Gore ‘Survives’ First Day at Fisk
By David Hefner
On a dreary Monday afternoon, former Vice President Al Gore went from seasoned politician to novice professor as he began teaching his first course on community building at Fisk University.
Flanked by secret service men and Fisk alumnus Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., Gore was welcomed by a throng of Fisk students as he emerged from the university’s presidential dining quarters and lead to Jubilee Hall where his 1 p.m. class began.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Gore told reporters before class started. “I survived,” he sighed after the two-hour session was over.
The course, titled “Family-centered Community Building,” is founded on the premise that families and communities are complex systems, which can be built and/or changed by internal and external forces. Using leading academic research, the course was designed by a national consortium of universities led by the University of California-Los Angeles and
Columbia University, where Gore also is teaching a journalism course.
But on the first day, Gore, sporting a collegiate-looking v-neck sweater underneath his navy blue suit coat, didn’t assign homework, pass out a syllabus or give special instructions. In fact, students say, he shied away from politically charged rhetoric such as the use of taxes to strengthen communities.
Though the media were banned from the class, afterward students said Gore used a town hall-meeting approach to press them to consider what communities, in an ideal world, should be.
“He started off discussing basically the meaning of what community building is,” says junior Robert Poole, 20, one of 120 students enrolled in the class. “It’s really an ambiguous term. But he broke it down to the individual, then the family, then the larger community. So each one is a unit within a unit within a unit. So (the course is) basically going to touch on each of those and what’s needed to build a healthy community.”
Gore, a Tennessee native, announced in mid-January his plans to teach the community-building class at Fisk, as well as predominately White Middle Tennessee State University, about 30 miles south of Nashville. He’s not getting paid to teach at either. Rep. Lewis, who gained national attention as a civil rights advocate while leading sit-ins as a Fisk student, encouraged Gore to choose Fisk. Lewis and Dr. Denise Fairchild, a graduate of both Fisk and UCLA, are co-teaching the class. Fairchild, an urban planner with 25 years experience in housing and economic development, helped rebuild South Central Los Angeles after the Rodney King riots.
Fisk students had mixed emotions about Gore teaching there. Most saw the move as a way to thrust Fisk into the national spotlight, while some saw it as an attempt by a failed presidential candidate who lost his home state of Tennessee to position himself for a 2004 presidential bid.
“I feel he should be the president,” says freshman Jason Johnson, 19. “Since he’s not, I don’t really think too much of him. …I’m just bitter because he lost the presidency and that was the first election I ever voted in.”
Dr. John L. Smith Jr., president of Fisk, says it’s an opportunity for Fisk students to become serious about rebuilding communities, particularly depressed Black housing developments like the two surrounding Fisk. “Fisk is proud to partner with Vice President Al Gore and Congressman Lewis on this initiative to start an academically standardized curriculum that will produce graduates who are disciplined community builders,” Smith said in a written statement. “It is our hope that this course will be the springboard for an increase in community involvement and improvement through the efforts of interdisciplinary teams of citizens committed to seeing families prosper and communities flourish.”
Students said Gore’s teaching approach was intriguing enough to get them involved in the class discussion. Chairs in the lecture room formed a semicircle and a microphone was passed around to speakers. Most students enrolled attend Fisk but others are students at neighboring institutions.
The class began with a brief introduction from Gore and then a video that showed clips from movies and TV shows such as Boys in the Hood and The Wonder Years, examples students said of how diverse communities are. Gore called television and the Internet “stepmothers” and “uncles” because children often rely on them for information, students said.
The 10-week course will discuss topics such as communities and families, child development and pre-natal care, education, youth development, health and wellness, the environment, public safety, and family and seniors.
“With Fisk being located in the Black community, this class will be very needed,” says Rhonda Reece, 20, a junior from Dallas. “This is going to put us on a higher level as far as historically Black colleges are concerned.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com