Education is an extremely important investment in our community and our city, says Ali Muldrow, who is currently campaigning for Seat 6 on the Madison School Board. And we’re not making a good investment, she adds, if we’re consistently leaving a significant portion of our students far behind.
“We have great thinkers, we need to be investing in them. That’s so important. These kids are going to grow up and they are going to make up our city. We can’t continue to sit by and do nothing. We don’t think about what we lose as a community when we don’t recognize children of color as talented and gifted, and we don’t recognize children with disabilities as smart,” Muldrow tells Madison365. “We lose all this potential. Instead of losing that, we need to work together and cultivate the best outcomes for every single student because that will make our community a place that is safe and vibrant and well-informed.”
As a queer, black woman, Ali Muldrow has dedicated her adult life to giving voices to those who are marginalized. She says that right now in Madison we need these voices now more than ever and that it’s important to have people of color in leadership positions, including on the school board.
In 2013, among a slew of other terrible racial disparities in Madison, the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families’ “Race to Equity,” unearthed – astonishingly – that half of all black high school students in Madison don’t graduate on time. Those atrocious inequities don’t sit well with Muldrow and she talks about the fierce urgency of now.
“People of color relate to racial disparities with a sense of urgency. It is affecting their lives right now. I don’t want to wait five years for us to get better and I don’t want to get incrementally better,” Muldrow says.
How we invest in students of color, communities of color, and staff of color is crucial at this point in time, she says.
“And that’s my background. My background is creating spaces where people of color can be included and benefit from the opportunities,” she says. “I think we too often think that there is this dollar sign associated with education – if we just give everybody the right amount of money. But there is no dollar sign to equity. We’re not going to buy our way to equity or justice. It’s not going to work like that. We need to have a cultural shift in how we value each other and the way we value each other’s differences.
“It is going to mean abandoning the colorblind approach and actually having conversations about really naming what we’re talking about. It’s about taking actions to do things differently,” she adds.
Muldrow, who currently serves as the director of youth programming for GSAFE, originally got the idea and encouragement to run for school board from the people she herself was trying to recruit to run for school board.
“I had been talking to other people about running and I had been asking people I thought who would be good to run and the response I got most often was, ‘No, you run!’” Muldrow smiles. “Hearing that from people that I really respected and from people that I really enjoyed working with – and people I thought could do a tremendous job on the school board – really inspired me to run.
“But it was also this idea that we can’t just keep waiting and hoping,” she adds. “I’ve worked with the [school] board and I have a lot of respect for the people on the board, but I’ve had these moments of frustration in which the conversation is controlled in a way that I don’t think the most important aspects of the conversation are even being addressed. I wanted to be at the table to address that. And I’m grateful for this opportunity.”
Muldrow is also running for her two daughters, Adrian Whitney, 7, and Esau Amir, 2, and all of the black and queer women who came before her who didn’t have this opportunity.
“This wasn’t an option for generations and generations of black women and queer people who were like me,” she says. “So, it’s an honor to get to do this and it’s been amazing the support I’ve gotten from the community.”
Muldrow has personal experience navigating MMSD K-12 education with multiple marginalizing identities. She grew up on Madison’s east side and went to Emerson Elementary, Sherman Middle School and East High School.
“My experience in early childhood elementary school was really hard and sad. I really struggled with school and I was labeled ‘learning disabled.’ I was kept in from recess to work on reading,” Muldrow remembers. “I felt like school was made into this punishment. It was a really hard dynamic. I was one of very few students of color, so I had a lot of racialized things that were happening that I didn’t really understand because I was a kid.”
Muldrow remembers finding inspiration in Centro Hispano’s Juventud Mas Program, which allows youth to explore their cultural identity and build self-esteem while providing academic support. “It was an incredible program. It saved my life,” she says. “I’m very much a product of Madison’s extra-curricular activities. I was part of Simpson Street Press. I won the [100 Black Men of Madison] Black History Bowl. All of the things that are there to support students of color, I benefited from and I know how much those supports mean.”
A middle school tutor really turned things around for Muldrow and really made her feel smart for the very first time. “She just really saw me as intelligent and really made me feel loved and I adored working with her,” Muldrow remembers. “I knew by sixth grade that I wanted to be like her and make kids feel loved and respected and stood up for at school.”
Muldrow knew she wanted to inspire other marginalized MMSD students like that tutor once inspired her.
“I’ve been here for 30 years. Well, actually 29,” Muldrow says, laughing. “I’ve worked with students for a very long time. I think the most incredible thing is seeing a young 22-year-old excited to vote for a spring primary for school board because the person who is running is their teacher … or somebody who encouraged them to be a great poet. Having all of these young people who want to vote in this election, that’s what is so exciting to me.”
Muldrow is currently the director of youth programming and inclusion at GSAFE, where she has authored the curriculum for and taught Foundations of Leadership, a course based on the experiences of LGBTQ+ youth of color that recruits high school students from the entire Madison public school district who are advanced learners in the areas of leadership. In the spring of 2015, Muldrow also launched GSAFE’s New Narrative Project in the Dane County Juvenile Detention Center, a program that provides incarcerated young people with clear channels to academic success, civic engagement, and self-determination.
Muldrow began her work in education in 2006 when she became the after-school spoken-word club liaison for the East High School in partnership with UW-Madison’s OMAI First Wave program. She played a key role in creating Wisconsin’s first spoken-word class; a class that allowed high school students to receive academic credit for their study of urban art forms. Muldrow facilitated the spoken-word course for four years as an artist in residence at East High School.
