Bob Moses’s Legacy

Organizing Innovative Change in Education

When Karen Uhlenbeck was a MacArthur fellow, between 1983–88, she went on a series of incredible adventures visiting other MacArthur fellows and learning about their projects. “This was actually one of the high points of my life,” Uhlenbeck said to me, laughing. She recalls whale watching in Hawaii with Roger Payne, a trip to the Amazon to see Philip DeVries’s work with butterflies, studying lemurs in Madagascar with Pat Wright, and a Montana dinosaur dig with Jack Horner. Amidst these escapades, Uhlenbeck and her cohort also visited Jackson, Mississippi to see Bob Moses’s work with the Algebra Project, a program taking a community organizing approach to innovation in education. “It was just a very impressive experience to see how he was organizing this,” Uhlenbeck states, adding that “it was an extremely important thing to do.”

Bob Moses was born in 1935 in Harlem, where he was raised. He studied philosophy at Hamilton College and then at Harvard University, where he received his master’s degree in 1957 (and where he eventually worked on his doctorate in the Philosophy of Mathematics). He spent a few years teaching middle school math at a private school in the Bronx, but was compelled by the 1960 Greensboro, North Carolina sit-in to spend his summer that year in Atlanta, working at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) headquarters, which was also home to the newly-formed Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He returned to the Bronx to fulfill his teaching commitment, but in 1961, he again joined SNCC—this time, in McComb, Mississippi—where he remained for the next four years working to organize a grassroots effort around voter registration.

It was this experience—organizing a movement from the ground up—that would help shape the efforts of the Algebra Project. SNCC’s focus on voter registration stemmed from a consensus that this issue was crucial and urgent. Because of this consensus, they were successfully able to organize their efforts and attract resources and volunteers from around the country. Furthermore, this agreement empowered the target population to make demands for itself, an essential aspect, Moses believed, to creating sustainable change. Another significant impact this experience had on Moses was in showing him the crucial connection between young people and adults. When the younger generation got involved in SNCC’s work, eventually the community’s adults—who may have been more reluctant to get involved—were brought along. Such intergenerational relationships were essential to building and sustaining the movement in Mississippi, according to Moses. These values of consensus and community similarly appear in Moses’s Algebra Project.

The seed of the work that would become the Algebra Project was planted when, in 1982, Moses learned that his daughter’s school—she was then entering eighth grade at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. School in Cambridge, Massachusetts—did not offer algebra for eighth graders. While she was prepared to take algebra, she would have to wait until high school to start that course. Moses was surprised, as learning algebra in middle school was a necessary step for his daughter and her classmates to be able to take honors-level math and science courses in high school. In the end, Moses took on teaching algebra to his daughter, Maisha, and three of her classmates. Fortunately, that same year, he was granted a MacArthur fellowship in light of his civil rights work, affording him the time to take on this work (and continue the project as it grew through the years). Although he was working on his doctorate, Moses was starting to see this as his essential work.

As Moses taught that first group of students in 1982, he looked around the school, noticed that the math courses tended to be skewed across racial and class lines, and began to think about who takes math and what kinds of math they take. Moses considered it an old problem that traditional math courses operate as tools to single out potential mathematicians and steer them towards university math programs—creating a priesthood of arcane math secrets only accessible by some God-given talent or magic—rather than creating literacy in the subject. Worse, math illiteracy was acceptable, and even expected, the way that illiteracy in reading and writing was not.

Moses realized these conditions were even more insidious in the modern world which placed a premium on math and science knowledge. Without developing an intuition around math and the skills for doing it, people would not be able to take advantage of new technologies and economic opportunities. Moses found this to be the most urgent social issue affecting poor people and people of color, and this belief spurred the development of his work from teaching a few students algebra into the eventual creation of the Algebra Project. “That is what’s driving the project. The Algebra Project is not simply transferring a body of knowledge to children. It is about using the knowledge as a tool to a much larger end,” he wrote in his memoir Radical Equations (Beacon Press, 2001). And like his work on voter registration during the civil rights movement, Moses believed that this idea of “algebra for all” could gain consensus, engage whole communities, and create innovative systematic change, this time within education.

When Moses passed away in 2021, Uhlenbeck recalled her trip to Jackson and the impression Moses left on her. “He was a very impressive character,” she recalls. “Very laid-back. Not at all over-powering. Not at all intimidating to the students and very good at getting people to work for him.” This was indispensable: Moses’s work was not meant to be undertaken by a small group of reformers, but was an effort that belonged to the community. “Bob Moses’s idea was to get these things started and then to enlist people to help,” reflects Uhlenbeck. As away to honor his legacy, she established at IAS a fund in his name to support scholars from a variety of diverse backgrounds. “I thought, that’s really the right name to put on it,” she said, “because that’s someone who’s had this dream of access to education for minority students.” When asked for any final thoughts, she replied, “I guess just to say that he’s one of my heroes.”

Genevieve Looby is the Associate Editor of Publications at the Institute for Advanced Study.