Learning about the fate of Ron Johnson, the ex-CEO at JC Penny had me thinking about Robert Moses and his efforts to create The Algebra Project. Moses details his effort to initiate the program in his book “Radical Equations.”

Most don’t believe that the men have much in common. Both, however,  are turnaround artists. Moses worked in the most isolated and dangerous places in MIssissippi to fight for voting rights for blacks in the 1960s. Twenty years later, Moses launched The Algebra Project to encourage educators, students and parents in minority and poor communities to embrace math literacy with the same fervor that people embraced reading literacy.

Johnson helped create the highly popular Apple Stores found in big city retail districts and malls such as University Park. JC Penny’s board noticed Johnson success and tapped him to become Penny’s CEO. Board members hoped that Johnson could improve the experience of shopping at the department store and increase customer traffic and sales.

Johnson remained on the job for 18 months before the board fired him after his initiatives caused a customer revolt. Why did Johnson fail? Analysts believe he made changes too quickly and too soon. The changes alienated many of Penny’s customers.

You might recall receiving those burgandy coupons offering five, 10 and 20 percent discounts on Penny products. Penny’s customers loved them. Johnson, trained at Apple not to offer discounts, did not. He ended the coupon program and promoted Penny as a store that offered low prices everyday.

Johnson had good reasons for stopping the coupons. As this Marketplace story explains, coupon recipients think they are getting a good deal. But that’s not the case. The store made a profit, and the customer still overpaid for the product.

Post-coupon prices might have been in line with Penny’s competitors. Penny trained customers to believe coupons signaled a sale. Now customers believed the store was ripping them off. They took their business to Kohl’s, Target, TJ Maxx or Amazon.com.

Johnson compounded the mistake by immediate chain-wide change. Retailers usually test major changes in a few stores.Customers stayed away in droves. Johnson got a golden parachute and the gate. Johnson made the twin mistakes of thinking his experience at Apple would apply at Penny and of not understanding or respecting his customer base.

Moses never forget the lessons he learned from Ella Baker while working to win voting rights for blacks in Mississippi – community involvement and buy-in is vital. So when veteran Mississippians such as Amzie Moore said winning it was crucial for black Mississippians to win the right to vote, Moses listen. Moses had these conversations in 1961 and 62 when headlines focused on sit-ins, freedom rides, and James Meredith’s push to integrate the University of Mississippi.

Moses and the other civil rights activists who worked on voting rights in the state faced harassment and violence. Some even lost their lives. However, 50 years later, Mississippi has more black elected officials than any state in the country.

As Moses wrote in “Radical Equations,” “the organizer becomes part of the community, learning from it, becoming aware of its strengths, resources, concerns and ways of doing business.” That is a lesson that Johnson’s successor at Penny (who is actually the company’s former CEO) will do well to take to heart


Undergraduate women attending Princeton University have plenty of things to worry about. After all, they go to Princeton. Princeton grad Susan Patton (1977) asks these young women to add one more thing to their to do list. Start looking for a husband. That’s right, Patton wants these women to pursue a Mrs. Degree along with the bachelor’s degree they’re seeking in accounting, computer science or whatever else.

Patton wrote a letter to the editor that appeared in the March 29, 2013 edition of The Daily Princetonian in which she encouraged the university’s female students to “find a husband on campus before you graduate.” Patton’s roots her logic in a couple of facts. First, you have to be a pretty smart woman to attend Princeton, and if you want to catch a guy who is your intellectual equal best to hook him now because all these single Princeton ladies will never have as much concentrated male brilliance at their disposal.

Of course, what’s good for the hen is good for the rooster. The men won’t be around a bunch of highly educated women when Princeton’s in their rear view mirror. Patton says that hardly matters because a Princeton man can marry a less educated woman – an option that becomes more viable if the woman is pretty. Female Princetonians can marry a good looking, but less educated man. However, Patton says they shouldn’t. “But ultimately, it will frustrate you to be with a man who just isn’t as smart as you,” she writes.

The jokes about snobby Ivy Leaguers Image make themselves. However Patton’s elitist arguments have the added vice of being wrong.

The obvious problem is that neither the male nor female students may be ready to get married at 22. Lets assume for the sake of argument that male Princetonians are as narcissistic as Patton assumes. Are they going to be ready to marry at 22 or 25 when they know that their elite education and the six figure salary it will command gives them entrée to women for the next six years? These guys know their worth, after all.

