All interviews were taped and documented.  They are available through the Reference Department of the Teaneck Public Library.  The Library is not responsible for the accuracy of the statements nor does it necessarily endorse the opinions expressed.

NARRATOR: Joan Waite
INTERVIEWER: Robbie Wedeen
DATE OF INTERVIEW:    October 1, 1984
TRANSCRIBER: Jackie Kinney (3/5/1985)

This is Robbie Wedeen talking with Joan Waite, co-founder and first director of the Afro-American Educational Center of Teaneck. Educational consultant to the Teaneck schools; coordinator for the planning of Teaneck's Oral History Project; and current director of education for the African Art Museum for the S.M.A. Fathers, that is the Society of African Missions in Tenafly. We are in the living room of Mrs. Waite's home near the golf course in Teaneck and we are discussing the experience of Joan Waite and the Waite family in living in Teaneck for the Oral History Project of Teaneck.

(I) Perhaps we could begin just by asking when did you come to Teaneck?

(N) Okay. We came to Teaneck in 1969 after having lived on the west side of New York, Manhattan, for some time and really being stimulated to move by the first of New York's public school strikes, teachers' strikes. We felt at that time that things perhaps would not change too quickly and that we had to make a decision really between putting our children in private school in the city or deciding to move to the suburbs and so that was the decision we made, to move to Teaneck.

(I) So that schools and education were always very central in your decision making.

(N) That's right.

(N) Why did you select Teaneck?

(N) Well for at least two reasons. One was that we had heard from friends and also having done some research found that the Teaneck school system had a very good reputation. It had a high percentage of, or a high ratio of students going on to college from the high school and so that was very important. And secondarily, we liked the fact that it had a fairly large percentage of blacks in the population, at least considerably larger than most suburban communities did because we felt it was important for the children not to grow up in a totally, in a situation in which they were totally isolated in a white community as black children.

(I) When you say large percentage, what would you say it was?

(N) At that time, I think it was probably around 12 or 13%. 

(I) And do you have any idea of what it is now?

(N) I would guess possibly maybe 15 or 16% but I don't have any statistics that back that up.

(I) Since education was a central reason for your coming to Teaneck, did you find that the promise of the school system was met for your family?

(N) Yes. I think it was. Robin, who is our first daughter, who is now 24 years old and was, let's see, she was 9 years old when we came, fourth grade, we felt did very well in the Teaneck system and as a result of that, was accepted to Tufts University where she graduated with her Bachelors Degree. In the case of the two boys, Monty and Rob, who are younger than Robin, the school system situation did not work out but we feel not because of any intrinsic problems with what the schools offered or the teachers they had but rather personal problems that they in the family had.

(I) Do you feel that the school system was flexible in meeting the needs of your children?

(N) Yeah. I really do. I think they were very flexible. The teachers for the most part we found were, you know, really extended themselves to try to meet with the needs of our children and the system in general.

(I) How would you characterize the atmosphere of Teaneck when you moved here as a new family?

(N) Well I felt it was very welcoming. I was rather surprised to find a welcome wagon come by our door a few months after we moved in and people genuinely seemed to welcome us to the community. They told us about local churches that we could attend if we were interested. And genuinely seemed glad to have us in the community. Similarly I found with the PTA that other parents were anxious to have the new parents join the PTA and get involved in trying to maintain the quality of the school system and I became very active in PTA in those early years.

(I) In what way?

(N) I guess a general member. I held some offices. I think I was the vice president a couple of years and fund raising. 

(I) What schools were you connected with?

(N) Our children went to the Eugene Field School for their elementary education and then my daughter did her, for junior high school, she was at B.F. whereas the boys were at T.J. for junior high because by then we had moved from one part of Teaneck to this part of Teaneck. And then of course the high school.

(I) You were involved in the PTA all through that period?

(N) Yes. Not very, very strongly I would say in the elementary and junior high levels; not so much in the high school.

(I) Now you say you were involved in maintaining the quality of the schools. Did you find through your experience in the PTA that you were lead into any further participation in regard to education in town?

(N) No I wouldn't say it was through the PTA that I was lead to any further participation. I think what happened was that I was involved simultaneously on my own because from the time we moved here. I began offering to do programs in African and Afro-American heritage for teachers who wanted this kind of input into their classes so I was doing that at the same time as I was actively involved in the PTA.

(N) You were involved in adding something to the school curriculum which would imply that you felt something was missing. 

