Accountability & Reflection: CEO Natasha Trivers on Loss, Systemic Racism, Activism and the Path Forward

My mother used to say, “Natasha, you know what to do. You’re just being stubborn.” I want to start by saying again to all students, alumni, educators and families who have expressed their pain in recent weeks: I am so sorry for any pain I’ve caused and as the leader of this institution, for any pain that Democracy Prep has caused.

You have helped me realize that educators must be accountable for harm caused by strict discipline practices, upholding, unwittingly or not, white supremacist culture, not giving students enough voice in their own education, and prioritizing academic gains over social emotional well-being. I want you to know I hear you, I see you, and I am committed to getting this right together.
I arrived at my mother’s home in Jamaica on June 6, 2020. When we arrived, we saw right away she was close to passing. Her breath was labored. She was covered in sweat. She didn’t appear to have sight anymore. She couldn’t talk. My mother, Lorna Staple Trivers, died ninety minutes later, as I held her hand laying at her right side. She had returned to Jamaica three short months before her death to retire in the beautiful home she had built in the countryside after her oncologist told her she had just 3 months left to live. My siblings and I, anxious to spend our mother’s final moments with her, were denied entry because of the COVID-related travel and entry restrictions imposed in March by the Prime Minister of Jamaica.

My mother gave her entire life to others and I was devastated to not be able to give more to her in her final moments. I held my mother’s hand for the final 14 minutes of her life. I will never be the same – not as a woman, daughter or mother, and certainly not as a leader.

We sang “Amazing Grace” at my mother’s funeral. She had asked for it to be sung as the opening song for her funeral services. The Christian meaning of the word grace is “unmerited mercy.” My mother certainly deserved mercy. She lived her whole life for other people. But I think the current moment makes me think about the grace we must afford to everyone, even those with whom we may initially disagree or who have caused us tremendous pain.

The colliding forces of my mother’s death, the COVID crisis that continues to rage in our country, and our current moment of racial reckoning have forced me to take stock of my own pain and, as a result, to acknowledge and confront the pain I have caused – directly and indirectly – as a leader.

In the midst of my own grief, I struggled to be the leader I aspire to be and to engage fully with the critiques about Democracy Prep’s history and culture. I felt sadness and anger. I felt unseen by a community I love and serve. But, what I have come to realize in recent weeks is sometimes the feedback that angers us the most is the feedback we most need to hear.

I grew up in the charter movement. I started teaching at a charter high school in Providence, RI at age 22. I have often had my nose down doing the work of putting rigorous academic material in front of my students but haven’t given myself the mental space to think about the damaging effects of systemic racism in this country and how our schools are steeped in white supremacist culture. I started at Democracy Prep in 2011 as an Assistant Principal. I was a single mother trying to do my best to prove I could also be a leader. I believed in the charter movement because I saw it as a place for innovation and I knew I could, alongside educators, families, and our scholars themselves, build a culture of achievement where no one discounts the intellect or abilities of the predominantly Black and Latinx students we served. High expectations would rule supreme. I was tired of seeing school systems, including schools I attended as a child, lowering expectations for its Black and Brown students, failing to keep children safe, and failing to ensure that students meet a bar of proficiency, especially in terms of literacy and mathematics.

However, I think, at times, I didn’t pay close enough attention to how our scholars felt throughout their trajectory, whether they were feeling empowered by their education or not, and whether they felt like their education had equipped them in all the ways they needed to be equipped as Black and Latinx scholars and future professionals. I still believe in the importance of high expectations and academic rigor for all students, but what our alumni have shaken me awake to realize is that the most powerful ways for us to engender a culture of achievement where students are safe from harm caused by systemic racism in this country are to:

1) listen to our young people and our families;
2) ensure we are truly an anti-racist organization, in policy and in daily practice;
3) ensure that we are fostering true self-determination so that our scholars, families, alumni, and the community are making decisions about the organization’s direction and leading the charge on education reform efforts in the future; and
4) make dramatic shifts to our behavior management and discipline systems.

So many of you at “BlackandBrownatDP” have worked to expose problematic practices and policies and call to account leaders and systems who have not served you in ways that respected you for who you are. You, too, felt unseen. While some students, alumni, educators, and families have had a more positive experience at Democracy Prep, we’ve always strived for 100% and this moment provides us an opportunity to learn together and ensure that our definition of excellence includes all of our community members.

As we embark on this journey together, it is important that we afford each other grace. We won’t be able to make lasting change overnight. This work is extremely complex. Racism and specifically, anti-Blackness, have persisted in America for centuries. It is woven into the fabric of this country.

Extending grace and believing in the power of redemption does not mean the absence of consequences. Each of us, in order to grow, must accept the consequences for our past misdeeds, inaction, or verbal missteps. However, I believe that there is a difference between assigning appropriate consequences and inflicting punishment which results in harm and isolation of members of our community who have made mistakes. Consequences are about holding people accountable and entering into a conversation that is meant to instruct and assist so people can do better the next time. Punishment is about inflicting pain, often because pain was inflicted upon us. While it may be gratifying to punish in the moment, it often does more long-term harm in the end and it doesn’t allow us to come together and forge a better path together.

