Black and gifted: A trailblazer’s backstory

Nationally recognized expert Donna Ford tells her backstory on being gifted, black and poor in East Cleveland, and how it motivated her to create change for gifted children of color.
Donna Ford at desk

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Transcript of Podcast

A quick warming: This podcast contains discussions about suicide. Listener discretion is advised.

Robin Chenoweth: Some people are born knowing their life’s passion. From the time they’re toddlers, their mothers say, they knew they wanted to be teachers or firefighters or doctors. Others stumble upon it, happily discovering career interests, a special fascination with a particular hobby or subject in school. But some people, often the really committed ones, find their calling under more negative circumstances. Life kind of smacks them in the face, and sometimes really drags them under, before they realize that they’re meant to do something. Tackle a problem, prevent the same negative thing from happening to others. Donna Ford was like that. She was earning her PhD in urban education when she realized that what almost killed her at age 16 had indeed made her very, very resilient. Her life’s calling was set into place during her darkest moments.

Robin Chenoweth: This is the Inspire, a podcast by the College of Education and Human Ecology. I’m Robin Chenoweth. Our story today begins in East Cleveland, where an expert in the making found herself identified as intellectually gifted in middle school. Donna Ford would become a leading thinker on gifted education and the nation’s most respected advocate for gifted children of color. But as a middle schooler, she just knew she wanted to find a better path.

Donna Ford: Being in poverty, living in poverty was really a challenge because I knew that there had to be another way to live. And one of the reasons I desperately tried to do well in school was to make sure that I was able to, as much as I could get, us out of poverty, and especially my mom, and to give us a better life. So I don't, sometimes I suffer from survival guilt because I don't think that other students recognize that there were people who were well off and who weren't starving and who weren't always hungry, who weren't always needy, and that you didn't have to steal to meet your needs. I didn't want to go that route. I didn't want to live that kind of life. I wanted education to be my way out of poverty. And then to make my mother proud of me and us and to help everyone in my family.

Donna Ford: I was first identified as being gifted in elementary school. But I don't have much recollection of that other than I know how I was identified. So, at that time, if you could read really well, you got identified and I had memorized this book, and I still love it to this day. Are You My Mother? Are You My Mother? And I memorized it. I read it all the time. And so when they had me come in and do an evaluation, that's the book I read.

Robin Chenoweth: But it was more than that book. Donna was moved from first grade to second because she outperformed her peers. She was an avid reader and wrote very well from a young age. Her teachers in East Cleveland could see that she was advanced. So, they tested her again in middle school. The results confirmed that Donna was intellectually and academically gifted.

Donna Ford: And it hurts still to say this. But the phrase was, we got to save you from East Cleveland.

Robin Chenoweth: They had to “save” her. Sometimes Donna tears up when she recounts this story. But she didn’t feel that way until she had intensely studied urban education in college.

Donna Ford: So, at that time, when I heard we need to save you, it really didn't sink in. You know, we need to save you East Cleveland. It really didn't sink in, and I was thinking, you're not challenged in school. I didn't know that they were also talking about we need to save you from the drugs and the crime and the peer pressure. So, I know that now but at that time, I didn't. And is it still bothers me because rather than saving me from East Cleveland, let's do a better job with changing East Cleveland and improving the schools.

Robin Chenoweth: Her teachers administered another test, called ABC, or A Better Chance. She passed, which meant she was awarded a scholarship to attend any high school of her choice in the United States. Leaving her mother and sisters was out of the question. So, she chose an elite private school in a Cleveland suburb, a 45-minute bus-ride from her home. Donna was “saved.” Except she wasn’t. It didn’t go well at the new school. Donna saw wealth she had only ever seen on television. Her classmates carried designer handbags and bragged about European vacations. In this world, she had no point of reference. She was lost. One of the few black girls at the school grew up affluent and was embarrassed of Donna. The white girls didn’t accept her and refused to do class projects with her. She sat alone in the lunch room and in school labs. The isolation was demoralizing. Her favorite and best subject – language arts -- became a source of misery for her because the teacher seemed to target her.

