John King: Crises Can Be Catalysts for Change

Former U.S. Education secretary John B. King Jr. at a conference in Columbia last fall. Photo by Josh Kurtz.

The cabin where my great-grandfather Charles King and his family lived as enslaved people still stands today in Gaithersburg. Less than 25 miles from where I live with my own family in Montgomery County, it is a stark reminder for me of how far we have come as a nation and how far we have left to go.

Charles couldn’t possibly have imagined that just three generations later, I would serve as U.S secretary of Education, let alone in the cabinet of America’s first Black president. But he made that reality possible by living for a future he could not see.

Even as we grapple with the persistent legacy of slavery and the truth that our democracy remains a work in progress, our family’s story is the story of America’s promise and extraordinary potential. Ultimately, to build an America where everyone — whether the descendant of enslaved people or enslavers; of immigrants who came to Ellis Island or across the Rio Grande — has an equal chance to live out their ancestors’ wildest dreams, we must grapple with the hard truths of our past and put in the hard work to build a stronger future.

Today, our country faces multiple pandemics: the COVID-19 public health crisis, the related economic crisis, and the centuries-old crisis of systemic racism. Many Americans are understandably feeling angry, sad, hopeless, and distrustful of government and institutions. More than 200,000 have lost their lives; millions more their livelihoods – dealing with impossible choices between simply putting food on the table or finding and keeping a place to live.

That’s why we’re launching Strong Future Maryland because the choices we make today will shape our tomorrow. Our new, progressive organization will fight for an equitable recovery from these pandemics so that all Marylanders can have access to opportunity and sustainable prosperity. It’s time to stop settling for small solutions to big challenges; to demand more for all of our children; and to create a fairer, more inclusive, more just Maryland that doesn’t rely on chance for people to succeed.

This moment has exposed painful injustices that have long plagued our state and our country. When the pandemic hit, more than 350,000 Marylanders were already without health insurance. Long before the news cameras showed cars lined up for miles at food pantries, 1 in 7 of our children were food insecure. Despite living in one of the wealthiest states in the nation, a third of households of color in Baltimore City have zero financial net worth.

We spend millions to lock young people up in a broken juvenile justice system while our public schools serving the most underserved students scrounge for relative pennies. What was true before the pandemic is truer now: the most vulnerable among us always seem to get the least.

Building a movement for deep structural change may sound like a long-shot, but the truth is my whole life has been a long-shot. My mom passed away suddenly in October of my 4th grade year. Four years later, my dad lost a battle with undiagnosed Alzheimer’s.

As a young Black and Latino man in crisis, I could easily have ended up in prison or dead. But public school teachers saved my life. Teachers and mentors gave me the support and inspiration I needed to keep going and refused to leave my life up to chance. Instead they chose to invest and believe in me. That’s the support every Marylander deserves.

Crises do not have silver linings, but they can be catalysts for change. What happens next is up to us. Do we have the courage to fight for the more just future our children deserve? To make room at the table for those who have been left out, unseen, and unheard? To be visionary and not shortsighted?

As a former high school social studies teacher and — my daughters will tell you — a bit of a history nerd, I am convinced this can be our New Deal moment in Maryland. We can reject the small-minded defeatism of those who adopt a Herbert Hoover worldview — who tell us that crisis means we must lower our aspirations. Instead, we must embrace FDR’s conviction that we can emerge from tragedy into a stronger, fairer, and more prosperous future. The talent and ingenuity are already right here in Maryland. What we need now is bold, collective action.

Last session, the Maryland legislature demonstrated forward-looking leadership when they passed the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future to fully and fairly fund our public education system and committed to major new investments in our state’s historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Governor Hogan’s shortsighted veto of progress from pre-k to college was a Hoover moment. We are already seeing the devastating consequences of climate change, from the wildfires in California to hurricanes in the South and Southeast to dangerous flooding here in Maryland. It is past time to act on climate change by dramatically accelerating the shift toward renewable energy and to creating good jobs greening our homes and businesses. An equitable economic recovery with opportunity for all is possible, but it will require effective, strategic leadership to strengthen both our physical infrastructure – like public transit and broadband access – and our social infrastructure – like paid family leave and access to quality, affordable childcare.

Some will say we can’t afford to make these investments now. I say we can’t afford not to. We can pay for them responsibly, by asking the wealthiest among us to pay their fair share and ending tax giveaways to big corporations. We must expand opportunity for communities from the Eastern Shore to Baltimore City to the mountains in Western Maryland. Together, we can create a stronger Maryland that works for all of us. Today begins the fight for the future we all deserve. What are we waiting for?

— JOHN B. KING JR.

The writer is founder of Strong Future Maryland – a progressive 501 (c) 4 organization committed to an equitable and just recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. He served as the 10th U.S. Secretary of Education under President Obama. King is also the president and CEO of The Education Trust, a national nonprofit that seeks to address opportunity gaps for students of color and students from low-income backgrounds. He and his family live in Silver Spring, where his daughters attend public schools.