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Battling inequities and finding a home: A Black woman educator’s journey

If you are reading this it’s because you have stumbled upon this article on Boardhawk’s website and/or are interested in knowing more about district-run public vs. public charter schools. 

I think it is important to name that although I have experience in both, some of my experiences are from another region in our country. I was born and raised in the inner city of St. Louis, Mo. I love my hometown, but living there comes with repercussions. What repercussions, you might ask? Well it may be the correct time to mention I am a woman, a Black woman at that.

See it’s hard for everyone in this world, but for Black and brown people, it’s even harder. 

My experience in St. Louis didn’t start as an adult. My first interaction with racism happened in elementary school, when a teacher continued to nitpick at everything I did until my “behaviors” were flagged. Oh if I kept all of the orange slips I received on the daily, and the descriptions that were attached you would be horrified. Things like, “Jasmine got out of her seat to help a friend,” and  “Jasmine was being too loud during community time,” just really outrageous things that I know had a lot to do with my race. 

This experience and so many more are the reason I eventually got into education. It took me going to college at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, receiving my first “F” in my educational career, learning how to study, manage time and have a social life to know something had to be done in our education system. 

I worked tirelessly to make sure I graduated with my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, Joined Teach for America and started off on my journey as a teacher in St. Louis.  

I have taught in charter public schools, district-run public schools, and private schools, whether it be during the school year or for summer school. The differences are marginal if I am being honest, and the hot debates that go around about charter vs. public, I truly keep out of my focus. 

To me, the focus should be on students regardless of what type of school they attend. That is what I did in my early years of education. I had an awesome coach in Teach for America and it should be mentioned that she is also Black, which is rare. My experience was interesting because of that.

Enduring the inequities

Did I absolutely agree with all of the systems and structures of the schools I worked in? Absolutely not. I actually was 90% against them. However, I knew the Black and brown students I served needed my representation there. (Again, it’s about them, not me, nor the organization I was affiliated with).

So, I endured. I endured the inequities in pay, endured the constant communication of how I spoke being unprofessional because it was not how white dominant culture spoke. I endured, pushing back on having my students sit a certain way or respond a certain way, because it was not “by the book.”

I endured being compared to my white colleagues because I got to my results differently than them. I endured the stresses of feeling less than because I was not doing things the white dominant way. 

I endured, because my students needed me to. They needed me to be myself, my full authentic self, when my classroom doors were closed. They needed me to tell them, “Hey when we close our door, y’all relax, sit how you want to sit and let’s get to work.”

They needed me to have a relationship with their parents and guardians, to understand their culture and how it’s different from white culture. They needed me there to push back when a kid got in “trouble” for something ridiculous. They needed me to be that safe place, and that I was. 

I made multiple attempts at trying to make the best decision for kids that look like me, and as you can imagine that did not last long. My pushback to do what’s right for kids was not accepted so I had to move on. Those experiences in St. Louis brought me to where I am now — Denver, Colorado.

Finding a place where I can be myself

Moving to Denver was a hard decision for my family. However, living in Missouri, where the disparities in pay and opportunities for Black and brown people are outrageous, made it necessary. Generational poverty is real there, and we (my husband and I) want more for our children. 

Coming to Denver in January 2020 was, I’m pretty sure, the best decision of my life, other than the day I married the love of my life. Moving here I felt free, accepted by people, and if not accepted still respected, which is huge! I started off at a small charter school in Aurora, Colorado where I had a good experience, but something was still missing. 

Around this same time my husband was working for an organization, and he would come home daily raving about how he could be himself as a Black man and no one would look at him with the look of confusion. He talked about how this organization encouraged authenticity and discussions around race. 

My ears perked up at that one. An organization that openly talks about race? Get out of here! Then, the pandemic happened and we both were at home all day, and I heard first-hand what he was describing. Or, I should say, I overheard what he had described to me. I heard real authentic conversations about things teachers may have done in the past that they regret, him (my husband) giving authentic feedback to say okay, that happened now you know better, do better. 