“I think we need our young folks to be engaged. We want to not only have an informed electorate by educating children but also a deeply engaged electorate,” she says. “We want our young people to know who the leaders of our community are and to feel comfortable talking to those people and challenging those people. Especially those people that represent them.”
Seemingly every day, education is under attack in America at the state and national levels in one way or another: What does Muldrow think about that?
“I think it’s important to decide as a district that we’re not for sale and that we have some really intense decisions to make,” she says. “People would like us to compromise in order to access funding and I think that we have to say that we’re not willing to do that and that we will be really creative and really agile and we will render the support of our immediate community in a way that allows us not to compromise the safety of any child.
“Particularly, in looking as a community how we serve children who have families that are undocumented right now, for example,” she adds. “How do we make sure that those young people feel safe at school? They have a right to a quality education. I think the district needs people who are willing to work really hard and not willing to compromise the needs of the students to adhere to power structures that can be really toxic and harmful.”
At the local level, Muldrow says that we have to seriously rethink the ways we have been always doing the same thing, especially concerning our students of color whom make up the majority of the district’s students.
“The achievement gap is code. We all know that that’s the way we want to talk about racism without talking about racism, to be super honest,” Muldrow says. “The achievement gap, the opportunity gap, racial disparities … we’re talking about a community where we arrested 114 kids at school last year – 97 of those kids were black. It’s not a coincidence that we think black children aren’t fit for freedom. This country was founded on the idea that black people were not fit for freedom.
“The fact that we think it’s Ok to put black children in cages and the fact that we see very different outcomes in education in terms of black children – a community that was historically denied a right to education – that is not just a fun coincidence,” she adds. “So, we are talking about combatting some really large, systemic issues.”
So how do we address the tremendous racial disparities in Madison schools?
“I think collaboratively. We need everybody to buy in and to value our students of color. We need everybody to want to provide fair opportunities for students of color,” Muldrow says. “We need to cultivate meaningful relationships between communities of color and our schools which means diversifying who we hire, diversifying who we see as a leader, and making sure that we are offering communities who have different access to opportunity supplementary opportunity.”
Unlike many white Madisonians, Muldrow was aware of the horrific racial disparities long before they were actually laid out for everybody to see in that Race to Equity report.
“I was racial disparities before the Race to Equity report,” Muldrow smiles. “I lived that. This wasn’t something I studied. It was my lived experience as a black woman in Madison. So, there’s an urgency. We don’t get to hope that we go from being the worst to being the third worst in the nation. We need to aim for the forefront of inclusion. We need to look at the problems that we have and we need to treat them like severe problems. We need to transform in terms of doing something incredibly different in terms of providing students with opportunity and I think I have the ability to help with that.”
Muldrow knows about Madison’s long history of having difficulty electing people of color to just about any public position, but that does not deter her from speaking up loudly on issues involving race. And she knows that this gives her detractors.
“I’m black. I’ve been black all my life. I know there will be people who will try to discredit me. People who will say, ‘You’re not who you say you are. You’re who I say you are.’ It’s all very predictable at this point,” she says. “I think sometimes I’m amazed by the lack of originality of racism. We keep doing it the same way and keep having the same strategies. People on the left and the right will utilize that when it’s to their advantage.
“I grew up here and people were constantly telling me how liberal Madison was but that was not how it felt for me,” she continues. “I remember asking my dad, ‘How can Madison think it’s liberal and treat people of color so poorly and arrest people of color so aggressively, arrest children of color so aggressively and underemployed people of color?’ And I found that it was everywhere in Madison. It’s in the housing, it’s in the school, it’s in the policing. I couldn’t reconcile that.
“My dad went on to tell me, ‘Everybody is liberal when it comes to themselves. The Republicans are liberal as hell when it’s about them. Everybody is,’” Muldrow adds. “And he was right. Everybody knows that slavery isn’t right for them. Everybody know that a cage isn’t right for their children when they make a mistake. It’s whether or not you think those things are right for other people that really determines whether or not you’re liberal.”
Her opponents in Tuesday’s School Board primary, Cris Carusi and Kate Toews, are both white and liberal, but Muldrow doesn’t have anything bad to say about either woman.
“I think Kate and Chris are really nice people. I’ve met them both and I think they are sweet and they have a ton to offer to our school district,” Muldrow says. “I think the difference between me and them is that I’ve spent my entire career working with communities of color and I don’t think either of them have any experience working in the interest of communities of color specifically. I think they both really like to take a colorblind approach in how to make things fair.”
For Muldrow, that’s more of the same old, same old.
“I think they’re both excited to say, ‘we know how to do this the way it’s always been done. We’re qualified because we’ll do it just like everybody else has done it.’ But, doing it the way everybody else has done it is how we got to this moment right now,” Muldrow says. “And maybe this isn’t a problem for you. Maybe you feel totally safe sending your kids to a school district that has the kind of racial disparities that MMSD does. I don’t. I think that we need a change in leadership and that we need diverse perspectives. We need to stop over representing the same idea on the board. I think that both of my opponents have platforms that are represented by people who are already on the school board.”
Muldrow is committed to making space for everyone, especially those who have been left out historically and still today. She believes that she brings a unique perspective that includes strong relationships with students and communities of color and valuable activism and lived experience.
“I’m really proud to say that I have a different approach and I’ve had different experiences,” she says. “I’m passionate and I’m a lifelong learner. There are things that I want to discover how to do differently and I think that I have the humility to work really, really hard to do a great job and to challenge the way it’s been done. We have the opportunity to do great things.”