Tag Archives: Black History

Celebrating Black History Month: Team Reflections (Part Three)

Photo courtesy of Rodnae Productions for Pexels

Throughout the month of February, Bellwether will highlight team members’ reflections on the impact of Black History Month, how education shapes one’s perspective on it, and how the contributions of Black Americans impact our everyday work. 

We asked Bellwarians to answer the following questions and featured responses in a three-part series on Ahead of the Heard. Below is part three in the series, read parts one and two here and here.

  • When you think about your own schooling and education more generally, how did you learn about Black history?
  • When you think of Black historical heroes no longer living today, who is someone you think of? Why is their legacy important to you and to the wider world?
  • What does Black History Month mean to you? 

When you think about your own schooling and education more generally, how did you learn about Black history?

Ebony Lambert, senior analyst, Policy and Evaluation
I learned little about Black history in classrooms, despite attending predominantly Black schools. But my parents made sure I learned my history at home by sharing their lived experiences. My father often talked about growing up on the farm where his parents had been sharecroppers, describing his younger self as silly and a little mischievous. My mother spoke about what it was like to attend newly integrated schools in the former capital of the Confederacy, and to be a young Black girl full to bursting with laughter and a love of soul music.

My parents’ stories highlighted the embodied nature of the history we discussed abstractly in school. Learning about their lives was a powerful reminder that Black history is much more than the few extraordinary people it’s often reduced to, and more than stories of subjugation. Black history is expansive. It captures the resilience, creativity, and full humanity of everyday people making a way out of no way.

Valentina Payne, chief of staff to Andrew Rotherham
When I reflect on what I learned of Black history while I was in school, what stands out most is how much I didn’t learn. I learned about the tragedies faced by Black Americans, but I never learned about the people who sat by and allowed it to happen. I learned about Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech but I didn’t learn that more people were against him than on his side when he was still alive. I learned that Rosa Parks refused to sit at the back of the bus, but I didn’t learn that she was taking a stand — I learned that she was a tired, older woman who didn’t want to have to make the effort to move to the back. I read literature about the relationships between white and Black people, rather than reading about the Black experience outside of its proximity to whiteness. I learned almost exclusively of tragedy, rather than Black joy, creativity, and triumph. I didn’t learn from a Black educator until I was in college. There’s so much that I didn’t learn until later in life, and I still have so much left to learn.

Melissa Steel King, partner, Policy and Evaluation
When I think of how I first learned about Black history, two specific children’s book titles from my childhood in the late 1970s come to mind. One was a coloring book called “Color Me Brown,” featuring drawings and poems about 29 notable African Americans. The other was the Golden Legacy Illustrated History series — a set of 16 beautifully drawn comic books recounting great achievements by Black people in America and beyond (my brother and I particularly loved the one about Black cowboys). At the time, we just enjoyed the stories and pictures, but it turns out it was a beautiful gift our parents gave us because these books ingrained in us very early an awareness that Black history is more complex than just one or two stories in the margins of a textbook; we were confident in the knowledge that Black and brown people had contributed to world history in all sorts of creative, trailblazing, courageous, memorable, fierce, colorful, and ingenious ways.

DaWana Williamson, partner and chief operating officer
I grew up in a home where there were daily conversations about the contributions of those who came out of the African diaspora. This was everyday life for my younger siblings and me growing up in a multi-generational home that included both my parents and my maternal grandad, lovingly known as “Papa George.” To this day, my mother has a huge framed map of Africa showing where slave ships docked and captured humans, taking them from their homeland, never to return. I was immersed in the lessons and contributions of these people in my home and in my Baptist Black church.  

The only thing I remember learning in my public schooling about Black history was Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Malcolm X’s rage as perceived by the white majority, and the usual suspects of inventors and writers such as Daniel Hale Williams, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, and Thurgood Marshall, among others. Not that they are insignificant, but, truly, they represent such a small cross-section of Black history and the impact of Africans’ contribution to America and the world.  

