Howard University President Wayne Frederick P ’24 spoke to the Sidwell Friends community at a Conversation with Friends.
Educators, like parents, play many roles: instructor, mentor, guide. Sometimes, though, the best thing a teacher or a parent can do is get out of the way.
So said Howard University President Wayne Frederick P ’24 when he spoke to the Sidwell Friends community in the latest Conversations with Friends series. Co-sponsored by the Black Alumni Alliance (BAA), Frederick spoke with BAA Co-Clerks Akinyi Ochieng Sagoe-Moses ’11 and Neville Waters ’75, as well as the community at large, in a talk that focused on the importance of historically Black colleges and universities, a diverse teaching staff, and culturally responsive teaching practices.
Frederick told a story about how his daughter developed an interest in learning American Sign Language at a young age. In his childhood experience, this would have meant getting a ride to the library, checking out books, and learning from static pictures—and it may not have been worth the effort. For his daughter, learning took the form of YouTube videos and dynamic practice. And it all paid off when she visited a family where both parents signed, and she could communicate with them.
It made Frederick think. “Look at the empathy in this young person,” he said. “What I have to do is get out of her way and remove any barriers that anyone puts in her way.”
He also discussed the importance of a diverse teaching staff at all levels of education, from preK to graduate school. “Diverse teachers are not only a model for their students,” Frederick said, “but they give their colleagues an opportunity to be more culturally competent, to be a sounding board, to answer questions.” However, teachers who are Black, Indigenous, or people of color face the same—and sometimes more difficult—obstacles than many white teachers do: low pay, a high debt-to-salary ratio, and burnout.
“We have to honor what teachers do, and as a society we can create more circumstances to allow more people to choose that profession,” Frederick said. “We talk about the service and passion of teachers, and that’s good. But if young people don’t see them thriving, they won’t see teaching as an option for themselves.”
The conversation also covered recent protests at Howard University; for more than a month in fall 2021, students slept in tents to protest what they described as poor housing conditions. While Frederick recognizes the importance of protest in effecting change, he worries that social media has transformed the nature of debate.
“In the Civil Rights movement, being educated and making sure you made your case was an important part of bringing about change,” he said. “We have young people who know a lot about a lot of things, but I worry about the depth of what they know because how they get their information is problematic. Look at the depth of conversation you would have had on a college campus in the 1960s—it’s not 140 characters. You have to sit in front of other people, disagree in an agreeable manner, and you either walk away more informed about someone else’s opinion, or more convinced about your opinion. But it’s done over the course of a healthy debate.”
The recurring theme during the session was Frederick’s commitment to “amplify everyone’s humanity.” For him, that means approaching people with kindness, humility, and questions.
“The most dangerous people are the people who are educated, because we don’t want to ask ‘stupid’ questions,” he said. “But we have an opportunity to amplify one another’s humanity by asking those questions. What we have to do is create a system that allows everyone to experience the fullness of who they are.”