Donna Ford: And I love writing …. it’s cathartic for me. It was like, it's like, not was, but is my release.

Robin Chenoweth: But the teacher accused her of not writing the paper she turned in on the Canterbury Tales – it was too good, she said -- and gave her a lower grade. Donna was shattered. But she tried again. Her next essay was on the Scarlet Letter. She particularly identified with the book’s protagonist, Hester Prynne.

Donna Ford: So I turned it in and she said, Well, this is really good. Now, I want you to share this with your classmates. And I'm just going to be blunt. I said, ‘Oh, hell no, I'm not sharing this.’ Because I'm thinking, ‘I hate you. And I hate them. Because you hate me, and they hate me.’ I was writing this for myself. And so when I told her no, she's like, ‘If you don't do it, I'm going to tear it up. And you're going to get a failing grade.’ So I said, ‘Tear it up, give me a failing grade.’

Robin Chenoweth: The stand-off continued for months, with Donna writing papers, the teacher accusing her of cheating and giving her Ds and Fs.

Donna Ford:  This was my favorite subject area, language arts, and she tore me up, tore me up. So, like, what else can I do? I mean, I like math. I liked other subject areas, but my favorite subject, subject area? And she is just ripping me apart, any and every time I did better than the other students. It was devastating.

Robin Chenoweth: Then the administration began to publicly accuse her of stealing other students’ jewelry. They subjected her to a strip search, down to her underclothes, in the school office. The effect on Donna was crushing. She began overeating and gaining weight.  She stopped leaving her house except to go to school. Stopped talking to her sisters. Worse, she began planning her exit strategy from a situation she felt was unbearable.  She thought about poisoning herself, but was afraid she’d just maim or cripple herself. She began writing suicide notes, but would rip them up because – in her own words -- they weren’t good enough.

Donna Ford: I entered that school feeling I was brilliant. I'd ,been told over and over again how smart I was. I liked and had no issues being black. Had no clue really, because all my needs were met seriously. All my needs were met, even though we were low-income. So I had no clue that someone will put us in the category of being poor, until I got out of East Cleveland. There's nothing to explain how devastating that was. And I'm a really strong person. So, when I tell people that at 16, how bad that experience was, and I was suicidal, they're like, ‘You? Suicidal?

Robin Chenoweth: She would be dead today, she says, if her family had had a paper shredder. But her mother found the bits of suicide notes and figured out what was going on.

Donna Ford: So, my mom came to me, after piecing one to two letters together... I’m sorry. (Crying.)

Robin Chenoweth: It’s all right.

Donna Ford: So, my mother came to me after piecing together one to two letters, and she said, ‘Donna, why don't you talk to me? I had no idea that you felt this way. And I'm just so glad that I found these letters because I would have lost you.’ And it's true. I was ... when I was going to commit suicide. As I said, other times, I was going to be successful. And when I put my mind to something it’s going to work out like I want it to. So she was, she was devastated. I mean, very hurt. I just didn't know that, at that time, 16 years of age, that I could just come to her and explain what was going on because I didn't want to disappoint her. My mother has had and has such high expectations. They're realistic as she's very supportive, but so many expectations that as a young child, I just like, I can't, I can't look my mother in the face and disappoint her.

Robin Chenoweth: Her mom exhorted her to hang in, three months, until the school year ended. Then she would enroll her at Shaw High School in East Cleveland. Donna went on a crash diet to try to lose all the weight she’d gained. You might think this is where Donna Ford could turn things around. Smartest kid in school…a girl who had purpose and knew where she wanted to go. In her own element once again. In control. But….

Donna Ford: That was another story of... I was no longer depressed and suicidal. But I was ... I feared for my life almost every day.

Robin Chenoweth: At her neighborhood school, Donna was now harassed because she made good grades.

