Six Bridges Book Festival: Virginia Walden Ford
Little Rock Family Taught This Education Activist to Stand Up for a Cause
Virginia Walden Ford is one of the few people who actually knows the answer to the question, “What actress would play you in the Hollywood version of your life?”
Ford made national news in the 1990s as leader of a grassroots effort to broaden school choice for public school students in Washington DC. That struggle has now been featured in the film Miss Virginia, which was released in October 2019 and stars Uzo Aduba in the title role.
For those who want to know the full story with all the details and complexity that won’t fit in the two-hour film version, Ford has now released her memoir, School Choice: A Legacy to Keep. Most fascinating, especially for Arkansans, is the major role that Ford’s youth in Little Rock played in the formation of this strong woman’s character.
A young life shaped by the civil rights struggle
Born in 1951 as Virginia Fowler, the real “Miss Virginia” grew up in the thick of the intense civil rights struggle that followed the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School. A cross burned on her family’s lawn in 1967 when her father, William Harry Fowler, was selected as the first black administrator for the Little Rock School District. Both Fowler and his wife, Marion Johnson Fowler, had graduated from Philander Smith College and earned masters’ degrees from the University of Arkansas. The Fowler family was deeply invested in education and in the Little Rock community, frequently hosting many of the people whose names have now gone down in history for civil rights activism such as Thurgood Marshall and Daisy Gatson Bates. But most importantly, as Ford now testifies, growing up in her family taught her to raise her voice on behalf of others.
“I came from a family that always fought for the right thing,” Ford said. “So it made sense that I would follow in their footsteps.”
After graduating from college and working for a short time in Little Rock, Ford felt the urge to spread her wings and find her own identity as a young adult, which led to her accepting a job in Washington DC. Little did she know that she would live there for thirty-four years before returning to Little Rock, and during that time would become an icon of community activism.
Fighting for a child’s education led to a national movement
When her third child struggled in school and was at risk of failure or joining street life, Ford began an epic effort to gather enough community voices to make politicians listen to parents. She and many others were convinced that the problems in the public schools were jeopardizing their children’s futures. And these parents fighting to save their children wanted choices for better schools.
“The school choice effort is so much bigger than kids going to schools,” Ford said. “It changes lives, and changes communities that have not always seen themselves well. In this movement, I was working with parents, often people in poverty. They need to know who they are, and their history, otherwise their kids won’t know who they are. So I’d ask them, what is your story? Let’s talk about who you are and what you want.”
Ford has seen the lives of parents as well as students change when the parents get involved with their children’s education. “For one mother, after her daughter went to a better school, the mother was then inspired to get her GED and find a better job,” Ford said. “She wanted a story and a legacy to leave her daughter.”
“It’s our responsibility as activists and parents to pass on what we’ve learned,” Ford said. “And what parents often discover is this realization: ‘the more involved I am with my children, the more excited I am about my own life and accomplishments.’”
Ford’s life translated to the silver screen in Miss Virginia
It was the Miss Virginia film itself that prompted Ford to write her memoir. At first, the idea of having her life put in the spotlight was intimidating. “Initially, it was surreal and scary. I thought, ‘Am I really ready for people to know this much about me or my son?’ And then I thought, ‘I may not be ready, but it’s necessary.’ It took about a year to make the movie, and it was fun to meet the actors. There are times when watching it, I was moved to tears. They did a great job and were very respectful.”
The filmmaking process itself inspired deep reflection and eventually, her writing.
“The production staff was asking me all these questions that brought back a lot of memories,” Ford said. “The movie shows one aspect of my life, so, people may see the movie and wonder about the rest of the story or what I’m doing now. Surrounded by all those memories, it made sense to put the book out there, and I was blessed to have a publisher. And once I started writing, I could not put it down.”
Virginia Walden Ford will share more stories about her work, school choice, and her ties to Little Rock at the Six Bridges Book Festival. She could not be happier to appear for an author talk in her own hometown, given her roots here. “At my party when I was leaving DC, I told them that Arkansas is the South’s best-kept secret. And visitors who had come to see me over the last ten years always say that it’s beautiful. I am an Arkansan first—Little Rock impacted me greatly and made me who I am.”
Virginia Walden Ford is one of America’s leading advocates for parent empowerment. As a student, a mother, an advocate, and a grandmother, Virginia has spent her lifetime fighting to create new educational opportunities for children and families. A native of Little Rock, Arkansas and the daughter of two public school educators, Virginia and her twin sister, Harrietta, were among the first 130 students chosen to desegregate Little Rock’s high schools in the mid-1960s. In 1998, she formed a grassroots organization, D.C. Parents for School Choice. With the support of national education organizations and lawmakers, Virginia and her courageous group of parent advocates succeeded in convincing Congress and President George W. Bush to enact the nation’s first-ever Opportunity Scholarship Program for low-income children.
feature by Rosslyn Elliott