(N) Very much. Yes.

(I) Would you care to go into that?

(N) Well in Teaneck at that time, as in most parts of the country, very little if any emphasis or information at all was being given in the area of African and/or Afro-American history and culture.

(I) Now this time, if we can just go back,

{N} That was in '69 when we came to Teaneck. 

(I) So you started right away?

(N) Right. Yeah. I think it was usually during black history month or African American history month as we call it now that I would offer usually certain, in my own, in the classes where my own children were students, you know, offer the teacher a presentation that I would come in and make to the class. And this would include sometimes a presentation of important aspects of black history through folk music and/or a presentation that I had developed on the experiences of living in Nigeria and bringing artifacts of arts and different aspects of the culture to the classes so the children would have some understanding of African culture today.

(I) Would you say that these programs were generally welcomed?

(N) Yes. I would say they were. Of course you know it was teachers who would be particularly interested who would ask me to come or as I said those in whose classes my children were who were interested and wanted to have that input.

(I) Did you do this at all through Operation Community Talent?

(N) Yes. As a matter of fact, I also did. I can't remember at what point that started, the connection started, but I did. I remember doing one quite extensive program for the Early Childhood classes at Washington Irving through Judy Dissler who would ask me to do, set up a program, or work with other parents who wanted to do an extensive program on Africa, on African cultures. 

(I) So that you feel this type of enrichment program that you were providing essentially speaking on your own initiative to the public school system gave you the idea of establishing that kind of program on a more formal basis?

(N) Yeah. No. Not really. Not directly. I think the impetus for beginning the center, the Afro-American Educational Center came a few years later. I began

(I) Around when would that be?

(N) Okay. The impetus for that began I would say around '71 or '72. At that time, I had taken a job, as a matter of fact, just after moving here in '69, I took a job as associate professor of African Arts at Sarah Lawrence College and I would say two or three years into that, I was asked by a group of black women here in Teaneck if I would come and give them sessions or classes in a sense, informal classes, in African and Afro-American history. This, of course, was the perhaps we might say the height of the, I wouldn't say the height but certainly a point when the effects of the civil rights movement and change for toward bettering the conditions of blacks in the United States was at its, was still very important. The whole drive for a sense of self-determination which included a new interest in beginning to understand our heritage and culture so that at this point, that was an awfully long sentence I realize, so that at this point, after having taught, after having begun to teach at Sarah Lawrence, a group of black women had asked me if I would come and give them some sessions on African heritage and culture which I did. And after I would say maybe almost a year, perhaps six months to a year of working with them, I would give them informal lectures and then encourage them to read on their own and bring back, each one bring back information or lead a session on their own, related to a particular aspect of culture and the arts. So it was after perhaps a year of doing this that I could see, it was obvious, the interest that these women had and the fact that they, as most blacks and most whites in the country had never had that opportunity of studying this area before and they began saying, gee, you know, we need to find a way to provide this for our children. We didn't have it but they should have it and we want to see that they have it. And so that was really a stimulation for me to say well, why don't we set up a center so that we can make sure that this will happen. So that was really more of the impetus.

(I) That's very interesting. Some things can't be said in short sentences. So that was the impetus. Was it the same group of women with whom you organized the center?

(N) Yes. Two of those women, Matty Glandville and Tony Norman and I decided to really get the program started by incorporating as the Afro-American Educational Center and filling the major offices. Myself as president; Matty and Tony were vice presidents. One doing the secretarial work and that was Tony and Matty doing the financial administrative work. So the three of us then began to plan and work and develop the organizational processes for starting the center, one of which, of course, perhaps the most important of which was fund raising. We had thought about the possibilities of applying for grants and as a matter of fact, did write one grant but as time went on, we realized that, and partly as a result of my husband's influence who was a businessman, realized that it was to be possibly much more effective and long-lasting if we could develop it on an independent basis, a self-sufficient basis, so that it could maintain itself. And that's what we did.

(N) A couple of interesting questions that aren't really essential but of interest to me. One is that you mentioned your husband's input. This organization apparently started with a group of women. Would you say that it, and thinking of the children, did it involve whole families? Did men become involved in the workings of the center on an equal basis so to speak and with an equal degree of interest?

(N) No. I wouldn't, I would say that the same percentage of men has not gotten involved over the years but there is definitely, men have been involved. There have been men on the board at various points and now, as a matter of fact, over the last three or four years, the executive director is a man, Harold Jones, and he had been formerly a board member and very active in the development of the center.