Donna Ford: I thought I would be beat up because I did well in school. And so I asked my teachers never to share my grades. And I also had issues with the girls accusing me of acting white, because I spoke mainstream English, because I did well in school.

Robin Chenoweth: And then, there was the issue of her hair.

Donna Ford: I felt, I knew I had to deal with this: That some of the girls wanted to fight me, beat me up, because I had long hair.

Robin Chenoweth: While other girls braided their hair or wore it naturally as an expression of cultural identity, Donna’s was naturally long and fine. It mirrored the European beauty standards that the girls and black culture rejected but somehow also still coveted. Her hair irked her classmates and made Donna a target, once again.

Donna Ford: In the black community, especially among girls, hair is major. So, you know, how long is your hair? It matters, naturally long. And then the … what's the texture of your hair? So, mine was just naturally long and didn't have to do like any processing. They didn’t have wigs and weaves, you know, used much, but it was just naturally long and a fine texture. And it was always, ‘Oh, you got good hair. You got good hair.’ Not just long, but long and in quotation marks, good. And you would get your behind whipped, whooped and whipped because of the jealousy. And Robin, it exists today. And so, you see some, perhaps many black females wearing weaves and hair extensions. I guess it makes them feel beautiful. But that's never how I felt. I didn't want to be known for my hair. I wanted to be known for my brains, my achievement.

Robin Chenoweth: She asked her mother every day if she could cut her hair. Her mother refused. So, to Shaw High School she went, with her hair down her back.

Donna Ford: Every day I'm like, I do not want to go to school, but I was not going to end my life because I felt a different kind of pressure. And I knew it was just going to be two years.

Robin Chenoweth: And she had one thing she didn’t have at the elite private school.

Donna Ford: The teachers were not discriminatory, like the one at the private school. At the private school, I had no teacher support and no classmate support. At Shaw, I had very few friends. And most of the students I was afraid of, especially the girls, because of the hair, for example, but I did have teachers who supported me and that's what got me through.

Robin Chenoweth: Donna applied for and received a full scholarship to Case Western Reserve. She chose engineering as her major. But now she had another issue, a carry-over from her time at Shaw High School.

Donna Ford: Wanting to fit in at Shaw just a little bit, I started dating against my mother's wishes. And I became a single mom. So, I graduated from high school, maybe four to five months pregnant.

Robin Chenoweth: At one of the most prestigious colleges in the country, studying a rigorous program that high school did not prepare her for, and pregnant. Calculous, and an unhelpful professor, quickly did her in.

Donna Ford: And I asked this professor, I'm like, I don't know when I'm going to use this stuff. And the only thing he told me was, you're going to need a differential equations. I'm like, ‘What is that? I'm lost.’ He didn’t even explain it. And then finally he said, ‘You're not math material. You're not engineering material. And so I’ll make sure you fail this class.’ And before he did, I just left and went home.

Robin Chenoweth: On her 18th birthday, she cut her hair, very short. One month later, her son Khyle was born; and then she fell back into the doldrums.

Donna Ford: It was another period of depression. To the point where, I guess my son was going on one year, my mother said, ‘You've got too much that you can do. You either go back to school, or you going to have to leave this house because I'm not going to watch you just sit here. I just know you could do so much and I don't know how to help you.’ So when she said that, okay, let me see. I'm going to be homeless, I don't have nowhere to go. Okay, Mom, I'm going back to school.

Robin Chenoweth: And she did. Her mom babysat Khyle while she was in class. In just three years, Donna graduated from Cleveland State with dual degrees in communications and Spanish. This despite the fact that Khyle was diagnosed late with Kawasaki's disease, with complications that he battled for months. After a year spent in a dead-end job, and with a lens looking back to her past, Donna finally became interested in studying education. She went back to Cleveland State and got into the master’s program in counseling education.

Donna Ford: It was a two-year program. But I was so motivated, I finished it in one year.

