Tired of the Polarization? Education Leaders of Color Lead a Third Way
by Brittany Packnett
I’ve long been frustrated with just how much time we spend arguing in education. We’ve become stubborn in our beliefs about the path forward, refusing to see anything positive about the other “side,” whether it be their belief in democratic principles and community control, or their push to be innovative and creative in building solutions that work. In our privilege, we use dense academic language and political jargon that our communities find inaccessible. We create conversations that continually push out the voices of the most affected: students, families, and educators who come from our neighborhoods.
That’s where EdLoC comes in.
Audre Lorde is one of my favorite thinkers. A powerful, unapologetic black woman, she inspires me as she does many. Among her many quotable passages, this one sticks out the most in this moment:
“If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.”
Education Leaders of Color (EdLoC) is our self-definition and our self-determination in action. As leaders in education who come from the communities we serve, we have assembled to ensure no one else’s fantasies determine our outcomes.
At EdLoC, we lead inclusive efforts to improve the educational experiences of children of color. We are uniquely positioned to bridge the divides and build effective solutions to guarantee educational equity for students.
I recently sat down with Layla, CEO, and Sharhonda, Deputy Director, of EdLoC, to listen to their own life stories and hear what drives them to do this work. It is clear that for them, like for me, these endeavors are not just professional but intensely personal.
Brittany: Why did you find a need for EdLoC?
Layla: I’m proof of how education can change a child’s trajectory. I’m a daughter of immigrants who grew up poor and was raised by a single, disabled mother in East Los Angeles. The odds were stacked against me: almost half of the kids in my neighborhood dropped out of high school. That’s why I’ve worked as a teacher, on a school board, and with districts and charter schools to give kids like me a fighting chance out of poverty through education. This work is deeply personal which is why I think we need to put all solutions on the table so long as kids and families are benefitting. You know, like I do, that Black and Latino kids are not getting the kind of education that will put them on the path to college to change their chances in life.
All of us at Education Leaders of Color believe education systems must change. We are practitioners with personal experiences with the communities we serve so we understand that the challenges our students and families face are complex and have compounded for decades. That’s why it takes all of us to find innovative and practical solutions to lift kids and families out of poverty. But the polarization in the field of education drowns out any reasonable debate. Rather than pursuing any and all solutions, I worry that we draw hard lines in the sand and squash any innovation.
Sharhonda: As a teacher, organizer and nonprofit leader, I’ve met so many talented and passionate people working towards the same thing: an opportunity for children and families to have the skills and resources to determine their own destinies. Though we have one north star, our paths to get there created rifts among communities. You hear a lot of “you’re with us or against us.” That’s why EdLoC matters — we’re looking for a Third Way that invites people across sectors to roll up their sleeves to find solutions that not only improve children’s educational experiences, but also build thriving communities.
Brittany: How is EdLoC different from existing organizations that seek to improve education?
Layla: Many of us have worked in those organizations, and there is still a need and urgency to put pressure on the system. We have to admit that our work needs to be more inclusive of our communities. Too often, decisions that affect our communities are made by a few. I think EdLoC is different in at least two ways. First, EdLoC amplifies the voices of people of color. We want communities to have a seat at the table when making decisions about how to improve the education of our kids. Second, we want all options on the table as long as they show results. And, if they don’t, we want parents and communities to have options when the system, be it school board, charter, mayoral or state control, fails to provide our kids with the very best education.
In California, where I live, some parents may be able to send their kids to district-run magnet schools or innovative schools or some may have charter school options or parochial schools or they may choose to demand changes in their schools through the “Parent Trigger.” But even those options are not enough, so I certainly don’t think we should start taking away the few options that parents do have.
Sharhonda: I would add that our collective experiences on the ground working in schools and communities also ground us in practical solutions not ideology. Finally, while most EdLoC members work in education, we too are committed to addressing poverty and supporting allies fighting for the other resources, supports and policies our children and families also need.
Brittany: Why do you think people of color have a unique role to play?
Sharhonda: I think that people who share the backgrounds and experiences of the communities we serve are uniquely positioned to be champions for our kids and to help bridge divides. I grew up in Watts and attended a high school that had a 60 percent graduation rate. I know what it’s like to know the best option in your community isn’t setting you up for success. Through my work, I’ve also seen what’s possible in communities like the one in which I grew up. I believe that my experiences as a public school student, educator and advocate give me both perspective and empathy that can be critical in ensuring communities feel respected and part of conversations about the future of their public schools and the long-term sustainability of reform.
Layla: Many of us grew up and live in the communities at the center of efforts to improve education. So this work is at our core and keeps us grounded. That doesn’t mean only people of color can do this work. But our experiences give us insights into the needs of our students, their social and emotional needs, and the trauma they may be bringing to school. Ultimately, the end game is not just better test scores, higher graduation rates or even increased college enrollment. The end game is to end generational poverty through better educational experiences for our kids. These experiences will give kids many more options in life.
Brittany: Can you share examples of innovative solutions that we may be squashing?
Sharhonda: We’re here to put people before the process.
Unfortunately, we seem to have found ourselves in these deeply entrenched and opposing camps where people are more married to governance structures and ideology than to what’s best for children. We see time and time again examples of where people have opposed a school because it was a charter school with little regard for whether or not that school was serving the needs of its children. Charter networks like Los Angeles-based network Camino Nuevo provide emotional support and mental health services for students and their families. Although Camino Nuevo is able to provide those services to a larger portion of its student population than many of the district schools are, the network still encounters opposition because of its governance structure. What should be a model for replication in the district and beyond, is met with skepticism. My hope is that EdLoC is able to foster dialogue and connections that allow us to move beyond this, for our children. That’s why I invite any organization that shares our end goals, improving education and building thriving communities in a more inclusive way, to leave behind the camps, work with us and put all solutions on the table for our communities, parents, and students.
Brittany Packnett is a member of EdLoC, the daughter of educators, a protestor, activist and educator. She currently serves as executive director for Teach For America in St. Louis, her hometown. She’s also a co-founder of We The Protestors and Campaign Zero, a platform to end police violence. She served on the Ferguson Commission, the President’s Task Force on 21st Century policing and builds culturally responsive educators at Teach For America.