After teaching in D.C. public schools for five years, Waahida Tolbert-Mbatha moved to Johannesburg in 2011. Similarities between her new home and the one she left behind soon became strikingly apparent.
“You have this amazing black middle class, very strong, very visible, in both Johannesburg and D.C., and you also have a lot of black people living in poverty around them,” said Waahida, 33. “It messes with your mind in a lot of ways.”
Both cities have histories of profound racial inequality. But with large populations of well-to-do blacks, the economic divide could not be blamed solely on racism. Education — that’s what separates the blacks who have from those who have not.
So Waahida, who is from Louisville, and her South African-born husband, Thulani, who runs a tuberculosis research center in the city, began working on plans to open an independent school in Johannesburg by 2015. For guidance, they would draw on insights — about shortcomings as well as successes — from her teaching experience in the District.
“The educational needs are the same in both places, just greater in South Africa,” said Waahida, who taught at two middle schools in the District between 2005 and 2011 — Kelly Miller Middle in Northeast and E.L. Haynes Public Charter School in Northwest.
Perhaps the greatest teaching resources in both cities are the cities themselves, each rich in black history and populated with residents who experienced historic events. Particularly helpful to Waahida was Teaching for Change, a group that provides materials for teaching about civil rights and operates a bookstore in the Busboys and Poets restaurant at 14th and V streets NW.
But she also found glaring deficiencies in some schools, mistakes that she hopes will be rectified and certainly not repeated in her school.
“I’ve been in some school libraries that don’t even have books with people of color in them — except for the parts about slavery,” said Waahida, who taught reading and geography in the District. “If you only see yourself as having been enslaved, that’s not very empowering.”
Also, students must be convinced that education is the key to freedom, she said.
“It was simply unbelievable to many of my students in D.C. that I had come from a poor family and had used education to work my way into the middle class,” Waahida said. “They could not relate to the middle-class world that I lived in, like going to study at a coffee shop, because they didn’t believe it was a world they could ever enter. In my mind, I was being a role model. But for them, it was as if in some ways I wasn’t even black.”
In the world of those students, to be black was to be cut off from opportunity. And they had plenty of proof to support that view: in their broken homes and dysfunctional neighborhoods, in prisons and morgues. No way memorizing factoids for taking standardized tests would change their minds.
“Students from impoverished communities need to be taught in ways that empower them,” Waahida said. “They need an education that is relevant, that provides them with tools for critically thinking about ways to solve problems in their daily lives.”
The road ahead for Waahida could not be more daunting. South Africa ranks near the bottom of school systems worldwide. “If you are black and poor in South Africa, you have to be a virtual genius to escape,” she said. “You have to be ‘discovered’ by someone who has the means to get you accepted into some elite private school. If you are just a smart, hardworking kid, you might end up employed as a garden boy or tea girl, if you’re lucky.”
That’s certainly no way to close the widening income gap.
“That’s why I wanted to start a school,” Waahida said. “You shouldn’t have to be a genius to get a college education, to have your hopes and dreams fulfilled.”
After the death of former South African president Nelson Mandela last week, Waahida and her husband joined hundreds of others in paying their respects at his home in Soweto. She can certainly take comfort in knowing that he would approve of her work.
As Mandela put it in a letter from prison in 1970, a new generation has emerged that “declares total war . . . against any social order that upholds economic privilege for a minority and that condemns the mass of the population to poverty and disease, illiteracy and the host of evils that accompany a stratified society.”
It is a war that can only be won through education.
To read previous columns by Courtland Milloy, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.