(I) And I wonder if you could take a minute just to explain the direction the center has taken now and how long has the center been in existence and how

(N) All right. Well we began planning I would say in '71, the year of 71/72, and then actually opened up the center in the fall of '74

(I) with how many students would you say? 

(N) That first term I think we had something about 75 students when we opened up.

(I) And the teachers were

(N) The teachers were professional teachers who also had some background or who were willing to do the necessary work to provide the background in Africa and African American heritage and the arts. What would you like to know about the teachers.

(I) How many were there?

(N) Gee, that goes back a long way. We started off with roughly I would say 5 to 7 teachers.

(I) So this would be 5 to 7 teachers, 75 students, a Saturday program.

(N) Yes. It was set up as a Saturday afternoon program from 12:30 to 3:30.

(I) And would you say an actively involved parent group?

(N) Yes, that was part of our, part of our plan was to really emphasize parental involvement because we wanted other parents to also become involved in learning about the heritage and culture along with the children that they brought and so before beginning, at the beginning of every session, we would have a parent meeting where we would introduce parents to the philosophy of the center and the goals of the center and then we would ask them to volunteer. Some volunteered to help with registration or to finalize the registration as new children came in; some volunteered to serve the, organize and serve the juice and cookies which we always had at the break; others volunteered to work with the library because from the beginning, we began collecting and buying books that parents could take home and use at home.

(I) So you had a strong community support. Was the center really designed primarily to reach the black community?

(N) Right.

(I) Had you, at any point, made an effort or did you, was it an idea to involve the white community as well?

(N) I think our attitude was that, as you said, this was really specifically planned for black children and black families but with the idea that we definitely welcomed white children or white families who wanted to learn about our history and culture so that since the beginning there have always been some white children in it and some white parents.

(I) Perhaps you could tell us a little bit about the initial focus then of the Afro American Educational Center.

(N) Well, we started off with a program of cultural workshops from kindergarten through ninth grade and our goal was to give students a sense of heritage, a positive sense of identity and at the same time to develop skills of critical thinking because we wanted this to be a program which would contribute to what the students were learning in school and give them added skills that would help them with what they were learning at school and we felt that this area of developing skills of critical thinking by which I mean skills of learning how to answer questions, make associations, problem solve, those kinds of things we felt were basic to education in the way education was going and so we built that kind of an approach into the curriculum of each teacher and we would, we expected each teacher to develop those skills along with whatever cultural material and information she was giving to students, she or he because we certainly had men teachers as well and we always tried to get men teachers as well as women teachers. So that students in early childhood level, for instance, then were learning African and Afro American folk tales, songs, doing simple art projects, they had a game that reflected African cultures such as tye dye which children at their age level could do and but within that literature and arts focus, the teacher was asking questions and stimulating them to answer and to make associations and problem solve and that sort of thing so that approach was used and continued from the earliest pre-K level up through ninth grade.

(I) Has the center maintained that same focus?

(N) Yes, I think the center has maintained that same focus. You know, I think there are times when it is stronger or weaker depending upon the teachers who are hired and the amount of time the director has to see that those, a teacher who doesn't have that much strength in this area is prepared to do it but by and large the emphasis is still there. But then on top of that, within the last four years since I left the directorship which was in 79, there has been a development of an additional aspect to the program which is that of computers. We all know how important computer education is now and the center reflects that interest on the part of black parents similarly as it is reflected in general society. So now then there are not only computer offerings for all age groups, this year even including the pre-K level, but in addition a very special SAT preparation program for students in I guess it is the tenth grade who would be preparing for their SAT's next year, in the coming year.

(I) Now you mentioned leaving the directorship in 1979. That must have been a real turning point for you and for this center. Could you tell us a little about that?

