Dear Governor and Lieutenant Governor,
We, the educators committed to equality and truth telling of history, are appalled at the disintegration of the 2019 Amistad Summer Institute. This year had special meaning in that it marked the 400th year of the genesis of slavery when the first 20 Africans stepped foot on the colonies of America as indentured servants. Noted historians are converging on this historic location from points around the world to highlight the meaning of this moment and its significance 400 years later. This historic moment provides an opportunity to have discussions that begin to break down racial biases and create an avenue to healing deep wounds. It will open eyes of people of all racial persuasions and perhaps allow teachers to feel more comfortable teaching about an experience that may be foreign to their own.
This is a once-in-a-life-time experience that is lost when teachers are told the Amistad Commission can’t fund this Summer Institute to Jamestown. There was an opinion that was put forth by Kevin Dehmer, chief financial officer and assistant commissioner for the division of finance at the New Jersey Department of Education. He stated that the use of Title II funds for the Institute would be illegal. When we checked with the United States Department of Education, we found that the funds are allowable for professional development. That is what the Amistad Summer Institute is, professional development for teachers. Teachers are not state employees and the three Amistad employees would be exempt because of their status in providing the professional development.
An invested and committed Department of Education should have had counsel look at Dehmer’s opinion to determine the application of the Title II law. No one bothered to bring in legal advice on this matter and as a result 102 New Jersey teachers missed out on an invaluable moment in history. A moment they could bring not only to the children in their classrooms but to their own children and future generations as well. There are some things that can’t be repeated.
A number of teachers and administrators from around the state came to Trenton Thursday, Aug. 15, to discuss with Rev. Derek Green and Gary Williams, your advisers, ways to tear through the cobwebs and get the funding this trip needed through. It was stated that state funds could not go toward an out-of-town trip. Dr. Stephanie Harris, executive director of Amistad, told us that exactly $40,000 would be needed to bypass that hurdle of paying for hotels. The bus company is an in-state bus company and therefore would not be included in paying out-of-state venders. We left the eight-hour meeting somewhat confident that our representatives would represent us and that people with a common heritage and common goals and objectives would quickly find common ground.
On Friday, the Amistad Commissioners came together and voted down a motion, seven to two, to instead have the Institute at Kean University. The Kean option was a shameful way of trying to save face while costing $30,000 more than Jamestown. No other motion was made. We believed that the Commission had sent a clear message that the Jamestown trip would continue to be pursued.
But bureaucracy and petty annoyance over procedure was allowed to hijack the 2019 Amistad Summer Institute. Somehow, in a room filled with Black Democrats, pettiness became more important than honoring the blood of our African ancestors who survived the Middle Passage.
How hard is it to get funders from people who fund campaigns for millions of dollars to come up with $40,000? In the five days since we met with Rev. Green, did anyone consider contacting Senator Cory Booker, who has included reparations in his presidential campaign?
Amod Field, Paterson educator; Zayid Muhammad, Amistad Ambassador and NAVC; Sandra Hayward, Amistad Ambassador; BK Redd, educator; Demetrius Robinson, Mercer County educator; Keith Howell, Newark educator; Marcella Simadiris, Paterson educator; Annette Alston, Newark Retired educator.