I do remember having a “classroom” in my bedroom and teaching my friends what I called “real” Black history ​​— one of the gifts of the informal curriculum that comes from growing up as a teacher’s kid!

Thomas Gold, senior associate partner, Policy and Evaluation
Black History Month, which started to be officially recognized in 1970, didn’t play a big role in my early schooling in 1970s and 1980s New Hampshire, the last state to officially recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day as an official holiday. This lack of recognition of Black leaders in the annals of American history is just one of the reasons why many Americans have very little exposure to Black writers and thinkers. When I was in college, I read Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” — one of the most important documents of the civil rights movement. It’s a full-throated defense of the use of peaceful protests as a means to fight unjust systems and to push for systemic change. And it motivated me to study political science in graduate school and learn about social movements. 

So, when I think about Black History Month, I think about the huge contributions that Dr. King and others have made toward democracy in the U.S. His legacy couldn’t be more relevant today as we find ourselves at a political tipping point, with growing divisions along the lines of race, region, and religion, a steep decline in the belief in democracy, and only one year after a mob attempted an insurrection of the U.S. Capitol. According to a March 2021 Pew poll, only 45% percent of Americans are satisfied with the way democracy runs in the country. There’s a deep lack of trust in democratic institutions — Congress, the courts, and the press — and as we have been seeing over the past year, a belief that the election system is somehow “rigged.” 

But there’s hope. The summer 2020 protests demanding justice for the killings of George Floyd and other Black men and women underscore the centrality of Dr. King’s legacy of nonviolent protest in the democratic system. It’s possible that if and when we reach the other side of this period of political polarization, our democratic institutions could emerge stronger, more equitable, and more resilient. 

When you think of Black historical heroes no longer living today, who is someone you think of? Why is their legacy important to you and to the wider world?

Cathy Thomas, executive assistant
Congressman John Lewis is someone I consider to be a Black historical hero. I have a great deal of respect and admiration for him, and when he died, I knew our country lost a truly great man. Well known as a leader of the civil rights movement, he was also an advocate for the women’s movement, immigrants’ rights, and he was an early defender of LGBTQ rights. As a young man working in the struggle for civil rights, he was arrested and beaten, yet he was not deterred by the brutal violence he and other protesters faced. Through it all, he never became a bitter man but maintained a philosophy of nonviolence, forgiveness, and reconciliation. His legacy of getting into “good trouble” to effect change for our country is an inspiration to so many.

Catch up on parts one and two in Ahead of the Heard’s Black History Month series here and here. And join the conversation @bellwethered.

Celebrating Black History Month: Team Reflections (Part Two)

Photo courtesy of Rodnae Productions for Pexels

Throughout the month of February, Bellwether will highlight team members’ reflections on the impact of Black History Month, how education shapes one’s perspective on it, and how the contributions of Black Americans impact our everyday work. 

We asked Bellwarians to answer the following questions and will feature responses in a three-part series on Ahead of the Heard. Below is part two in the series, stay tuned for part three later on in Black History Month.

  • When you think about your own schooling and education more generally, how did you learn about Black history?
  • When you think of Black historical heroes no longer living today, who is someone you think of? Why is their legacy important to you and to the wider world?
  • What does Black History Month mean to you? 

When you think about your own schooling and education more generally, how did you learn about Black history?

Leonard D.T. Newby, senior analyst, Policy and Evaluation
I was fortunate enough to attend schools that celebrated Black History Month (BHM) throughout my K-12 matriculation. I anticipated learning about the contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ida B. Wells, and Malcolm X every February. However, we rarely heard about the impact of their works in the context of American history. It wasn’t until I attended a Historically Black College and University that I realized that my learnings during that time were grossly constrained. From the limited number of figures presented to the whitewashing of their stories, BHM was, and remains, more performative than productive in K-12 schools. The impact that Black Americans have on this nation is deserving of more than one month and should be woven into the threads of American history 365 days a year.

