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Just Imagine…Algebra as a Gateway to an Inclusive Society

Robert P. Moses, via

Robert “Bob” Parris Moses was an African American civil rights activist who made several distinctive contributions to the civil rights movement. He was a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and worked to get African Americans registered to vote in Mississippi. While these efforts would place him among the greats in promoting civil rights, another of Bob Moses’ initiatives made a significant contribution that might gather less attention as a key step toward a more inclusive society.

Bob had been a middle school math teacher before joining the civil rights movement. Bob was a conscientious objector and strongly opposed the Vietnam War. In 1966, he received a draft notice–which seems suspicious, since he was five years beyond the age of draft eligibility. Bob’s response was to move to Canada and then to Tanzania. For seven years, he taught algebra in Tanzania. When he returned to the U.S., he was astonished that his daughter would not be taking an algebra course because her middle school did not have a class in algebra.

Bob taught his daughter and some of her classmates algebra. Without his support those students would not have been able to take advanced math and science courses in high school. The result would have been a future where many career paths were denied to them.

Based upon his experiences with his daughter and her classmates, Bob began to teach other children who would normally be placed in less rigorous classes. His approach was to make algebra applicable to their lives. He discovered a new focus for his life’s passion for a .

Bob used his experiences from the civil rights movement to create the Algebra Project to create a pathway toward success in higher-level math for underserved students. In 1982, he received a so-called MacArthur “genius award” to help fund his efforts. In less than a decade, Bob’s approach to teaching algebra was adopted in over 200 schools across the country.

Why the focus on algebra? Bob believed that it served as the gateway to success in higher-level math and science courses. As our society has become more technological, many careers require these advanced math and science courses. What Bob achieved in the classroom was key to supporting the inclusion of more underrepresented people in emerging careers in science and technology. In addition to Bob’s more direct contributions to the civil rights movement (such as voting registration campaigns for Black Americans in the segregated South), his creation of the Algebra Project also helped expand inclusiveness and opportunity in education, employment, and other parts of society.

Just imagine being closed out of many career choices as an eighth grader. Bob Moses couldn’t imagine accepting that exclusion. He set about to challenge the limitations on educational opportunities to underserved students. We still have to deal with perceptions that STEM subjects are not for some classes of students. What would it take for us to embody a more inclusive attitude toward education, especially in disciplines that serve as gateways to greater opportunities?

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“Don’t think necessarily of starting a movement. Do what you think actually needs to be done, set an example, and hope your actions will click with someone else.” – Bob Moses

This is part of our “Just Imagine” series of occasional posts, inviting you to join us in imagining positive possibilities for a citizen-centered democracy.