Voices in Education

Remembering Mandela in a New Demographic Era
The death of Nelson Mandela on December 5, 2013, reignited the personal relationship I’ve had with South Africa for decades. It began when, as a high school student in a small South Texas town, the experiences of Apartheid resonated with my own history. Our town was divided as clearly by race as by the nearby border with Mexico, and I often looked to the South African experience in an attempt to understand the hostile environment created across the South by Jim Crow laws. However, I did not fully understand Mandela’s legacy until I became a professor at a predominantly White southern university, where I’ve learned that negotiating racial tension—or even the painful silence around matters of equity—is far more difficult than arguing a point of civil rights law. It is harder to educate and foster reconciliation than to incite conflict.

While a board member of the Harvard Educational Review (HER), I traveled to the land of Nelson Mandela with fellow member Sara Chrismer, where we encountered face-to-face his people’s spirit of hope and “reconciliation with social justice” (Jansen, 2005). Our journey came about through an invitation from Jonathan Jansen, author of a poignant HER article on reconciliation politics in a White university post-Apartheid. I embarked on that trip with such excitement. However, I was not prepared for the racist remarks from a tour guide, who treated me as White and thought I would not mind his disparaging comments about Mandela. Jansen noted that this was not uncommon in some places but certainly not present in all spaces.

The example of South Africa will become increasingly important as we enter an era of unprecedented demographic change in the United States. A majority of all children born in the United States in 2011 were non-White, and 14 states now have a non-White majority child population. To build a peaceful and equitable nation amid these changing demographics and other forms of diversity, we need to embrace the practices exemplified by Mandela, which include the triple duties of confronting inequality, allowing forgiveness, and educating for the purpose of reaching our true potential to do good. This cannot be an effort by people of one race alone; it will require a multiracial community of people from all economic backgrounds to move forward together.

How can the work of Nelson Mandela inform and influence discussions on race and reconciliation in both the college classroom and the city adjusting to demographic change? One way is to not be engulfed by negativity, as examples of coalition-building surround us, and for every bad experience in a college classroom there are at least two hopeful experiences of multiracial collaboration in a university. I see it in my students, my mentors, and in my community. My new home of Nashville has proved that even a southern stronghold can defeat an English-only initiative with a diverse coalition of people committed to continuing the way forward, away from Jim Crow and other shameful practices. This highlights one of Mandela’s greatest messages—that we must embrace forgiveness and educate people about how to construct a future of inclusion and prosperity. Each generation will have new lessons to share as we move forward within our own contexts of diversity, and I invite readers to share their own stories of hope, peace, and reconciliation.

Jansen, J. D. (2005). Black Dean: Race, Reconciliation, and the Emotions of Deanship. Harvard Educational Review, 75, 306-326.

About the Author: Stella M. Flores is an associate professor of public policy and higher education at Vanderbilt University. Her work examines public policies that affect the educational attainment of low-income and minority populations in the U.S. and Latin America. She served on the Harvard Educational Review editorial board from 2003 to 2005 and obtained her EdD from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2007. Originally from Edinburg, Texas, she now resides in Tennessee.