Jennifer O’Neal Schiess, partner, Policy and Evaluation
I didn’t really learn about Black history, certainly not in any comprehensive kind of way. I grew up mostly in Georgia where our public school social studies curriculum taught us that the Civil War was primarily fought over states’ rights. The part of the sentence that was missing was “states’ rights…to allow people to own slaves.” I was in college before I heard a teacher say that out loud. Sure, I learned about a handful of individuals in history classes — Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, George Washington Carver, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Martin Luther King Jr. Basically, Black history for me in school was a series of biographies of select laudable individuals, but not a true tracing of events and cultural movements over time. It’s a profound gap that I’m still working to fill. And that wasn’t in the 1950s. I don’t know how much that curriculum has changed, honestly, and it’s part of what scares me about current conversations around what parts of our history should or shouldn’t be taught. Black History Month programming cannot be the only place where we can build understanding of the full history of our country, good, bad, and tragic.

Daniela Torre Gibney, senior associate partner, Policy and Evaluation
In school, I didn’t learn deeply about Black history until I got to college — I don’t recall learning anything beyond the typical narrative focused on a few key figures of the civil rights era. However, at home, my parents frequently talked with me and my siblings about race-, class-, and gender-based injustice and inequality. As immigrants from Argentina, they were not experts in Black history in the U.S., but they did recognize and relate to the systemic and everyday racism experienced by Black Americans. These conversations were the bedrock for my learning about Black history, as well as the history of other marginalized populations in the U.S. and beyond. They also taught me from a young age that I needed to look beyond formal schooling to learn about the world around me. 

When you think of Black historical heroes no longer living today, who is someone you think of? Why is their legacy important to you and to the wider world?

Moire Carmody, director of operations
I love to read, so the Black historical hero I think of first is the novelist Toni Morrison. In high school, I read her first five novels and it opened my eyes to life outside of the mostly white Vermont town I grew up in. It’s important to me to read books by female authors, about the experiences of females. Her books were wonderfully written and showed me diverse characters that were absent in my world. That exposure to diversity inspired me to explore working for mission-based nonprofit organizations after college. As the first Black woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (in 1993), Toni Morrison continues to inspire writers and readers everywhere.

Dwan Dube, executive assistant
Maya Angelou. She used her words as weapons and that skill has to be taught more to our kids. “Still I Rise” is so inspiring to my daughter and it gives her hope that there is a freedom you can find from a traumatic past. 

Stay tuned for parts two and three in this series as Black History Month continues.

Celebrating Black History Month: Team Reflections (Part One)

Photo courtesy of Rodnae Productions for Pexels

Throughout the month of February, Bellwether will highlight team members’ reflections on the impact of Black History Month, how education shapes one’s perspective on it, and how the contributions of Black Americans impact our everyday work. 

We asked Bellwarians to answer the following questions and will feature responses in a three-part series on Ahead of the Heard. Stay tuned for parts two and three later on during Black History Month.

  • When you think about your own schooling and education more generally, how did you learn about Black history?
  • When you think of Black historical heroes no longer living today, who is someone you think of? Why is their legacy important to you and to the wider world?
  • What does Black History Month mean to you? 

When you think of Black historical heroes no longer living today, who is someone you think of? Why is their legacy important to you and to the wider world?

Lynne Graziano, senior analyst, Policy and Evaluation
Arthur Ashe was one of my heroes. He broke color barriers in tennis, beat Jimmy Connors at Wimbledon, fought against apartheid, and helped dismantle the stigma surrounding AIDS at its deadliest peak.

Andrew Rotherham, co-founder and partner
When Zora Neale Hurston died in 1960 at 69 she was basically broke, living in a public home, having worked most recently as a substitute teacher and a maid. Thirteen years later, Alice Walker found Hurston’s grave and marked it. Walker subsequently published an article that helped return Hurston from literary obscurity. That’s to all our benefit. Hurston herself, however, didn’t need rescuing. She was an iconoclast and unafraid to do things her way throughout her life.

