to acknowledge that. It's certainly something I think about as a mom. How do I ensure that my son knows the legacy, ancestry, lineage that he and I and other Black folks are building upon? And I think we do have to hold nuance, David, that I hadn't heard Freeman's remarks. I wouldn't say that Black history is ridiculous. I think what is ridiculous is that the most developed country in the world is still unwilling to acknowledge that it was constructed on such harmful, horrific, traumatic practices. And until we get to that point, not only should we have Black History Month, but we should continue to expand our consciousness of Black folks in contemporary lives and and others, the LGBTQIA community, the indigenous community, Hispanic community. So, while they may be performative acts, I think the alternative is that we're not talking about it at all, and that, of course, would be terrible.

David Fair: Washtenaw United and our conversation with Yodit Mesfin-Johnson continues on 89 one WEMU. So, we are now well-acquainted with the historical inequities of education in America and right here in our community. We talk about the manner of education. You look at what's happening in Florida where they're trying to literally ban a diversified education system. Those conversations are taking place across the country. So, how are we going to overcome these inequities?

Yodit Mesfin-Johnson: Well, I think, you know, the narrative, which was certainly at the heart of our founding of Black Men Read, you know, narrative--and you're in media, David--that often shapes our beliefs. It shapes how we think about who we are and who others are in our community to better understand the status of Black folks in education, particularly between the years of 1950 and 1975. You have to understand the historical events that shape what we're dealing with today. That's why the Equity Challenge is so important, because I think most folks who are navigating conversations about race are talking about it at the individual and interpersonal level. And I think because we've all been sort of socialized and bathed in a culture of white supremacy, one that fears open conflict, one that has kind of single binary responses to two really nuanced issues. We're underpracticed and underdeveloped. The issues in Florida are intentional, and they build on a legacy of erasure of Black and Brown, indigenous, and other non-white, non-majority populations in this country. It is on purpose to bury that lead, and it is intended not only to erase us but to extract power and agency from communities. And that has been happening. We have to have an understanding of the sociopolitical status of Black Americans and that, ever since the days of slavery, constraining Black education was used as a method to quell our agency and fears of slave rebellions. So, the denial only intensified our desire for education. Black Men Read builds on centuries of Black power building and a desire to equip our children and families with the same human protections and rights that everybody else has. And before the end of the Civil War, you know, folks, many folks, don't even realize that the education of Black slaves in the U.S. was criminal. And even though efforts were made in newly-formed free Black communities to organize schools, for hundreds of years, African Americans received didn't receive any education at all before the Reconstruction era, when public schools came to be. And even then, schools for Black children were poorly financed and largely ignored. So, that history is important. You mentioned Florida. In 1890, the first colored, quote unquote colored school building opened in Winter Park for Black children, and the conditions were horrific, David.

David Fair: And in all too many areas of the country, it remains somewhat horrific, perhaps not to that scale. So, now there are different perspectives being put forth. There are different manners of education. We have the 1619 Project, critical race theory is being put forth in some areas, and it has a lot of opposition in many areas. So, how important is it to gain those perspectives, so that we come together as a whole and stop dividing ourselves?

Yodit Mesfin-Johnson: Well, for me, you know, knowledge is key, right? And so ,understanding that the 12 Angolan enslaved people that were in the bottom of that ship that sailed to the Americas in 1619 were formative in the development of this country. And that means to your first comment about Black history, that American history is Black history. We know that it would be hundreds of thousands and millions of enslaved people who built industry here. You know, Japanese Americans who built railroads here. Like the benefits that we experienced today, David, are on the backs of that labor. And so, just as we honor patriots and veterans of this country, just as we honor the founders of this country, or the framing fathers of this country, we have a mandate to acknowledge the history of all peoples in building this great nation. And our democracy is young. I was really challenged when Nikole Hannah-Jones, who was instrumental in the 1619 Project, really claimed her Americanness because I have felt so othered for the majority of my life in this country that I found myself feeling less and less American, particularly after 2017 elections and the like, the unrest of 2020, the disparities of COVID. It's been really hard to feel American for me. And I'm grateful to Nikole for really reclaiming our Americanness and our right to have the full expression of our humanity allowed within this context. And, certainly, education is a part of that. You know, David, you've done interviews about the current state of education. I think what a lot of people don't understand and why we need to understand critical race theory, why we need to understand more expansive history beyond just the whitewashed version that many of us have been indoctrinated to is that the Plessy versus Ferguson decision that came out in 1896 that made separate, quote unquote, but equal schools for Black and white students? The Brown versus Board of Education decision in which we believe or at least we're taught because it's not looked at in-depth in most high school curriculum. By the way, CRT is not taught in high school, so I don't even want to acknowledge that foolishness. But what is taught is the story of Brown versus Board of Education, and it's valorized for desegregating schools. What we talk less about, that Malcolm Gladwell hit me, too, is the fact that within a decade of that decision, which essentially was the Supreme Court suggesting that when the Brown said they wanted to be able to have their kid go to a better resourced school, which every parent wants and you'd be a liar if you didn't say you want the best education for your kid. When Linda and Curt Brown and her husband said, we want to have agency to send our kid to this other school, the interpretation by the Supreme Court, or at least the way that that was played out, was that white schools were better. It feeds this narrative that white is right. And so, what we saw happen, though, is that in neighborhood schools, in part because of housing segregation, because of our history of redlining in this country, that then Black neighborhood schools were continuing to be less resourced. Neighborhoods and white schools were valorized as being better. But what happens in the decade following Brown versus Board of Education is we have more than 70,000 Black educators leave public education. We have never recovered those numbers. And today, the majority, something like 80% of teachers in America, are young white women. Now, they may have the best intentions, but most of them are not coming from the neighborhoods they're teaching in. They don't come from the socioeconomic statuses. And we cannot talk about race if we're not talking about class. And they don't have the lived experience. And the result has been that Black and Brown kids have been criminalized, that Black and Brown kids are now what, when, when following a school. Public school districts have been called out for criminalizing kids. What I see happening and I see it happening locally is then the response is that more and more of those kids are being pushed into special education and into alternative school programs. So, even though we've made strides, the reason why, to answer your question why 1619, why talking about CRT are so important is because we need to understand that public education in America was built on a racist system, David. And so, if we really want, which is what I want, we wanted Black Men Read for every child to feel seen and loved and valued. And they cannot be what they cannot see. So, until schools improve representation, we want our children--all children--to be seeing Black men who are in leadership roles, not just at their school for behavioral interventions. And we want to normalize Blackness. Black history is important, but there are Black present and Black futures that are important as well.

