Panel of Black Excellence: Educators of Color Talk About the Future of Education for Black & Latinx Scholars

Black History Month is a time to honor Black culture, Black excellence, and Black resilience. Our scholars, teachers, and staff celebrated in many ways, such as creating visual art and music inspired by Black artists, reading works written by Black authors, and discussing the Black experience. 

On February 26th, Democracy Prep Harlem High School decided to create a virtual space for a productive conversation about education. “Educators of Color Panel: The Future of Education for Black and Latinx Scholars” was an event hosted by scholars for scholars to learn from Black educators of different backgrounds, talk about the challenges we currently face, ways in which our scholars can combat these issues, and what it means to be a successful Black leader.

Our impressive panel lineup included:
• Chris Stewart (Chief Executive Officer of Brightbeam; member of the 8 Black Hands podcast)
• Sharif El-Mekki (Chief Executive Officer of The Center for Black Educator Development; member of the 8 Black Hands podcast)
• Raymond Ankrum (Superintendent of Riverhead Charter School; member of the 8 Black Hands podcast)
• Charles Cole (Founder & Executive Director of Energy Convertors; member of the 8 Black Hands podcast)
• Paula White (Executive Director of Educators for Excellence – New York)
• Naomi Shelton (Chief Executive Officer of National Charter Collaborative)
• Natasha Trivers (Chief Executive Officer of Democracy Prep Public Schools)
• Adam Johnson (Executive Director of Democracy Prep at the Agassi Campus)

And we can’t forget our wonderful moderators either! Seniors Shannon Brooks, who will be attending the University of Pennsylvania, and Aaron Davis, who will be attending Drexel University, both did a phenomenal job presenting and facilitating a fruitful discussion among our speakers and scholars. 

Here are some highlights from this illuminating conversation:

Question #1: What are some myths and misconceptions about Black History Month and Black & Brown students you’d like to dispel for my peers?

Chris Stewart, CEO of Brightbeam and member of the 8 Black Hands, expressed: 

“Black history should not live within a month and definitely not the shortest month of the year. Every day, we should think about Black history. When you think about Critical Race Theory, part of that theory is that racism is endemic in all of the systems that we live in. If we think about education as a system, and we think about all of our systems, enslaving people means constantly making them forget the best of themselves, making them forget their most powerful stories, their most powerful connections to achievement, and their most powerful inventions. All of our Black power lives in our history, our legacy, and our heritage. If you hide Black history, you create generation after generation of people who aren’t tethered to anything, they’re not tethered to their power. The things that we forget in history can do us harm. If we don’t remember, the world will tell us that we’re deficient, that we don’t measure up, and make us feel not right in our own skin. You go in rooms sometimes and you don’t feel like you belong. It’s different when every time you open your mouth, you let your ancestors speak, because now you have a different sense of power and confidence about where you belong and how you belong in the world.”

Question #2: As prominent education leaders, what do you think are some of the challenges facing BIPOC students today and what is the answer? What should strong educational institutions for BIPOC students do?

Charles Cole, Founder & Executive Director of Energy Convertors; member of the 8 Black Hands, responded: 

“I think there are really low expectations for kids. Even before educators are trying to do their job, there are a lot of folks who are already vacant. I grew up in extreme poverty, and I stand in front of you as a doctor. It’s possible. It’s hard, but it’s possible. 

Here’s my advice. As students, the first piece is push systems to be better. If a system is supposed to deliver education, I need that to happen. 

The second thing is you have to seek out quality education so you can take hold of your academic experience. Your school is not the only place to grab knowledge from; you should be talking to your elders, different generations, and the community organizations that serve you. Also, develop a strong self identity. Start learning who you are, and continue to find your ever-changing voice, so when things hit the fan, you have a goal in mind that’s going to keep you on track. 

The last piece of advice is proximity to different types of success. Look at Black and Brown people that are doing things that you might not have considered before. Ask these folks what they did, what they learned, and what mistakes they made. These are four things that give students agency over their own life and their own academic experience.”

Question #3: As prominent leaders in education, what do you think are some of the challenges facing BIPOC students today, and what is the answer? What should strong educational institutions for BIPOC students do?

Sharif El-Mekki, CEO of The Center for Black Educator Development and member of the 8 Black Hands, answered: 

“Students should look at themselves as leaders. Don’t think that you have to wait [to be a leader] until you get grey hair and a certain set of experiences. You can get leadership capabilities, skills and experiences now. A lot of the experiences as an older leader are similar to the experiences of our students as they navigate school and society. 

As a Black leader, the community is a source of power. An example of racism we might experience and what a lot of students experience is the idea of people trying to put you in a box, people trying to label you, people trying to define you. We define ourselves, speak for ourselves, and name ourselves, so make sure we protect that right and protect our sources of power. 

Lastly, I want to bring attention to the idea of “it’s not us, it’s them” in so many institutions that Black people have to navigate. Many organizations say that racism is perpetuated by “other groups,” but the problem is right here in front of them, and we need to push them to address racism and not just blame it on the world outside of whatever ecosystem they’re working in.”

Question #4: Do you see the intersectionality of race with gender, race with class or generally race with another sector of identity as necessary components to fully understand equity issues today, or must there be an underlying factor to consider first before diving deep into equity issues?

Paula White, Executive Director of Educators for Excellence – New York, shared: 

“The underlying factor to consider first is a worldview. What is the overarching world view that you are bringing to anything that’s happening? That worldview would be around: who is at the table, who is not at the table, and why are they not there? Just because I am not there does not mean that there is an equity problem, but we always need to be thinking of what is happening at a macro level and why it is happening. 