(N) Right. Well as you can imagine having co-founded the center and worked through all of the creative areas of helping it develop, I was very ambivalent about leaving. On the one hand, I felt that I had done all I could do as far as building up the structure and encouraging registration and I found that the center had gotten to a point, a general sort of a registration level, about 50 students per session, and it seemed that no matter what we did, we just could not rise above that or increase the registration above that and that became a sense of frustration to me. That plus the fact that you know, I guess as most people do, after you've developed a project, and then what you think you've, what you've been able to do, then you figure maybe you are ready to move on to more challenges and I thought I needed a new challenge at that point. So that that was the feeling on the one hand. On the other hand, of course, the other part of the ambivalence was a concern I felt as to whether or not the center would continue with my leaving and I guess, you know, I feel a little embarrassed to say that because it really reflects sort of maybe the egotism of someone who is very enmeshed in creating something. You begin to feel that it can only exist if you are there which is really very, a very egocentric way of looking at things. But I'll admit the fact that I felt some of those feelings. So then you can imagine how pleased I have been that having made the decision to leave, realizing I had to find new challenges, that the center has continued. On my leaving, Harold Jones who has been one of our very conscientious board members and who himself was a principal at the Lincoln School in Englewood, decided to take over as executive director when I left and he is continuing until today. And I think it has been largely due to his influence that the computer programming has started.

(I) Now around the same time or a little earlier / your decision to actually relinquish the directorship of the center, you also were working with the Teaneck Public School system on a variety of projects. Could you tell what they were and the extent of your involvement there?

(N) Right. OK. One area was the participation in the planning for the Magnet School Program for Teaneck High School. Teaneck has sought, was seeking, a grant from the federal government to plan and develop a Magnet School and the Magnet School, as you may know, had the purpose of encouraging the greater integration of students of various backgrounds into programs in the school that would be held both during the school hours and after school as well. And the Magnet School as I understand it had really been developed in cities where there was a minimum of housing integration so that the plan was for the school then to become a center in which various ethnic and racial groups would come together for educational programs.

(I) Through the arts.

(N) Specifically through the arts, right. Focus on the arts. 

(I) And what was your involvement with this program?

(N) Well I joined as a community participant to help in the planning, to bring my perspective and point of view as to the kinds of courses that would be developed and then I worked specifically in workshops with teachers once we got past the level of having actually received the grant. I worked with teacher in workshops developing this program. Developing some of these courses, the arts courses.

(I) Do you feel that there was a significant gap between the white and black community that needed to be filled with this type of

(N) Yeah. Certainly not nearly as significant as in other places where the schools themselves were not integrated but I would say yes from the point of view of curriculum materials because as I have said before, I found the schools very lacking in that. In the areas of curriculum reflecting especially African and African American heritage but the heritages of other non-western groups as well. Native American, Hispanic, you know, and so that's why I was particularly interested in the program because this allowed not just to, for the provision of an arts program but an arts program that would reflect the varied cultures of the people in our country.

(I) So that generally speaking, would you say again your input was sought out and welcomed, do you think it was also applied?

(N) It is really hard for me to say because once the planning was over, I really have to say I really did not observe myself how the program really developed. I felt certain teachers during the planning stages tended to be resistive to a lot of the cultural materials and others were very acceptive of it so I am sure there was a broad range of variance as to how much of the cultural input was really put in and how much wasn't in the long run.

(I) For those who were resistant, did you feel that their resistance came through prejudice or more from just resistance to change generally?

(N) That's hard to say. I sensed a certain amount of prejudice because I mean after all, they had accepted by being in the program they had accepted the fact that they, that this was their challenge to work on a new program. You know what I mean? So yeah I just felt that there was some resistances probably that they may not even have been that conscious of that were still there.

(I) Nevertheless, you could say that the system essentially speaking by asking you to conduct the workshops was aware or the problem

(N) Oh yeah, sure, and they were, and the leaders, the educational leaders who were structuring the workshops were very aware and

(I) Who were they? Can you remember?

(N) Well at that point the main person who became director was 

(I) Janiker?

(N) She was the person, she was the person who worked on the funding. The actual director then who retired once the funding was granted was Richard Cabezas who was already a teacher of dance in the junior and the high school. You know, I felt that he was very aware of the multi-cultural approach and that he would see that that was carried through.

(I) We've touched upon these important areas in which you have contributed to organizations in Teaneck. Are there any others that you would like to mention at this point?

(N) Well perhaps the fact that roughly around the same time that I was participating in the Magnet School, I was asked to teach an in-service course to Teaneck teachers in African and Afro-American arts and I was very happy to find that I had about I guess 10 to 15 teachers who registered to take this program representing elementary, junior and high schools of teaching.

(I) Were they black and white teachers?

(N) Yes, mainly white. I think there were perhaps 2 or 3 blacks.

(END SIDE 1 - BEGIN SIDE 2, TAPE 1)

 

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