Hard Conversations in Newark on Being Black in Education

Education Pioneers, a national non-profit, hosted a panel discussion in Newark, New Jersey last Thursday on the critical need for more black men in education.

The panel included NECSN’s own Jeremiah L. Grace, our Connecticut State Director, as well as:

Quain Bevans Jr., a special education professional at the KIPP Foundation and CEO & Co-Founder of College Shirt Tour;

Cary Booker II, co-founder of Omni Care Academy, a public charter school in Memphis (and brother of Sen. Cory Booker);

Tyrone Daye, Supervisor & Senior Program Monitor for Youth Operations for the City of Newark;

Michael Fletcher, Manager of Recruitment and Staffing for the Camden City School District;

Darnell Moore, Senior Editor/Correspondent for Mic News, Co-Managing Editor for The Feminist Wire, and Co-Founder, “YOU Belong”;

Antwuan Sargent, TFA alumni, contributing writer to publications such as The New Yorker, New York Times, and The Nation; and 

Mario Jovan Shaw, Co-Founder & Co-CEO of Profound Gentlemen.

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Tia Morris, Executive Director of Teach for America New Jersey, led the discussion, asking the panel: “What can be done to help young people of color navigate through a space that is predominantly White-controlled?”

Arguing that most black professionals leave the field of education because they feel isolated, Shaw suggested that organizations should offer space for peer development to build community.

Jeremiah corroborated that account, "Leadership from Black men on how to fix education is lacking at the local, state, and national level. We need more men of color involved in policy, communications, lobbying, and community engagement." He continued, "We need diverse approaches to address the systemic issue we have with educating children of color."

“I think that part of the solution is telling people what they are getting into,” said Fletcher. “If you tell me that down the street there is a car on fire – when I go down the street and see the fire I will experience less shock because you already told me about it,” he continued. “We tend to bring people into this education space at all different levels, but we don’t tell them that it’s hard, we don’t tell them that people are not going to like you, they are not going to respect you and that it doesn’t matter what you wear, or how you present yourself at meetings, they are not going to listen to you.”

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Zella (age 9), who is the daughter of panelist Cary Booker, asked the panel for their insight on how she should navigate her own education: “There are no African American male students in my school and only one Black member of the teaching staff. What is your advice for me?”

“I encourage you to be okay with speaking out about being the only person of color, and accepting it,” responded Moore. “Make the adults around you aware that you see that.”

Offering words of encouragement, Bevans said, “understand that there is nothing in this world that you can’t do. People are going to judge you no matter what.” He continued, “Always speak with conviction and let your work ethic speak for itself.”

Later on, a teacher spoke to the panel about being one of the only Black teachers in her school, and asked: “What can I do so that White teachers feel a responsibility to teach culturally relevant lessons in their classes?”

“The teacher needs to know her responsibility to the students to teach relevant curriculum,” said Fletcher. To do that, noted Sargent, the curriculum should include incentives to teach cultural relevance. “The tests should communicate cultural strength,” he said. Sargent also suggested that when test makers are making tests that they should make sure that they are culturally sensitive. 

Shaw noted that it goes beyond teachers and into the system itself. “If you want every teacher to teach cultural relevance, you need to change the curriculum. Find people in power that can do so – as a teacher that is important." 

Booker agreed, adding “This is about leaders in the school recognizing that this is an issue.”

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As the panel ended, it was clear that there is a lot of work to be done to ensure Black children get the education they deserve and Black men and women are treated fairly in professional educational settings. With leaders like our panelists with strong visions for improvement, it’s clear we’re moving in the right direction.

Qu'Amere is the Program Coordinator for Connecticut for the Northeast Charter Schools Network.

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Hard Conversations in Newark on Being Black in Education
Hard Conversations in Newark on Being Black in Education
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