Fifty-five minutes into Thursday’s one-hour “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program, prominent education advocate Howard Fuller finally began talking about the last 20 years of his life. Because the conversation was dragging on? Definitely not. It was because Fuller has led such a remarkable life, with so many chapters (and so many stories to tell) that talking about earlier years was appealing and confining even a well-paced interview to an hour was hard.
Many people in Milwaukee associate Fuller with his nationally significant role as an advocate for private school vouchers and charter schools in the last couple decades. But the full story of his life offers not only a remarkable personal narrative, but provocative perspective on the development of political thinking and advocacy among African Americans in the United States since the 1950s.
Fuller, 73, provided a healthy dose of that narrative and perspective in the session with Gousha, Marquette Law School’s Distinguished Fellow in Law and Public Policy, before a capacity audience in the Appellate Courtroom of Eckstein Hall. In much more detail, it is what he provides in his autobiography, No Struggle, No Progress: A Warrior’s Life from Black Power to Education Reform, published this month by Marquette University Press.
Fuller, a Marquette University professor who has headed the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette since 1995, recounted episodes from his life — from his childhood in Shreveport, La., and Milwaukee in a family where he had a strong and beloved grandmother and mother, but no knowledge of his birth father, to his days as the first and (at that time) only black student at Carroll College in Waukesha, to hearing Malcom X give a speech in Cleveland that changed Fuller’s life, to controversial involvement in community issues in North Carolina, to a month with guerillas fighting colonial forces in Mozambique, to his return to Milwaukee to work, at first as an insurance agent, to the his leading role in protests in 1981 after the death of Ernest Lacy, a young black man, in police custody, to jobs in state and county government, and, from 1991 to 1995, as superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools.
As controversial as Fuller has been, one thing no one can accuse of him is holding back in his involvement in community issues for decades. In the last minutes of the session, when Fuller turned to more recent times, he talked about the choices a person can make when facing the needs of a place such as Milwaukee. He said you can call radio shows, sound off, and have no impact. You can move as far away from the problems as you possibly can. “Or you can be what I choose to be, and that is you get up every day to fight.” And if you make that choice, you’re going to find a lot of people who disagree with you, he said.
Talking about the education politics of Milwaukee, Fuller said, “We’ve got people in his community who got in these silos – and I‘ve helped dig the silos – and we have to somehow get out of these silos and we’ve got to figure out a way to work together to save our children. This is not about MPS. This is about MPS, charters, private schools. We’ve got three sectors operating that can potentially educate kids. We are foolish not to devise a strategy to take advantage of all three of these sectors. It just doesn’t make sense to me.”
Fuller said some people have been saying that emphasis should be placed on early childhood programs and not on helping older students, many of whom are not on good academic tracks. Fuller himself has invested a great deal of energy in work on behalf of a specific charter high school, Milwaukee Collegiate Academy at N. 29th St. and W. Capitol Dr. He said it was a “false choice” to say one worthwhile avenue should be pursued over others.
“We have the resources in this country to do all of this,” Fuller said. “It is an issue of political will, and instead of us fighting together, we’re fighting over stuff that we should not have been arguing over 20 years ago. Look, our children are in deep trouble in this community. This community is in deep trouble. And we don’t have the right to have those of us who could help not to be coming together to help.”