The co-eds and their parents know the worth of their college educations. Forty-one years ago, title IX smashed the academic and athletic barriers women faced Forty-one years after. Women attend college to get a degree or a WNBA contract. Do we really think female students and their parents will devalue  education by using it solely as a ruse to snag a man? I don’t see it especially when that single lady will still end up being saddled with $250,000 in student loan debt. Besides in an era when women comprise 55 percent of the enrollment on college campuses some women will graduate without one of their male classmates “putting a ring on it.”

These women will not become spinsters. Numerous studies show that Patton’s view is outdated. One of the most complete, a 2010 study by the Council on Contemporary Families shows nearly nine out of 10 women get married by age 40 regardless of education.The study also showed that college educated unmarried women tend to be happier and live longer than any other demographic although college educated married women aren’t exactly miserable. They are happier and less likely to get divorced than their less educated counterparts. Besides, contemporary men value intelligence in a mate.

Why? Because college educated women tend to marry highly educated or at least highly trained men. That removes the main source of marital tension – money. The ratio of men to women in college pretty much assures that some college educated women will marry a less formally educated man. However, the Council on Contemporary Families study shows that college educated women may actually benefit from marrying a man with less education. Why? Because he’s more likely to help with the housework.

For educated black women – a group believed to be consigned to a lifetime by them selves – the numbers belie that myth. Black women who complete college or have some college education are far more likely to marry than African-American women without post-secondary training. I know of at least one black woman, a lawyer and Princeton graduate, who waited until 28 to snag her Harvard educated lawyer. Her name is Michelle Obama. I think she’s doing all right.


Robert Moses uses the phrase minimum of common conceptual cohesion to describe how blacks in Mississippi mobilized around the importance of voting. He applies the concept to rally parents, educators and students around The Algebra Project.

Finding the minimum of common conceptual cohesion meant leaders had to find that one universally supported point. Moses writes in “Radical Equations,” that black Mississippians focused on voting.

Amzie Moore, Hollis Watkins and Fannie Lou Hamer saw how the white establishment used the process to keep resources from blacks. Injustices such as the acquittal of the men accused of killing Emmett Till showed blacks that fair treatment before the law would only come with the vote.

Moore and others told Moses that he needed to ignore elite opinions that blacks in Mississippi were too apathetic and afraid to vote, Moses and other activists explained the importance of voting to black Mississippians and led them to court houses. There they faced down hostile officials and challenged Jim Crow laws.

The success of that effort convinced Moses that he could use the same strategy to reach a common ground around the importance of teaching algebra to inner-city middle school students. Moses realized that The Algebra Project had one advantage that his fight for voting rights in the south did not – a minimum of common conceptual cohesion already started to form around the belief that all students could learn and that every kid deserved to receive a quality education.

Moses understood that most stakeholders paid lip service to the belief that “all kids could learn.” However,  that’s more fealty than leaders in the Jim Crow south paid to the concept of “one man, one vote.” That lip service gave Moses the “crawl space” to develop a program and movement to improve math literacy among working class students in Boston and other cities.

The Algebra Project differed from Moses’ 1960s era voting rights efforts in another respect. Moses had personal skin in the game.  The program grew out of efforts by Robert and Janet Moses to ensure that their four children got a good public school education. That meant their children would enter college without needing remediation.

The couple quickly surmised that meeting their goal required that the four children receive a first rate education in math. Moses probably remembered how technological advances in the Mississippi cotton fields gave plantation owners even less incentive to treat sharecroppers fairly. By the 1970s, Moses realized what didn’t become obvious to most people until 2000.

Technology would create winners and losers. The  winners would be the students proficient in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math). Moses set out the make sure his children performed well in math. Moses’ children worked on math even when they were on vacation. They hated it. But the kids knew their math. Most of their classmates did not.

Moses’ oldest daughter was algebra ready in the eighth grade when nearly all of the other students took general math. This presented Moses with a problem and an opportunity. The problem was that the teacher could not teach algebra to her class. The opportunity was that Moses – who had received a McArthur genius grant – had time to volunteer. He taught algebra teacher to his daughter and  three other students.

Working with the four students put Moses in contact with other students. He quickly realized that there was an achievement gap. Students from more affluent backgrounds performed better than poorer students. Moses developed The Algebra Project to address the achievement gap.

Yet, Moses didn’t seek to impose his concepts on the school community. He tried to build consensus around the importance of algebra instruction. He listened to educators, parents and students. Moses listened to students because he realized that students had to “buy into” the project in order for it to be successful.