They talked about how the white savior complex will not work within this organization, and that you will work for all kids, not just to make yourself feel better because of the historical nature of being white in this country. I had to have a slice of how it felt to work and be a part of an organization that has made and continues to make the correct changes to be an unapologetically anti-racist organization. 

That organization is STRIVE Prep, a network of 10 schools across Denver, including the K-5 school I teach at and a high school my husband is principal of.

STRIVE Prep’s inclusive culture

On my campus I am the first Black administrator in the building. Some may hear that and turn up their nose, but unfortunately this is a reality in education in general not just here in this organization. I have been able to say I am the first black teacher, volunteer, staff member in so many different arenas. 

However, let’s get back to STRIVE Prep. STRIVE Prep is the first place I truly feel like I am being myself. From the way I dress, from the way I talk, from the way I interact with kids, it’s authentic. I don’t have to stray away from known phrases or colloquialisms in the Black and brown communities because it makes white people feel uncomfortable. 

In fact, that uncomfortable feeling is encouraged! We have sessions with all staff, where white staff may feel uncomfortable and that’s okay, because Black and brown staff and students have been uncomfortable our entire lives outside of our own communities. I get the sense that STRIVE Prep realizes that we serve predominantly brown and Black students, thus we have to make sure everyone who steps in front of them is here for them in a real and authentic way, and if that means making white staff uncomfortable for a session to see change, that’s what has to happen. 

See, an organization that allows me to wear a shirt that says “blacknificant” on it and doesn’t yell ‘unprofessional!’ is where I want to be. An organization that allows me to call out biases or racist statements for the betterment of students, is where I want to be. An organization that acknowledges its past, saw the impact, and made a hard pivot to correct it, is where I want to be. 

An organization that allows you to protest as part of the Black Lives Matter movement as a staff member, is where I want to be. An organization that supports students protesting for what they believe in and standing up for change, is where I want to be. This is the STRIVE Prep I know, and the STRIVE Prep that I see on a daily basis. 

This work that we are doing is continuous work. Here is how it translates. Everything is less extreme. Hear me out. In my experience prior to STRIVE Prep, when a white staff member noticed a kid sleeping in class, or had a kid who was challenging, that white staff member automatically assumed the kid’s home life was the problem. This would be the teacher who has never talked to the parent, has not done the work to get to know one’s culture, and made continuous assumptions based on their own biases. 

At STRIVE Prep that is no longer the case. At STRIVE Prep we make sure every staff member starts internally and asks the question, “What are you doing that could be creating this behavior or situation?” Deflection is not good enough. 

We have educators ask themselves, “can I be more engaging? Can I reach out to the parents more to understand their children (as they are the experts)? Do I have a relationship with the student?” We sift through everything and look internally first, before moving forward with anything else. It forces assumptions not to be made, it forces continued self reflection in this work of diversity, equity and inclusion.

Getting past arguments about public-private-charter

This is part of my story and my reality. It may not have given you exactly what you were looking for. It may not have given you a great argument about charter vs. public or even private, but that is the point. 

In reality most schools are doing the best they can with the resources they have and the knowledge they have. With my experience in all three types of school, they aren’t really that different. The difference I look at is how organizations respond to change. 

Change is happening everyday in this world of education. Right now, the big change in education is schools supporting families regardless of their race or ethnicity. Doing what families need to break down barriers and educational gaps that our country has held up for so long. 

Regardless of the narrative around charter schools, I can say that STRIVE Prep is making a genuine change for its students and staff of color, to be a place where everyone is their authentic self and can be celebrated because of that. STRIVE Prep is just one option of many, and I truly believe everyone should have a choice at where they go to school. 

So here is my final pitch. If you are a parent like myself and you want your kids to be able to grow up in a diverse environment, where they learn not only about their culture but other cultures as well; where asking questions and exploring is celebrated; where it is safe and we celebrate that LGBTQ, and Black and brown lives matter; STRIVE Prep is that organization. 

As a Black woman who works for the organization, I can say that we may not get everything right, there will be bumps in the road, there will be backlash. But I will cope with all of that, and will continue to be proud to say we accept everyone for who they are, and if someone isn’t on board with that, it may not be the best fit for them and that’s OK.