I am starting to measure time by atrocity. The memory I am conjuring is from The First Proliferation Of Spotted Lantern Flies but before The First COVID Quarantine Lockdown. I was walking the blocks around my office (ahhh, nostalgia) on the phone with my former client and current confidant. We were talking about “impact metrics” – a hot commodity in nonprofit life these days. We were talking about designing better surveys, where instead of asking, “what happened?” we begin to ask, “how do you know?” This has become my favorite question and I am always finding novel ways to ask it. Today, I did a bit of social media misinformation busting (which touches on my #2 passion (pyramid schemes, cults and fraud in general). Asking and answering the HDYK question has become a central part of how I speak truth to power, and enable more changemakers to do the same. Sometimes through militantly checking our sources. Sometimes through capturing reliable data. Sometimes in the streets. Sometimes in the (google) sheets.

As some of you know (from my non-stop, bubbling-over enthusiasm) I am mid-deep-dive in a project to learn the stories of behind-the-scenes operations superstars during the Civil Rights Movement. This feels essential at a time when justice is urgent, movements are scaling, and we are collectively defining our relationship with big tech, little tech, and all of the tech in between. To read the first in the series, visit here.

Today, I want you to “meet” Septima Clark. When I think about bad ass, behind the scenes, stalwart, visionary, get-shit-done program and operations leaders from freedom movements of the 1960’s, I think of her. Clark is most remembered for being the progenitor of Citizenship Schools, which over their fascinating history were variously affiliated with the Highlander Folk School, the SCLC, and the Dorchester Cooperative Community Center, and were responsible for thousands of African American southerners (mostly sharecroppers) learning to read and ultimately registering to vote.

I want to pause here for a second and describe the scale of the Citizenship School operations. According to one interview, in her own words:

[When Andrew Young was executive director of SCLC] we branched out to something like fifteen different women [working in the main office]. The organization grew. I think it happened because of the team of workers. There were, at one time, 195 classes going on in the eleven Deep South states, which called for a number of workers. Those women had to mimeograph books for each state. They had to get material out. They had to order material from Texas. They had to keep track of the students and all of the things that we needed for the students. So it branched out into a big thing.

THEIR OWN TALKING: Septima Clark and Women in the Civil Rights Movement, courtesy of Southern Cultures, a project of Center for the Study of the American South

This is a massive undertaking – the kind that now-a-days organizations spend tens (if not, even, hundreds!) of thousands of dollars to manage. I don’t have the specifics, but I don’t think she had these kind of resources at her disposal, and CERTAINLY not in the early days. For many readers of this blog, perhaps you are not imagining here, but reflecting on your own lived experience as the managers of these sophisticated systems! I can’t find a lot of information about how Clark and her team kept track of their students, locations, courses, voter registration status, and more (!!) (possibilities = limitless!!), but what I do know is that teachers and freedom fighters are resourceful as all get out, and they found a way.

It seems to me that Septima Clark had a proclivity for numbers. Today, I was reading some of her correspondences that are digitally archived and publicly available. In one letter, she recounts the repression she endured as a public school teacher and a member of the NAACP. I love that we have preserved her careful handwriting!

1956 — S.C. passed a law that no city or state employee could be a member of the N.A.A.C.P. Teachers were polled. A letter went out over my name. 726 were sent, 26 answered, 11 planned to talk to the superintendent but only 5 went down. We were dismissed in June 1956.

Septima Clark, Letter To Mr. Burkey (link)

A letter went out over my name.” My envelope-licking (gone are the days…), letter-stuffing, data-tracking imagination is going into overdrive. I’m quite sure they didn’t use mailmerge! I have a deep, gnawing hunger to lift up this labor, to honor it in parity to speechifiers and freedom riders. I hope to make a dent in this by writing these essays and shouting from the rooftops: look! over here!

In the same source, though different letter, we see Clark’s careful calculations of the pension she was denied. She wrote to the president of the NAACP in 1985 (two years before she died) asking for the institution to intervene. At that time, she had precise records of what she was paid (by which political administration) and what she was yet owed:

They [the State of South Carolina] owe me approximately $50,000. I taught in South Carolina for 41 years. The law that state passed in 1956 was repealed in 1957.

Governor Edwards sent me a check for $3,600 one time, $5,000 another time and Ferillo sent me $20,000. At that time they owed me $72,000. Ask them to send me a yearly amount to help this 87 year old lady pay bills and eat. Thanks a lot.

Septima Clark, Letter to Carolyn Collins (link)

So many organizations struggle to know exactly how many people pass through their doors. It’s normal – trust me, I’m not here to judge. From all accounts I’ve read so far (and I have so, so much more reading to do! Good thing this is a blog where I can share work in progress!), Clark didn’t have this problem. I am sure that she fought tooth and nail to serve her students and to keep records of the program. Maybe one day, through reading her memoirs or getting deeper into her archives, I’ll get to witness how she did it.

I think Septima Clark had a really solid answer to the question, “how do you know?” I think she knew in her bones, and she had data to back it up. May we follow in her footsteps, in the many ways that she was a visionary – in pedagogy, in justice, in civil rights, in courage, and, yes, in operations systems, too.

One thought on “how? do? you? know?!

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