Her last book, “Barracoon,” a nonfiction account of a man on the last ship to make the Middle Passage, was published in 2018 — more than 70 years since she stopped working on it and a half century after her death. Why? Because she refused to compromise aspects of it believing in an unflinching accounting of history that consequently alienated various patrons. Then, and now, resistance to her writing is tied up in the idea that her use of dialects was a problem in various ways. Yes, for some, and, so is her use, or more precisely refusal to misuse, history. The result? A body of fiction and nonfiction work fitting no single narrative. Could she be difficult? Probably, as most iconoclasts are. She fell out with everyone from Langston Hughes to the editor of The Pittsburgh Courier who had hired her to cover a landmark trial — that later became a bestselling book for someone else.

It’s wonderful that her books and stories are in wider circulation now as part of the American canon. In particular, “Their Eyes Were Watching God” is widely read and assigned. But there is so much more to her work. Much of it is hard to read, not because of the dialect but the brutal honesty. Her method allowed no other way.

That’s real and vital. Especially at a time when conformist pressure is all around in politics but also in literature, art, and culture, all while an arms race is on to redefine American history to fit the political stories of culture warriors on the right and left. Hurston’s perhaps more relevant than ever to American life and to anyone with, as she put it, “that oldest human longing — self revelation.”

When you think about your own schooling and education more generally, how did you learn about Black history?

Brian Robinson, senior analyst, Policy and Evaluation
I didn’t learn about Black history in school. Sure, I learned about Martin Luther King Jr. and his “I Have a Dream” speech and Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus. But I didn’t learn about the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). I didn’t learn about Juneteenth. I didn’t learn about Emmett Till. I didn’t learn about Henrietta Lacks. I didn’t learn about the many contributions Black Americans made in this country, and really in the world. I didn’t learn about Black history until I got much older and began reading on my own, watching documentaries, and visiting museums. It’s important for all schools to do a better job of teaching the entirety of Black history (aka American History!) — the good, bad, and everything in between — earlier and more often than just during Black History Month, and in ways that invite critical discussions and reflections.

What does Black History Month mean to you?

Indira Dammu, senior analyst, Policy and Evaluation
For much of America’s history, immigration from Asian countries was severely restricted or banned for racist reasons. However, the civil rights movement, led by Black activists and advocates, helped end the race-based immigration quota system, which allowed more Asians to immigrate here and live out our pursuit of the promise of America. So, to me, Black history is very much connected to Asian-American history and our community owes a lot to the Black leaders who pursued liberation for all.

Stay tuned for parts two and three in this series as Black History Month continues.

The Black Teacher Pipeline Is Clogged by Decades of Discrimination. Here’s How to Fix It.

This post is part of a week-long series about educator and leader pipelines. Read the rest of the series here.

For too long, schools have subliminally communicated an insidious message to black students: careers in education are not for you. As student diversity grows, only 20 percent of teachers nationally are of color, and numbers of black educators are swiftly declining in large urban school districts. When students of color graduate from college, less than 20% of them hold degrees in education. Honestly, I’m not surprised: Why would an educated, successful black person choose to enter a profession that has demonstrated systematic racism toward them for more than sixty years?

It hasn’t always been this way. Before the landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, black teachers taught black students in black schools. There were tens of thousands of black teachers and principals, particularly across the South. But when schools were integrated, a large portion of black educators lost their jobs (an issue which made it to the Supreme Court with Brooks v. Moberly in 1959). As schools became less segregated for children, the teaching profession became more so. This was no accident: school districts systematically excluded black teachers, firing them en masse after integration, setting them up for failure in newly-integrated schools, and, over time, hiring them at slower rates than their white peers.

While this history is little-known, it’s not shocking. The same racism that drove slavery and Jim Crow dictated that it would be impossible for black teachers to preside over classrooms that included white students. The thought of a black adult facilitating any child’s learning was, well, unthinkable.

Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

Having a teacher of color as a classroom leader matters for all kids. It’s important that the education workforce looks like our nation’s student body, and recent research shows having a same-race teacher improves academic outcomes for black students. Moreover, all students report feeling more academically motivated, more supported, and more cared for by their teachers of color than by their white teachers.

Attracting black teachers is no simple task. Here are three ways states and districts might begin turning the tide against decades of discrimination and bias:

1. Codify equitable and inclusive hiring practices

Early in my own teaching career, I taught in a small, rural school district. At a meeting for new teachers, I asked the superintendent if she might connect me with other teachers of color in the district, as I had noticed that I was the only one at my school. She laughed uncomfortably, explaining “that people like that” didn’t apply for jobs in the district. Her response haunted me: she didn’t seem concerned by the dearth of diverse educators, and if there were a problem, it certainly wasn’t the district’s fault. Though there were a significant number of students of color in the schools she led, there was no ownership of the fact that teachers of color clearly found the district undesirable, and there was no urgency or sense of responsibility to change that situation.

The good news is that when districts make efforts to reduce discrimination and bias in their hiring practices, it works. A teacher desegregation court order enforced in Louisiana in 2010 not only reduced the “representation gap” between black students and black teachers, but also improved academic outcomes for black students.

It doesn’t have to take a court order to see results like these. Instead of lamenting the fact that black teachers don’t apply in their districts, or simply wishing that their teaching ranks were more diverse, districts could codify equitable and inclusive hiring practices that emphasize a bias toward teacher diversity. When possible, districts should commit to filling open teaching positions with qualified teachers of color until the racial composition of teachers mirrors the racial composition of students.

2. Remove the barriers to teaching that disproportionately affect people of color

For equitable and inclusive hiring practices to work, of course, districts need to have diverse teaching applicants. The problem is that barriers to entering the teaching profession disproportionately affect people of color. College is becoming increasingly expensive, and that burden rests more heavily on the shoulders of black and brown students than on their white peers. Further compounding the problem, teacher licensure exams are unfairly biased against potential teachers of color.

States might address this problem in a couple of ways — first, by offering full tuition reimbursement or student loan repayment for teachers of color who commit to teaching long-term. States might also consider approving more non-traditional routes to certification, like streamlining the pathway to teaching for paraeducators and other school-level, non-certified staff.

Suburban and rural districts, which are less likely to employ teachers of color and more likely to face overall teaching shortages, might consider more drastic measures, like teacher residencies to prepare diverse candidates, pay advances for recent college graduates, commuter subsidies, and leadership roles that recognize and leverage a teacher of color’s expertise.

3, Craft a new narrative around teaching for students of color

I don’t recall having a single same-race teacher before I went to college, and until then, I never considered the teaching profession as a potential career option. My childhood experiences told me that teachers aren’t black. Presumably, this is the case for many students of color.

Commonly mentioned strategies to ameliorate that problem are programs like Educators Rising, which seek to increase the number of “home-grown” teachers by inspiring and developing a passion for teaching at a young age. But for this effort to most effectively engage students of color, teachers of color must be working in schools and in these programs.

There are a myriad of reasons that students of color don’t go on to be teachers. The fact that they never had a teacher of color simply should not be one.

States and districts have an opportunity to craft a new narrative for the students of color they serve: that teaching is a profession not only open to them, but ideal for them. Education professions offer unparalleled opportunities to positively impact children, and for teachers of color, those opportunities are even more robust. By pairing an emphasis on community service and potential impact with fair hiring practices and financial incentives, states and districts might be able to turn the tide on decades of exclusionary practices toward teachers of color.

The pipeline for black teachers is dangerously narrow, clogged with decades of discrimination, bias, and apathy. That pipeline can and must be fixed, though, or states and districts risk negating their progress toward closing achievement gaps and improving learning and life outcomes for all students. Failing to attract teachers of color fails all children.