Environmental Factor, October 2006, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
Education Leader Speaks at NIEHS
By Eddy Ball
On August 29 in Rodbell Auditorium, the 2006 NIEHS Labor Day Presentation featured an address by Eddie Davis, a prominent social activist, tireless lobbyist and head of the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE). Sponsored by the NIEHS Diversity Council and the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 2923, Davis focused on pressing issues of equality in education for the state's children and young people and encouraged his audience to become involved at the community level in improving education in North Carolina.
During his talk, the Weeksville, N.C. native reflected on his childhood in the segregated South and described his community's experience with the Extension Service Home Demonstration Projects as an example of ways communities respond to effective grassroots organization. He commended the popular Extension Service initiative, which sponsored educational gatherings of farmers and homemakers in their homes and on their farms, for the pride and empowerment it fostered in rural communities. Davis presented it as a model for community outreach to help parents, especially in impoverished areas, access their schools and support the best education possible for the children in their communities.
Midway into his presentation, Davis took the audience even farther back in Southern history to an icon of the plantation days. For Davis, the Magnolia tree, both because of and despite of its negative associations with slavery and exploitation, could serve as an evocative symbol for education. The Magnolia is sturdy, tall and broad, with limbs reaching low to embrace the area around its base. "Education," he explained, "should be like the Magnolia, aspiring to reach as high as possible, yet ready to nurture the smallest and weakest down below."
Davis presented more challenges than answers in the course of his talk, but he left his audience more aware of the continuing difficulties in educational equality. He reminded his audience of the striking differences between the "privileged" Research Triangle Park and other parts of the state. "You folks are a world away from many parts of North Carolina," he said. Davis said many neighborhoods in the state fail to offer children the support and resources they need to succeed in today's economy.
Introducing Davis, AFGE local Vice-President Bill Jirles, a program analyst at NIEHS, highlighted Davis' rise from a young English teacher in Weldon, N.C., to the top position in the NCAE, formed in 1970 as the successor of two segregated teacher organizations dating from the 1800s. Davis is the recipient of numerous honors for accomplishments as a teacher and a labor leader.
Davis served on the National Test Panel, which formulated the original specifications for former President Bill Clinton's proposed national tests for fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math. In 1989, Davis helped a group of Hillside High School students convince the North Carolina General Assembly to retroactively ratify the 24th Amendment, which outlawed the poll tax. When the legislature convenes again in January 2007 for the new Biennial Session, Davis is sure to be lobbying again, raising the awareness of legislators and the public about the needs of the state's teachers, support personnel and students.