ANNAPOLIS — Zalee Harris has been fighting slavery practically since she was born.
Growing up in Dallas in the early 1970s, she would accompany her mother through the back door into the homes of “wealthy whites” to watch her change sheets, starch and iron white business shirts, scrub floors and cook dinner.
Then, when her brothers would come pick them up at the end of the day, the neighbors would call the police, she said.
“I saw her being treated like a modern-day slave,” said Harris, a Temple Hills resident. “I knew I would not be a slave to any system that would restrain me.”
That tie that binds Harris now is the education system, which she sees as “creating a system of institutionalized slavery” across the county.
She said she’s found the cure for an “education system that is terminally ill” because of the federal standards forcing states to employ standardized tests, such as Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, that have little to do with student proficiency, she said.
The federal standards, she said, are creating a society that behaves a certain way, and that takes away individual rights.
Its effects are evident from the state level down to her district, Prince George’s County.
To improve the school system, all Harris needs to do, she said, is get the truth out to the parents and taxpayers, even if her tactics raise the ire of elected officials.
“Controversy brings change,” she said. “We want to work to bring change.”
Harris holds email workshops and MSPAP information sessions, tracks elected officials and updates the Web site of a group she co-founded in 1998 called Education Doctors.
The Web site started after she lost the District 8 seat on the Prince George’s County Council to incumbent Isaac Gourdine. She ran on the platform that improving the county’s school system would improve the economy. She lost 6,987 votes to 1,544. But she gained a colleague.
Patricia Brady Dennis, a mother of five who lived down the street from Harris, approached her with concerns about county schools. Soon, the two were meeting two nights a week to create a Web site. They typed keywords into search engines and came across thousands of state and federal documents relating to education.
Now, the site is page after page of essays, links, graphs, documents, reprinted columns and message board postings.
Delegate Janet Greenip, R-Anne Arundel, describes her as “a hard charging woman who is committed to what she is doing.”
“Committed” is an understatement, said Dennis. “She’s passionate about the issues,” Dennis said. “She’s not afraid of these politicians.
Greenip could attest to that.
The first time they met, the two sharply disagreed on a federal education funding issue, Greenip said.
“She just got right in my face and said, ‘This is what’s going on,'” Greenip said. “Upon reflecting, I found that she was exactly right.”
Harris does “a tremendous amount of research,” said Greenip who has worked with her on several MSPAP information sessions. “When she makes a statement, she knows what she is talking about. She’s accurate – and that’s refreshing.”
Harris, 43, also works at a telecommunications firm in Virginia, organizes citizen advocacy groups in Prince George’s County and sits on the board of a welfare-to-work program.
She does this all, she said, under the guidance of God.
“These foundations of beliefs keep my feet still,” she said.
She faced a choice when she was 16 and growing up in Texas. Pregnant, she was looking to change her life.
“I decided I wasn’t going to be a statistic,” she said. “I made some changes.”
Under the religious guidance of her father, a deacon and construction company owner in Dallas, she looked to advance her life and enrolled in Monterey Penn college in California. But, too many jazz concerts, too many parties, not enough studying — especially when she was supporting a child on a cook’s salary – and she dropped out.
She returned to Dallas and got temporary employment, working her way up to receptionist at a Fortune 500 company. She learned the professional side of corporate America and telecommunications systems.
She then made a leap and approached executives at the National Commerce Bank in Dallas about creating a position for her. They were startled at her ambition, but didn’t have the money to give her the job. Instead, they referred her to one of their vendors and it started a 25-year career in telecommunications.
“I was taught by my father that if you have a desire, you can do anything,” she said.
The rest is history, she said. She moved around the county and landed in Prince George’s County in 1985 with her two school-age children — a son, now 24, and a daughter, now 27.
Her interest in reform has impressed others.
“A lot of people are doing it for the money or other reasons,” said Radamase Cabrera, a political activist in Clinton. “But I think she is genuinely, sincerely concerned.”
Harris said the task is difficult one.
“It feels like breaking a brick with drops of water,” she said. “The good and evil lines are being drawn. We have to know what side of that line we have to be on.”
The Education Doctors Web site is http://members.aol.com/educationdoctors/eddoc.html