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Search The Fig Tree's stories of people who make a difference:

New NAACP president intervenes in teens’ lives so more graduate

To assure that more African-American young people are educated than incarcerated is James Wilburn Jr.’s priority as achievement gap intervention specialist at Lewis and Clark High School and as the new president of the NAACP’s Spokane Branch #1137.

James Wilburn

James Wilburn Jr. promotes education in NAACP and at school.

He wants to stem the dropout rate among African-American students.

“He brings an unwavering dedication to combating racism and hatred,” said Spokane Mayor David Condon in introducing him at the NAACP’s Inauguration Gala in January. 

The NAACP enters a new era as it transfers leadership from V. Anne Smith, who was president for nine years to James.

Soon after moving to Spokane six months after his wife, Roberta, became director of graduate studies in education at Whitworth University in 2007, he became multicultural supervisor of student support services at Spokane Falls Community College (SFCC).  He became involved with the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and was chair of its education committee. 

James has been a member of the NAACP since the 1980s and received an Image Award for his civil rights work in Sunset, Ark., originally an unincorporated community where plantation owners sent old and injured farm workers.

For James, “education is knowing who you are and who others are, so you can apply what you know to life.”

“I’m a product of the South,” he said, telling of being born in the Black Cat Hotel his father ran in Marion, Ark., serving traveling  blues musicians. 

When interstate 55 was being built, whites forced blacks to move.  The hotel was burned down when his father refused to sell.  His family moved to nearby Sunset, where his father established a house where musicians could stay.  It was also burned down.  He built another house.  When it was burned down, James and family members were injured. A burning rafter fell on him.  

He would have missed school, but the first grade teacher brought class to his bedside periodically during his four months recuperating.

Six years later when he was 12, Jim Crow laws that segregated water fountains, restrooms, schools and more, were outlawed. 

After James graduated from an all-black high school, his parents insisted he go to college.  That experience helps him identify with African-American students, struggling in Spokane’s predominantly European-American culture.

He went one year to Arkansas State University, a school of 600 with just 13 African Americans. 

Never having been in school with European Americans, he did not know how to deal with the “N” word and bullying.  His parents were crushed that he refused to go back.

After Sunset incorporated as a city, James went on the city council and started a youth leadership development program.

In 1984, he began four years as mayor, but was voted out for sticking rigidly to his campaign planks, even though the people changed. 

Later he was re-elected, and served two terms until 2001. 

He met Roberta, a University of Memphis professor, in 1995 when she wrote grants for Sunset.  They married in 1997.

When she was diagnosed with cancer a second time, he withdrew as mayor to be with her.

James then worked at Le-Moyne-Owen College (LOC), a historic black college in Memphis, Tenn.  In 2005, he earned a bachelor’s degree in humanities with a focus in religion and music.

Although his father died in 1996, his mother knew he entered LOC, but did not live to see him graduate.  He taught music at LOC and became a high school in-school suspension assistant. 

Seeing Spokane’s demographics made James hesitant at first, until he was hired at SFCC. 

While there, he worked on a master’s in education at Whitworth and did an internship with Northwest Fair Housing Alliance.  Attending the South Hill Leadership Group, he met Lewis and Clark (LC) High School principal Shawn Jordan and expressed interest in doing an internship to help close LC’s achievement gap, then 50 percent dropout rate for African-American students.  James graduated from Whitworth in 2010.

With Jordan, he developed the achievement gap intervention specialist position, and was hired to work half time at LC and half time at Ferris High School. 

Now he works full time at LC, and there are 12 other achievement gap specialists in Spokane Public Schools.

At Lewis and Clark, he meets regularly with his official case-load of 50 students, but 167 others connect with him.  He checks their attendance, behavior and grades, and contacts them if there’s a problem.  He talks with them to learn about their struggles.

James has seen an increase to a 74 percent on-time graduation rate for African American students.

Beyond what he does, teachers deal with students of color in a different way, students are connecting with counselors, and the principal backs him up, he said.

James has a network among LC’s 182 African-American students and strengthened a Black Student Union, organized in 1990.  It plans a Martin Luther King Jr. and Black History Month events. 

Students also meet with mentors, African-American men in the community, who share their struggles and successes to inspire students to know they can rise above poverty or broken families.

“Children need to see people working and caring for their families, providing for them and paying bills,” James said.  “In many families, the father is in prison, and the mother is young and acts young.  Children come to school carrying their family struggles.”

Culturally competent teachers are sensitive to student’s feelings, he said, changing the way schools’ curricula Europeanize all students with one-size-fits-all thinking. 

“Human culture requires us to be culturally competent and teach individual students, rather than classes. It involves parental participation, mentoring and participating in our children’s education,” said James.

He attributes much of the dropout rate to African-American children not seeing themselves or contributions of African Americans in history and other textbooks.  They wonder where they fit in, and then “their dreams die.”

“If gangs entice our children to drop out of school, there’s a straight line to the jail house,” James said.  “Students need a sense of themselves, more than Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X or Rosa Parks.  They need to see African-American administrators and teachers.  Latino and Native American dropout rates are high for the same reasons.

James said parents should not expect school to raise their children.  He advises them to volunteer and mentor their children to keep them in school.

“It’s our responsibility to be involved in every aspect of our children’s development,” he said.

James sees students gaining self confidence and pride.

“I teach them that, although conditions they come from may shape their thinking, it matters more where they see themselves going in a positive way,” he said.

“Scriptures say we are to put away things that beset us and push forward to a higher calling,” said James, who attends Jesus Is the Answer church in Spokane.  While his faith influences what he does, he does not teach religion, but applies the same message.

As an adjunct at Whitworth, teaching a film class and African American history and culture, he gains information to share with the high school students. 

He wants them to know about ancestors who fought for African Americans to have equal rights in society and education, such as William E.B. DuBois, a sociologist, historian, civil rights activist and a co-founder of the NAACP in 1909, or Thurgood Marshall, the 96th U.S. Supreme Court justice and first African-American.

He wants students to realize: “I am the reason they ever existed.  Our ancestors struggled and died for us to have rights.

“God charges us as parents with responsibility for our children. We need to care for our children.  We need to change, so our children know who they are, know their roots,” he said.

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Copyright © February 2013 - The Fig Tree