David Fair: And I do want to talk a little bit more about that.This is WEMU. And on a Black History Month edition of Washtenaw United, we're talking with activist and advocate Yodit Mesfin-Johnson. Among the things you do that I haven't mentioned is serving as an advisor to a University of Michigan initiative documenting the Black segregation, the racism, and resistance in Washtenaw County. What's going to come out of that project? And when might we be able to access the results and information?

Yodit Mesfin-Johnson: Yeah, it is a really powerful effort that's requiring a lot of work and labor. But the Black Washtenaw Collaboratory is a interdisciplinary group of both community activists and also researchers and academics who are coming together to document Black segregation in Washtenaw County. And I think a lot of people presume that the North did not have the horrific practices that the South did, but we know that de facto segregation exists. We can look at it in Washtenaw County right now with housing patterns and with economic disparities. And so, what we're after is to illuminate surface and share back to community the research and data that helps us to understand how we got where we are now. We've just completed a pretty powerful visioning process and some goal setting, which we'll be sharing with the community within the next 60 days. And the hope is that we can create a repository of resources that can empower school leaders, you know, educators, community activists that can deepen their practice and their work by providing that historical context. And I'm deeply grateful to Matthew Countryman, who is the dean of the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies at University of Michigan, for he and Michael Steinberg, who's over at the law school, wrote this grant that we've been working on for over a year to begin this process. And, David, I'm meeting just such wonderful young folks that are at the university who are really trying to do their part to illuminate our community's racist history, but more importantly, to equip us with information that can help us transform the future.

David Fair: And that is another brick in the bridge to the future, right?

Yodit Mesfin-Johnson: Yeah, absolutely. I think the rub I have personally, and it's something we've committed to at Black Men Read is that we frequently talk about almost exclusively about Black history. And I think it's so important for us to remember that our future is Black too. And that in honoring and uplifting and paying homage to Black history, we are also paving the way for different Black futures. But kind of staying stuck in civil rights and enslavement, I think boxes the Black experience into one. It just doesn't reflect the joy, the resilience, the fortitude, the imaginations, and the longings that that contemporary Black folks have.

David Fair: Well, thank you so much for the time and the perspective and the conversation today. I truly appreciate it.

Yodit Mesfin-Johnson: Yeah. Thank you. Thanks so much for the show and for the time. Enjoy Black History Month.

David Fair: That is Yodit Mesfin-Johnson. She is president and CEO of Nonprofit Enterprise at Work. As mentioned, she is a founder of Black Men Read in Washtenaw County and continues to find new and more ways to create real racial equity and equality here at home and everywhere. This Black History Month edition of Washtenaw United was produced in partnership with the United Way of Washtenaw County. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU.


Black Men Read

1619 Project


Yodit Mesfin Johnson has been a long-time community partner of United Way of Washtenaw County and a Member at Large of United Way’s Board of Directors. Yodit has sponsored the 21-Day Equity Challenge: 2023 Edition. Her organization Nonprofit Enterprise at Work has also partnered with United Way in facilitating Community Conversations based on the topics incorporated in the 21-Day Equity Challenge.

WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw Countyto explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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