By listening to the students, Moses learned about their struggles and fears. He also learned what motivated them. The project has grown over the years and can be found in schools from coast to coast.

My job as confidant to the newly diagnosed usually started with a phone call. Someone from Memorial’s radiation/oncology department – usually one of my nurses – contacted me with a name and number of a patient who just started their radiation treatments.

The nurses, doctors and radiologists knew I was doing them a favor. They might be around cancer patients all day, but most of them never had the disease, so they gave people information about side effects but they didn’t know how those side effects felt. They saw the fear, uncertainty and isolation on the faces of patients, but only another patient understood what went through the minds of the people watching television in the lounge waiting for their name to be called.

I wanted to help the patients. But I still had plenty of questions about what happened and was still happening to me. I was still dealing with my bouts of depression. And I wondered what help would I be. Would my advice be useful? Did I speak with the right mix of sensitivity, humor and fact based conversation? Did a provide comfort or was I scaring people?

I had no way of knowing. The staff told me that the new patients all appreciated talking to me, but I didn’t know if I was helping or making things worse. I didn’t know if I my advice helped because I never spoke anyone afflicted with a cancer similar to mine.

That changed a year later when breast cancer survivor and activist Joan Lennon asked me to model for the Secret Sister Society’s annual fashion show. The Secret Sister Society helps women pay for mammograms, and the fashion show is the group’s biggest fund-raiser.

All of the models are cancer survivors. The society pairs each model with a survivor who participated in earlier fashion shows. My mentor was Susan Coulter – an oral cancer a survivor who happened to also be the wife of a dentist.

Like me, Susan had children in grade school, meaning that she had to fight the disease while also preparing lunch and shuttling kids to school and extra-curricular events. Susan served as the Secret Sister’s liaison. For example, she sure that I knew when to get measured for the suit I wore at the fashion show.

She did so much more. A call to introduce myself turned into a hour long talk. Susan answered all of my questions about the disease that took away my sense of taste and my ability to produce saliva. You just don’t know how important spit is until you can’t spit.

Susan was a compassionate and calming influence. She understood the humor and the seriousness of the situation. She was patient and always willing to talk whenever I called. Her friendship became a source of strength, and our discussions about my illness, treatment and recovery became the model I use when talking to recently diagnosed people.

I’ve been cancer free for eight years. The nurses in the radiation/oncology unit don’t call me that much anymore. I’d like to think that maybe researchers have licked oral cancer, but I know that’s not true. It’s more likely that the folks in radiation/oncology recruited a new generation of survivors to guide newly diagnosed patients through the opaque and frightening empire of the sick.

I still see some of the people who I advised and they shake my hand and tell me how much they appreciated my help. That makes me feel good. We will always be united by our common diagnosis and by the fact that we are counted among that percentage who survived to watch children graduate or to pursue our own graduations.

I rarely talk to Susan. The Life of a cancer survivor resembles regular life the further removed you are from your diagnosis. So I imagine that she’s busy with the same concerns that occupy my time – working, raising a family, trying to stay healthy, involved in the community. I think of her a lot, and the example of compassion, patience and leadership she provided continually inspire and motivate me to be ready to help when I get a call from Memorial’s radiation/oncology unit.

People didn’t know what to think when Robert Moses made math literacy a civil rights issue in the 1980s. A lot of people knew exactly what to believe. They thought Moses was crazy.  Moses saw a connection that movement veterans did not see when he started the Algebra Project.

The skepticism never fazed Moses because he confronted the same doubts when he and a group of college volunteers joined teenagers, sharecroppers and long time activists decided to bring the franchise to black MIssissippians.

Moses writes in Standin’ at the Crossroads, the third chapter in his book “Radical Equations” that the establishment erected a wall of silence around the state. All forms of horrible oppression took place behind that wall. Elites didn’t think black Mississippians could change their situation. “One argument, originating from Mississippi whites and echoed by the federal government was that Mississippi Black people were apathetic.”

State officials built their unjust laws on the foundation of fear and apathy among the state’s black population. The establishment was more than willing to use violence, intimidation to maintain that foundation.

Moses learned leadership lessons during his work in the state in 1962, 63 and 64 that guided the Algebra Project initiative. Through his work with veteran activists such as Amzie Moore and Aaron Henry, young students like Hollis Watkins and sharecroppers such as Fannie Lou Hamer, Moses learned that the people of Mississippi voting would solve many of their problems. He learned that people would mobilize when the power structure made nakedly oppressive power plays such as cutting food aid to delta sharecroppers.