The first part of ensuring that we make things right is telling the truth and taking accountability. The past few months of deep reflection have afforded me the opportunity to decide that I want to be a leader who confronts the hard truth of our past and leads our community towards healing and reconciliation.

Here are the truths as you have helped me see them:

While we have done impressive work in terms of improving academic outcomes, running a strong Civics program, and ensuring college matriculation and persistence at high levels, we, at times, focused too intently on external validation and defined our scholars’ success too narrowly as tied exclusively to academic success as measured by test scores, rather than defining success more inclusively and broadly to include BOTH academic metrics and other important measures such as civic engagement, scholar growth, project and portfolio assessment, written & communication benchmarks, and scholar leadership.
 At times, we employed discipline policies and behavior management systems that were too harsh and ultimately unnecessary. And there is no question that the discipline code and behavior management systems were consistent with a long history in this country of treating communities of color in a manner that is paternalistic and steeped in white supremacy.

I am deeply committed to changing that.

At Democracy Prep, for the past two years we have talked about the importance of meaningful resistance. The way our young people are demanding change now and using the tools of powerful activists to do so is precisely what we teach and encourage at Democracy Prep. We are proud of you and we thank you for pushing us closer to the excellence for which we strive.

I wanted to share some commitments for the next two years at Democracy Prep. Some were already underway as part of our multi-year Strategic Plan. Some have been added after hearing from many of you. Your calls for action have resulted in serious reflection, dialogue, research, and consideration. They have also accelerated our timeline for change. This is not an exhaustive list and we will be providing opportunities for our community to engage in many of these conversations. Here is what we are committing to today:

Establishing a Truth and Reconciliation Commission at Democracy Prep through which people’s personal truths can be told and we can make important changes to policy, pedagogy, curricula, and practice in order to address feedback and improve our Network of schools to better serve our students, alumni, families, and our community.
Revising our discipline system and embedding antiracist restorative practices throughout, setting aggressive targets for decreasing the suspension rate and the # of days out of school, and making our data public on an annual basis.
Starting an Advisory Board which will report directly to our national board where at least 60% of the members are Democracy Prep alumni.
Setting concrete targets for improving board diversity for all six of our boards.
Ensuring we invest in building the skills and capacity of our Student Governments at the middle schools and high schools so they play a role in auditing the Behavior Management System and the discipline policy at their school on a regular basis.
As an aspiring antiracist organization, we will continually analyze our systems, practices, curricula, policies, and pedagogy for both scholars and staff through an antiracism lens.

Democracy Prep has always been a disruptor. We have challenged the status quo. We have sought to end the college completion crisis by ensuring our students complete college at triple the national average of their peers. What I recognize today is that we were not always the disruptors we thought we were. We did not fully pay respect to the communities in which we educated young people. And we did not sufficiently give our young people a seat at the table. They could have helped us figure out how to disrupt together and to decenter whiteness in a manner that would be beneficial to us all.

By declaring unapologetically today that we will be an antiracist organization and that we will continue to place primacy on Purpose over Power as it relates to our discipline practices, we will continue to take bold steps in the right direction to ensure we are making necessary changes while scoping out that work so that it can be implemented correctly.

Purpose over Power is the lens through which we make our decisions related to school culture and scholar expectations. There must be purposeful and clear intention behind every expectation we have of our scholars, and we cannot simply do things because we’ve done them previously. We must also embrace our scholars and our families as partners in this work. The critical question to ask ourselves is: How do these expectations contribute to academic achievement and promote social emotional development at our schools? If we have expectations that don’t contribute to a strong culture of academic achievement and don’t support social emotional development, we must do away with them.

As practitioners, we must listen to our stakeholders and deeply feel the fierce urgency of now and we must also ensure we are engendering a joyous culture at our schools in which scholars feel safe to take risks, be themselves, and offer bold and dissenting opinions. We must ensure we maintain a laser-focus on academic results for the scholars we’ve been entrusted with educating. We must focus on civic engagement and self-determination for every scholar we get to work with. This is why educators choose to work at Democracy Prep and are willing to embrace our identity as a “learning organization” even during this painful but important moment. We are not talking about either/or. We are embracing both/and. We will both become an antiracist organization and never lower the bar for our scholars. Ever.

John Lewis wrote in his last Op-ed, to be shared after his death, “You filled me with hope about the next chapter of the great American story when you used your power to make a difference in our society. Millions of people motivated simply by human compassion laid down the burdens of division. Around the country and the world, you set aside race, class, age, language and nationality to demand respect for human dignity.”

While I, like so many others right now, have experienced significant pain over the past several months, I too am filled with hope. I am a different leader today as a result of the activism I described here. And, I have a whole lot more work to do. I intend to answer Mr. Lewis’ call to action. I intend to answer the “highest calling of [my] heart and stand up for what [I] truly believe.” I am grateful that our alumni did the same.

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