Robin Chenoweth: Without taking a break, she entered a new PhD program in urban education with an emphasis on educational psychology and gifted education. She began to look at students of color. As she studied, something was beginning to happen to Donna Ford. A reawakening. A cleansing of past hurt. Her dissertation focused on social, psychological and cultural variables that contribute to under achievement among gifted black students.

Donna Ford: This gave me an opportunity to be self-reflective and cathartic and to think about my experiences as a gifted student.

Robin Chenoweth: In her reading and dissertation and almost obsessive studying, she found that girl she was, and many, many other kids like her.

Donna Ford: I was studying myself in order to help others. And, so, it was like self-counseling. I'd never been to a counselor, so it was counseling myself, as I wrote this dissertation, and subsequent work.  Because I wanted to get with get relief from my own experiences, but never forget them. So that I could help others, including my son who had, who had difficulties being identified as gifted.

Robin Chenoweth: She went on to write eight books on the subject. She got tenure-track professorships at University Virginia and then at Ohio State in 1997.

Donna Ford: For my first few years, my focus was almost completely on gifted education with an urban focus. And by urban I was meaning. any student of color, any group, any group of color, who were not being identified as gifted, and definitely those who live in poverty. So. I was working a lot with Columbus city schools to prepare teachers to be culturally competent and to be very well trained in gifted education.

Robin Chenoweth: Then, Gordon Gee recruited her to Vanderbilt University, where she joined the famed Peabody College of Education and Human Development. While there, she testified in court cases defending the rights of gifted students of color. In McFadden versus Board of Education District U-46, she presented a non-verbal test that she felt Hispanic students in Elgin, Illinois, should have been given. And then, she deftly administered it …. to the judge.

Donna Ford: And so I gave him like maybe 10 items at different grade levels starting from kindergarten to the last one was 10th and 12th grade. And he got the kindergarten one, I believe, but the other ones —  fifth and six and seven eighth etc. — he did not get.

Robin Chenoweth: The judge didn’t pass the test.

Donna Ford: I may not say this verbatim, but in my mind, I remember him saying, ‘Damn, I'm a federal judge. And I'm, you know, accomplished. And I'm white, and I'm privileged.’ I mean, this is still in my memory. He said, ‘And I can't pass a test that you say Hispanic students do as well as whites.’ And the light it was like people in a courtroom just like broke down other than the defendants, right? But they just broke down. And I'm like, ‘Yes! This is what I want him to know. This is what with the world to know.’

Robin Chenoweth: The judge ruled the district intentionally discriminated against children of color, by retesting Hispanic students at the middle school level when white students weren’t retested, and by not giving them a nonverbal test. The equation that Ford used to calculate what the true proportion of gifted students should have been became known as Dr. Donna Ford’s Equity Formula.

Robin Chenoweth: Donna Ford came back at Ohio State in 2019, as part of a diverse cohort hired by Dean Don Pope-Davis to address rural and urban education disparities. She’s still tackling inequity in gifted education, both locally and nationally.  She sites national data showing that though 19 percent of children in public schools are black, only 10 percent are identified as academically and intellectually gifted.

Donna Ford: So we're underrepresented by 50 percent.

Robin Chenoweth: The numbers are almost as bad for LatinX children. All of which means, that Donna Ford truly beat the odds back in 1975.

Donna Ford: When I'm look back and say, ‘Wow, way back then somehow I was identified?’ I still marvel at that. I still have sometimes a hard time wrapping my head around that, because I see today, or recent years, that it does not happen. And I still think about how challenging it was for my son to be identified as gifted.

Robin Chenoweth: She’s working with Columbus area superintendents to launch a program for female high school students of color, gifted and not, to exhort them to reach higher, work together to go farther, to not fall into the traps that nearly swallowed her as a teenager.

Donna Ford: I don't want anybody ever to experience the negative expectations that I did. And too, I want teachers, professionals to really look beyond our skin color and our income level to recognize how brilliant we really are.

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