Once mobilized, Moses learned that leaders would emerge organically. These local leaders worked to organize voter education and registration campaigns throughout 1963. They combined their efforts with the 1,000 volunteers who traveled to the state during Freedom Summer  in 1964.

Moses saw how those local leaders grew and matured as they faced oppression and intimidation. The black volunteers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee worried about a plan to integrate the movement during Freedom Summer. Leaders such as Hamer argued in favor of a mass integrated movement of out of state volunteers and like minded Mississippi whites. Hamer noted that the groups fighting the segregationists would lose the moral high ground if they kept whites out.

Moses realized that math literacy had to be the movement’s next great project while working to bring the vote to Mississippi blacks.  Automation allowed plantation owners to do more work with fewer people. A machine could pick 100 pounds of cotton in a day. The most hearty person managed to pick about 30. The big planters who immediately began working on plans to force blacks out of the state. That would be  called  ethnic cleansing three decades later in Bosnia.

Blacks and poor people would always be victimized by the technological change if they did not master math. More importantly, many working class blacks understand this fact and are ready to play a leading role in the change to transform their communities and their lives, if elites trust them to make the right decisions.

So the EPA proposed a new rule on Friday requiring lower sulfur emitting fuels by 2017. Advocates lined up on the usual sides. Environmentalists support a proposal  they believe will reduce these emissions. Auto makers support the proposal because cleaner fuels will allow the catalytic converters to operate better without costing them a dime.

Oil companies and refineries oppose the changes. They argue that the proposal makes refining more costly. Those costs will be passed to the consumer. Both sides agree  that the new rule will make gasoline more expensive. The argument is over how much. Environmentalists put the increase at a penny. Oil companies and refiners say nine cents.

One thing not  discussed is what impact the proposed changes will have on the Keystone XL Pipeline. I think the sulfur emission proposal brings Keystone XL one step closer to reality. If President Obama is going to approve the pipeline, tightening other environmental regulations could be the spoonful of sugar that makes makes that bitter medicine of more tar sands oil go down in a more delightful way.

The St. Joseph County Public Library will read “The Killer Angles,” Michael Shaara’s historical novel about The Battle of Gettysburg, during this year’s One Book, One Michiana  event. Linda Conyers, the library’s head of public programs said that 2013 is the 150th anniversary of the battle, and Shaara’s book fit the occasion.Libraries across the area will start six weeks of Civil War related activities starting on Monday.

The 1993 movie “Gettysburg” is an adaptation of Sharra’s book. The book and the movie may be about the battle, but Abraham Lincoln’s shadow hovers over every major event that took place during the war That is especially true of The Battle of Gettysburg because of the The Gettysburg Address, the Nov. 19, 1863 speech that Lincoln gave near the end of a ceremony to dedicate the cemetery located in a portion of the battleground.

The speech that made Lincoln a transformational leader followed a two hour plus speech. In an address that lasted half as long as a listener commentary on WVPE, Lincoln expanded the conflict’s meaning beyond the legalistic rationale about preserving the union.

Prior to Gettysburg, Lincoln acted as a pragmatic, rational leader employing realpolitik that Yale professor Steve Smith described in his Notre Dame  lecture. Lincoln’s reluctance about explicitly framing the war as being about slavery resulted from his understanding that many in the north were ambivalent about fighting the war over slavery.

Lincoln didn’t like slavery. However, once the war started his moves to acknowledge black humanity could be justified on the basis of strategic necessity. Some say that the  Emancipation Proclamation was only of symbolic significance because  it only freed slaves in the states that seceded from the union. Yet, many of those freed slaves left the plantations whenever the Union army claimed rebel territory..

Allowing blacks to fight provided the Union army with 183,000 additional troops.  Both decisions support Smith’s assertion that Lincoln’s decisions were grounded in rationality and the constitution.

Lincoln drops the rational and legalistic prose and adopts the poetry and transformation and freedom in The Gettysburg Address. The president connects the civl war to the advancement of freedom that began in America 87 years earlier. By doing so, Lincoln explicitly links the fate of the slaves with founding principles of the nation. That was a bold statement in 1863. It is especially bold when considering that the Union’s war prospect and Lincoln’s reelection prospects were far from certain. Yet, the freedom agenda enunciated by LIncoln at Gettysburg has continued to advance since Nov. 19, 1863.