I’ve listened to the tape many times and, as best as I can determine, Natasha Allen said this to Cami Anderson at Tuesday night’s Newark school board meeting: “I’m trying to figure out, like, do you not want for your brown babies what we want for ours?” That’s when the superintendent abandoned her responsibility and ran away.
I spoke to Ms. Allen afterwards and asked her to repeat what she said and she offered a fairly close paraphrase. Ms. Allen was not speaking from a script, she was speaking extemporaneously and from anger, so the words might have been a little different when she repeated them to me.
I took it as a sincere question from one young mother to another that really meant this:
Why can’t you understand we want for our children what you want for yours?
I found nothing offensive about the remark. I found it poignant and honest and direct–and maybe the most important challenge thrown at Ms. Anderson the entire evening. And I am seriously puzzled by why the superintendent chose that moment to run away from her responsibility to explain her disruptive plans to the residents of Newark.
I’ve read some accounts that the state-appointed superintendent was “driven” from the meeting. That is utter nonsense. She left freely–and, indeed, the audience booed her for running away. The city’s residents wanted an answer to the question–why doesn’t a state official have the just plain human decency to understand the pain of others?
Ms. Anderson appears, on the tape, to be shaking her head and saying, “Not my family, not my family.” I get that public officials don’t want their private lives dragged into the public sphere–including public officials like Gov. Chris Christie who put his family into taxpayer-funded campaign ads posing as ads aimed at raising money for relief from Superstorm Sandy.
But let’s be real here. Natasha Allen is not a school employee afraid of losing her job. She is not a politician running for office. She is a mother–her daughter Sapphire Allen, a 16-year-old honor student t at Newark Vocational, also spoke that night–and she came to a recklessly overcrowded venue Tuesday night to express her fears and her anger about what the superintendent was doing to her child and all other “brown babies” in the city.
“I used the words ‘brown babies’ because it’s the black and Latino children who are the most hurt by her plans,” Ms. Allen told me.
Ms. Allen was direct. She set the tone early, insisting she would not call the superintendent “Ms. Anderson” because she felt the boss of the Newark schools had shown disrespect for the city’s residents and children. She expressed anger about reports–so far denied by her press spokesman, Matthew Frankel–that the schools superintendent moved to Montclair.
So there it was: One woman, one mother, against another. Face to face. One woman asking another an important personal question. One mother asking another mother why Ms. Anderson doesn’t understand that, despite poverty, despite racism, despite the state’s criminal neglect of its cities and their schools, the mothers of brown babies love their children as fully and as passionately as more affluent, more fortunate, mothers love their babies–brown or white or black.
The superintendent owes Ms. Allen an answer. She owes all parents an answer. Not as the former executive director of Teach for America. Not as Christie’s $300,000 agent in Newark. Not as one of Time magazine’s up-and-comers. Not as a school superintendent.
But as a mother. Cami Anderson–this is a woman who has disrupted thousands of families in Newark with a plan that will close their schools, require them to put their children in unfamiliar neighborhoods. She has insulted parents by suggesting their children would cause an increase in crime if they stayed home from school because of the teachers’ convention.
So how about an answer? To my paraphrase of Ms. Allen’s remark: Why can’t you understand we want for our children what you want for yours?
Or, as Ms. Allen put it that night: “I’m trying to figure out, like, do you not want for your brown babies what we want for ours?”
You can’t run away, Cami Anderson. Come back and answer the damned question.