The five-second video of Sarah Carpenter challenging Senator Elizabeth Warren — “I read that your children went to private school”— has been viewed 2.4 million times. It inspired a front-page New York Times article headlined, “Minority Voters Chafe as Democratic Candidates Abandon Charter Schools.”
So who was that woman in the “Powerful Parent Network” t-shirt going toe-to-toe with the Harvard Law School professor-turned-presidential candidate?
Charles Cole III, a co-host of a podcast on which Carpenter made a recent appearance, describes her as a “modern day Rosa Parks.”
Carpenter herself, in a video for her local newspaper, refers to an earlier black heroine, Harriet Tubman.
Unlike Parks and Tubman, whose faces have been on postage stamps and in history textbooks, Carpenter has until now labored largely in obscurity. Even the Times article didn’t name her, referring to her only as an “activist.”
In the podcast and various videos, Carpenter offers glimpses of her own life story. Her father died when she was 9. Her mother earned money cleaning other people’s houses. Carpenter herself worked as a house-cleaner, did not graduate college, and at one point “couldn’t even afford to buy shoes,” she told Cole. She has 15 grandchildren, five of whom are adopted, and a great-grandson.
One of those grand-daughters cut the ribbon at the opening of a KIPP charter school in Memphis, and became the first in four generations of the Carpenter family to graduate college.
“I want better for my grandchildren, I want better for the kids in my community,” Carpenter told Cole.
To pay for the six-hour bus-ride to bring 60 parents from Memphis to the Warren campaign event in Atlanta, “I asked everybody that I knew for money, and nobody wanted to fund us for this trip,” Carpenter told Cole. “Somebody put $12,000 on their credit card. Thank God that we got the money to pay them back.” A Gofundme campaign for the Powerful Parent Network has at this writing generated $18,613 from 160 donors toward a $25,000 goal.
“We turned like 40-some-parents away because we couldn’t afford to take them,” Carpenter told Cole.
Carpenter is now the executive director of Memphis Lift, a small nonprofit organization that counsels parents making school choices and organizes parents to hold schools accountable.
In 2016, Carpenter briefly spoke at the 25th anniversary main event of Teach for America, decrying the conditions in failing urban schools. “This is America’s modern-day slavery, and we are sick of it and we are going to change it,” she said. “We’re starting a movement to demand better. … We believe that the people from our community should lead this movement. This movement should be for parents, by parents.”
In a 2018 Tedx talk, she began by saying that after being invited to give a Ted talk, she immediately went to YouTube and typed in “black people doing Ted talks.”
“I’m not that kind of black person. I’m not as polished, and I’m rough around the edges, and I’m straight out of North Memphis,” she said after viewing a few.
She recalled that two of her grandchildren were in the same grade, one at a school in the suburbs, one at a school in North Memphis. The two children compared their homework one Sunday night at her kitchen table. “It made me realize that the schools in the suburbs was working, but the schools in the inner city was not working,” she said. “None of the schools in my community was working. The elementary school was failing. The middle school was failing. And the high school was failing.”
The five second clip of Carpenter and Warren has gone viral in part because of Warren inaccurately denying that her own child went to private school. But the full nearly 17-minute video is also worth a look.
“We didn’t want to disrupt,” Carpenter tells Warren, almost apologetically, but not quite. “The only way I know is to fight,” she says. “I dream big and I fight hard for kids.”
The house-cleaner-turned-education-reform-activist from Memphis tells the law professor-turned-politician from Cambridge, Massachusetts, “These parents came from that place where our kids were stuck in failing schools, and we can’t allow our kids to be stuck in failing schools. We got to have the same choice that you got for your kids.”
The impromptu meeting ended with the senator, under pressure, agreeing to review the education reform plan issued by her campaign, which would restrict choice by ending federal funding for charter school growth and by demanding more “aggressive oversight” of those already serving students. Long-time school choice activist Howard Fuller, who joined Carpenter in confronting Warren in Atlanta, noted that her plan’s discussion of charter schools uses “all the union buzzwords, privatization, corporate.”
“What you did with the way that you came out with that education platform,” Fuller explained, “was that you gave air cover to the people who are systematically attacking charter schools around this country.”
Some of those people seem to have gained the upper hand in Carpenter’s hometown. On December 3, the Shelby County school board called for a moratorium on new charter schools in Memphis. Carpenter tweeted that it was “embarrassing.”
As she told Cole, “all we fight for is choice and great schools.”
If she manages to achieve that, she may someday wind up on a postage stamp herself.
Ira Stoll is managing editor of Education Next.