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Covenant Curriculum Expected to Inspire Learning, Social Action

Covenant Curriculum Expected to Inspire Learning, Social Action
By Ronald Roach

While The Covenant With Black America has sparked a publishing phenomenon, a group of scholars and activists affiliated with Tavis Smiley are hoping that its popularity will motivate Blacks to achieve an awareness of democratic action that will result in meaningful social activism. The movement involves more than just a book; it has also inspired the Covenant Curriculum. Available for download at the Covenant’s Web site, <>, the curriculum’s standard and advanced versions provide a structured reading list of classic texts and scholarly commentary. 

Historical works from W.E.B. Du Bois, Thomas Jefferson, Alexis de Tocqueville, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells and Herman Melville, among others, are included in the curriculum, along with excerpts from contemporary writers and intellectuals like Toni Morrison, Dr. Robin D.G. Kelley and Dr. Nell Painter. The curriculum expands upon the 10 action areas (health care, criminal justice, education and others) outlined in The Covenant, and is meant to ground its participants in the African-American experience.

The Covenant Curriculum, devised by Princeton University professors Cornel West and Eddie Glaude Jr. at Smiley’s request, was timed to coordinate with the State of the Black Union 2006 meeting in February. During that meeting, which was broadcast by C-SPAN, Smiley announced The Covenant. According to Glaude, an estimated 2 million people visited the Web site that day.

“It was an amazing moment in African-American political life and history,” he says. “In one fell swoop, 2 million people hit the Web site and proceeded to download all sorts of materials.” 

Glaude, a professor of religion and African-American studies, says ideas
for the curriculum sprang from his collaboration with West during a joint course on the Black intellectual tradition. West had participated in the State of the Black Union 2005, and was working with Smiley on improving the program for 2006. What they came up with, among other things, was an online curriculum. Since the announcement, Glaude has
been promoting the curriculum and participating in Smiley’s Covenant Tour.   

Glaude says an assessment of the Web site’s traffic patterns illustrate some important points about who is visiting the site and what they are looking for. The most downloaded item on the Web site has been the townhall meeting toolkit. The Covenant Curriculum is the second-most downloaded item.

“Those two are phenomenal when you think about the history of mobilizing, organizing African-American communities,” Glaude says. “This is an indication that there’s a paradigm shift. African-Americans are hungry and they are acting in very deliberate ways.”
Making it Operational
While the curriculum’s 15-week syllabus offers challenging book chapters and articles from intellectuals past and present, it provides virtually no guidance on how the course should be taught. To fill that void, a group of scholars and activists, known as the Jamestown Project at Yale, have taken it upon themselves to make the curriculum “operational.”

Stephanie Robinson, president of the Jamestown Project, says the nonprofit group is developing an operations manual for the curriculum, which she describes as more of “a reading list” than a fully developed curriculum.

“We’ve been inundated over the last month with people asking us what do we do with this. People are asking us to help them understand what they can get out of the readings, who is going to teach this, and how can it help them better organize,” says Robinson, who is a former legislative counsel to U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and a veteran activist.

A draft operations manual is expected to be ready by summer’s end, it’s hoped in time to be tested during the fall semester. In February 2007, the completed operations manual for the Covenant Curriculum will debut, says Robinson. “This has never been done before, and we’re hoping for it to be a very exquisite document that actually is not merely about the educational pieces of it but that actually inspires people to action as I think The Covenant book has done,” she says.

Dr. Michael Fauntroy, a professor of public policy at George Mason University, says it’s not the first time that African-Americans have developed a collective plan of action. He points out that the media attention The Covenant has received recently is making it possible for initiatives like the Covenant Curriculum to take root and gain acceptance.

“I hope [the Covenant Curriculum] succeeds in bringing about a better-informed African-American community,” he says.
Making the Covenant Curriculum operational represents the first significant venture for the Jamestown Project, which formally debuted as an organization last October. The project takes its name from Jamestown colony in Virginia, the first permanent English settlement. Jamestown was also destination for America’s first Black indentured servants and slaves, symbolizing the fledgling nation’s struggle as a home of both freedom and slavery. The multiracial group describes itself as a “nonpartisan organization dedicated to creating, articulating, promoting and implementing new ideas for enriching American democracy.”  

The group’s core participants, including Glaude, are scholars and activists who graduated from Morehouse College in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Yale law professor Ronald Sullivan Jr., a founding member of the group and a 1989 Morehouse graduate, says the group grew out of discussions among the college friends about ways to reinvigorate and enrich democracy, particularly for oppressed minorities and the poor.

Even though they would graduate and go their separate ways, the young Morehouse men stayed in touch and a few of them attained prestigious faculty positions at schools around the United States.

That Glaude would land at Princeton and begin collaborating with West, who serves on the group’s advisory board, helped put the Jamestown group in an ideal position to develop the operations manual and to shape the curriculum as a basis for social action. 

“It proceeded very organically” that the Jamestown Project would link up with Smiley to work on The Covenant With Black America,” says Sullivan, who is married to Robinson, the Jamestown Project’s president. Sullivan mentions that he expects to teach a Yale undergraduate course based on the curriculum this fall. 

“We were in the right place at the right time. And there were some pre-existing relationships that put us in a real good position to be that organization to help facilitate this curriculum,” says Dr. Charles McKinney, an assistant history professor at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn. and a founding member of the project. “It made sense for us to be partners.”

McKinney, a Morehouse graduate, credits Robinson for challenging him, Sullivan and the other Morehouse colleagues to launch an organization that could organize and mobilize people around public policy issues.

That organization was to become a “think/ action tank,” which is how the Jamestown Project describes itself on its Web site.

“Stephanie, in her infinite wisdom, said here’s an opportunity for us to put some flesh and meat on this idea that’s been suspended,” McKinney recalls. “Stephanie was really the prime mover in terms of contacting Yale and bringing all of us together and making this thing go.”

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