What Mandela can teach us to face today’s education crisis

On September 24 at 11 a.m. EDT, please join the Luminos Fund for the launch event of “Education Leadership through Crisis,” a new video series where diverse education leaders share personal lessons on navigating crises. In this COVID-19 moment, these dialogues will shed light on the world’s opportunity to get education delivery right. www.luminosfund.org/leadership-series.

September 16, 2020 by Mubuso Zamchiya, The Luminos Fund
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4 minutes read
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An empty classroom. Photo credit: Luminos/Gene White
An empty classroom
Photo credit: Luminos/Gene White

I wonder if you have had the privilege of watching or reading President Nelson Mandela’s stunning 2005 address at the Arctic concert in Tromsø, Norway. If not, I encourage you to stop and watch. To me, the Tromsø speech stands out for its uncanny relevance to our immediate times.

Madiba began by underscoring that our world remains sorely divided. Hope and despair are paradoxically juxtaposed, sitting as closely together as the two sides of a fifty cent coin. One side boasts leapfrog gains in science and technology. The other side laments far too many children dying unnecessarily for lack of medicine and that millions of children are still out of school.

With the July 2005 G8 meetings then in the foreground, Mandela reminded his audience that much of our common future depends on the actions and plans of world’s highest decision makers. “We now need leadership, vision, and political courage,” the former President expounded with the signature raspy gravitas of his indefatigable spirit.

Then, while casting a gentle, fatherly eye across the gathered crowd, Madiba raised a somber question concerning the AIDS pandemic:

“When the history of our times is written, will we be remembered as the generation that turned our backs in a moment of global crisis or will it be recorded that we did the right thing?”

An education crisis of unseen proportions

Today, fifteen years later, in the midst of a global pandemic and catastrophic moment in education, we need not listen hard at all to hear the clear, steady echo of President Mandela’s words from Tromsø. As it did then, his clarion call should prick our consciences, rally our creativity, and mobilize our voices to make the right choices for all children whose learning has been turned upside down by COVID-19.

With over one billion children out of school, education leaders today are experiencing the challenge of a generation. And yet, the novel Coronavirus is not the first calamity to put learning at risk. For education ministers and leaders in disaster-prone regions, the ability to lead through crisis with agility is an active, ongoing skillset.

Powerful lessons can be drawn from recent history to inform today’s pathways to relief, recovery, and resilience in education delivery. And, even the best leadership is lost without funding, and that is where today’s funding leaders like the Global Partnership for Education are truly on the vanguard. The emergency COVID-19 response funding that GPE is making available is exactly the support education leaders need to push through the hard process of returning to school safely and, ultimately, building education back better.

A new video series to learn from proven leaders

What can we learn from education leaders and philanthropists who have not turned their backs in past crises and, instead, navigated successfully through the breach? These are precisely the topics and themes of a forthcoming video interview series, Education Leadership through Crisis, which I have the honor to host.

We launch on Thursday, September 24 with a live webinar that will explore leadership lessons that have emerged from Liberia and New Orleans’ contrasting education recovery journeys where, respectively, the Ebola crisis and Hurricane Katrina disrupted learning for millions of children. Neerav Kingsland, Managing Director, the City Fund and former CEO of New Schools for New Orleans; George Werner, former Minister of Education, Liberia; and Dr. Rebecca Winthrop, Senior Fellow and Co-Director, Center for Universal Education, Brookings Institution will share their personal leadership lessons.

The series will continue in the following weeks, featuring discussions with esteemed global leaders from across government, the private sector and civil society, including luminaries such as Arne Duncan, former U.S. Education Secretary; Dr. Dzingai Mutumbuka, former Minister of Education in Zimbabwe; Fred Swaniker, Founder and CEO of African Leadership Group; and Erin Ganju, Managing Director of Echidna Giving.

Alice Albright wrote in March 2020, as COVID-19 cases spiked around the globe, that “The Global Partnership for Education was created out of a belief that in the face of great challenges, we are stronger together.”

As the COVID-19 crisis is testing the next generation of leaders across education and beyond, I am honored to amplify the voices of those who have triumphed in the face of past crises. Indeed, it is clear at this dark moment that we need to lean on each other’s wisdom if we are to have a fighting chance of providing quality education for all.

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