When I think about intersectionality, I think about it as street intersections. There are different parts of intersectionality and it’s really important to know that there may be different identities being impacted. Even within the prism of race, as a first-gen immigrant, my experience and how I experience race may be different than somebody else. I think that intersectionality matters, but it really should start off with an overarching notion of ‘who is not at the table and why are they not there.’ If we have a baseline interrogation of that question, then we will want people to be included, if they in fact want to be included. We want to make sure that we’re having those opportunities for people to be in those spaces and that we’re not making those decisions for them or deciding what it is that they want because of who they are.” 

Question #5: With powerful platforms such as the 8 Black Hands podcast, my peers would love to know a lot of the operational work that goes behind content creation and its success. What are the ways you’d encourage my peers to create a prominent presence or content in our community now?

Raymond Ankrum, Superintendent of Riverhead Charter School and member of the 8 Black Hands, responded: 

“We all got together and talked about our voices as Black men and that we aren’t necessarily centered in the work. A lot of the thoughts behind what we present and how we project is to give voices to folks that aren’t necessarily voiceless, but aren’t in a position to be as loud as they would like to be. So we take things that may be happening with charter school leaders or with any kind of leader that is doing good work for our community. The things that they can’t say, we can and we do that for folks. 

In terms of your voice, I would love to see more student podcasts. I would listen to them intently because your voices are the voices that we need to hear the most. Adults can always find rooms to talk about things that need to be talked about, but rarely do we hear about the kids and their experiences. For example, during this COVID-19 learning period, I have scholars at my school, and I check in with them all the time because I don’t want to hear the teacher’s perspective in terms of how these kids feel. I want to hear from the kids about how they feel because the emotions that they’re experiencing are completely different from people speaking for them. I do believe that parents are the experts of their kids, but I think that students have a level of expert that needs to be tapped into and it’s important that we hear your voices.”

Question #6: How do you go about creating space for equity and validation in your everyday work with scholars and/or employees?

Natasha Trivers, Chief Executive Officer of Democracy Prep Public Schools, answered: 

“What I’m most proud of in creating space for equity, validation, and co-creation is doing more to listen to students and families. I think we can still get into a bad habit of the ‘old-heads’ or adults thinking ‘we know what to do.’ This can lead to us making decisions without listening to our most important ‘clients’ so-to speak, which are our students and our families. 

We’re doing good work with focus groups and town halls that are centering the voices of students and families, and we need to do more of that. I’m really excited for the initiatives we’ve already set to paper and publicized. 

One piece that we’re thinking about is different pathways after high school. While we’ll certainly continue to push for results, offer strong matches to colleges, and support students as they persist through college, we also know that some students choose a different path. Some students choose to be entrepreneurs or go to coding camps, so we also want to expand those pathways. Ultimately, what I’m proud of and what I think we need to build on is centering the voices of our students and families as we continue to push forward to make sure that we’re serving them.”

Question #7: Some scholars, specifically thinking about our seniors, may be nervous to be in the front lines of marches or even have their names associated with work that may be deemed as “negative” to future employers. What is your advice to my peers who may have that fear?

Naomi Shelton, Chief Executive Officer of National Charter Collaborative, expressed: 

“It’s important to know why you are protesting something or on the front lines. That is more important than just doing it for the sake of doing it, and that is usually when people get caught up and not able to face the consequences. 

If you listen to some of the athlete activists that have been very vocal over the last few years, they have been able to give very specific examples as to why they are doing the work that they’re doing. You should be able to articulate that as well. Over the summer, when I had to take a black marker and write the phone number to be able to bail out of jail if I got arrested, I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to take a picture of this and send it to my mother and say that if anything happens to me, you’ll know where I am and who I called and what your process needs to be.’ 

However, when people were going out to Black Lives Matter Plaza for the sake of photo ops and whatnot, that is very different. You want to be very deliberate about not only the spaces that you go to, but how you show up in certain spaces. There is a role in the spectrum of advocate, activist, and agitator. Stay in the space of advocate and activist that agitates. If you’re going into a space simply to be an agitator, or simply to cause ruckus with no real reason, that means that you’re going to face consequences that you most likely would not want to.“

Question #8: Based on today’s educational and political climate, what do you foresee the future of education looking like in 5 years, and what do you hope to see in 10 years?

Adam Johnson, Executive Director of Democracy Prep at the Agassi Campus, shared: 

“There are two specific things that I want to see happen in schools and that I’m working towards everyday at our campus. Number one is that education is taking into account the social-emotional health of our students. People are going through so much, and we have to find a way to reach each individual. The social-emotional factor has to be brought in for the relationships we’re building on campus, whether it’s with your teacher, your counselor, your principal, or whoever that adult may be. This will ensure that every child is connected to somebody who can help them move into a space of knowing who they are, being comfortable with who they are, and knowing that they’re cared about. 

Number two is critical thinking and how we’re building that inside of schools. Every child has been in front of a computer for some part of the year, and we’ve had to help teachers rethink the kinds of questions they’re asking kids. We want to make sure that teachers aren’t asking questions that students can just google, but questions that require them to think and articulate what they know and how they know it. Critical thinking allows for so many more people to question the world around them and be activists. If you can think critically, ask questions, come up with solutions, and push people, you are actually much more valuable to your own community. Ultimately, the social emotional aspect where we are making sure that every student feels valued and pushing people to think freely and critically about the world in which they live has to be the way that we are moving education.”

This is just a peek at what our panelists shared about their experiences as Black leaders and what we can all do as a collective to move education toward a brighter and more equitable future for Black and Latinx scholars. While there is much work to be done and different ways to get that work done, one thing remains resoundingly clear: Black excellence must be celebrated every single day of the year.

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