Legendary educator, acclaimed educator and leader Gwendolyn Calvert Baker recently wrote a book that is not only insightful, but inspiring. The book’s title in itself is provocative –“Hot Fudge Sundae in a White Paper Cup.” And its content doesn’t disappoint. Calvert Baker is credited with the creation of multicultural education. Some call her “the mother of multiculturalism.”
Baker had a lot to discuss about her extraordinary career, the massive changes in the American education system and the country’s multiethnic, multicultural society.
Born in Ann Arbor in 1931, Baker attended University of Michigan. After earning her bachelor’s degree, she became a fourth-grade teacher at Wines Elementary School in Ann Arbor and was one of the very few teachers of color in the public school system. So she developed curriculum now known as multicultural education.
After earning her master’s degree, Baker returned to teaching grade school before going back to University of Michigan’s School of Education (SOE) and earning her PhD. When she graduated, she joined the SOE faculty. She went on to become the school’s affirmative action director.
After a few years of acting as both an SOE professor and the affirmative action director, she took a leave to became the chief of minorities’ and women’s programs at the National Institute of Education. She stayed for three years in the post.
Baker took the position of vice president and dean of the Bank Street Graduate School of Education and School for Children in New York City in 1981 and by 1984, she became the national executive director for the YWCA. She restructured the organization by cutting costs and increasing programs and membership and put forth the organization’s mission of eliminating racism.
During this time, she was also appointed to the New York City School Board. She served one year as president. Next, she became president and CEO of the U.S. Committee for UNICEF. She semi-retired in 1995, at which time she was elected to join the U.S. Olympic Committee. Baker served until 2000.
TNJ.com interviewed Calvert Baker to talk about her intriguing memoir and her career.
TNJ.com: What made you write the book?
Gwendolyn Calvert Baker: I wanted to write this book for three reasons. First of all, I have always been so grateful for the influence the University of Michigan has had on my life. Even as a little girl in elementary school, the influence was there. Next, as I developed into a young girl in high school, I was well aware of my parents’ background. I knew there were things I would need to do to overcome the less than working class station of my family. Early in life, I was confronted with more than just the problems of poverty. I became pregnant as a freshmen at the U of M. As I observed, in my maturing years, young women and men who were facing problems because of their poverty status and other challenging circumstances were letting their lives go down the drain.
In writing this book, I hoped those who read my story would become advocates for encouraging young people to explore ways of challenging and transforming their negative experiences into positive outcomes.
And finally, young people themselves might find my achievements worth exploring.
TNJ.com: In your opinion, has the public school system become more inclusive in its curriculum or not?
GCB: I do feel most school systems have not done much to change their curriculum to accommodate current needs for, at least, two reasons. The economy forces school systems to focus on financial needs. Almost every phase of any educational system is crying for more financial support. Time and energy are prerequisites. The second reason is lack of commitment to attend to the needs of the children “without.”
From recent readings, less than 50 percent of public school children today are at the poverty level. The “why” goes into deeper thought and historical understandings. If Multicultural Education was a priority, the curricula in most schools would be more inclusive.
Multicultural curricula requires more than one workshop a year. It requires a great deal of change but over the years would help us build stronger children and put less emphasis on ‘building broken men,’ to rephrase a quote from Frederick Douglas.
TNJ.com: What are ways that the school system can become more multicultural?
GCB: This is a great question, Ann. It is too complicated for me to answer here. I have outlined it in the first few chapters of my book “Planning and Organizing for Multicultural Instruction” Second Edition l994. I will just list the first topics so you can see how I put this together:
The Changing Expectations of Public Education; Defining Multicultural Education; What Is Needed; Preparing Teachers to Teach; and Developing Multicultural Curricula.