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Smith: Our responsibility to disrupt inequitable and unjust systems

American Cities, Detroit, Education

In December 2020, Dr. Edward Smith, program officer with The Kresge Foundation’s Education Program joined a digital convening hosted by Brothers Empowered to Teach (BE2T) to celebrate recent grant awards.

BE2T is a national organization committed to developing Black educators. Based in New Orleans, a Kresge focus city, BE2T received a $50,000 grant to strengthen its capacity to deliver virtual pre-teaching programs in the wake of COVID-related disruptions and campus closures.

Nearly 60% of New Orleans residents are Black, yet Black men comprise less than 5% of teachers in the city. New Orleans also faces a substantial teacher shortage. BE2T addresses these challenges by providing yearly cohorts of college students with holistic supports and paid teacher preparation. Once participants complete their degrees, they begin teaching in the city’s public schools or work in city-focused education policy roles.

The $50,000 grant is supported by Kresge’s American Cities, Detroit and Education programs, in coordination with the Boys and Men of Color Working Group.

In his remarks below, Dr. Smith reflected on his experiences as an educator and philanthropy’s responsibility to disrupt inequitable and unjust systems.

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I’m humbled and honored to be in the virtual presence of educators and organizers like Larry, Kris, and the staff of Brothers Empowered to Teach. Even more, I feel an immense notion of responsibility. Let me take a few minutes to elaborate.  

The magnitude of the moment is not lost on me. Hundreds of thousands of people have died in the United States from COVID-19, and millions of people face financial uncertainty – having to decide whether to pay for food or heating, or a roof over their heads. The college students we care about at Kresge, those from low-income backgrounds, those with work and family responsibilities, consider these expenses, plus tuition and others associated with their enrollment.

College students have had their lives upended during the pandemic, experiencing loss of family support due to illness and death, sudden campus closures, loss of employment, forced return to insecure environments, and profound uncertainty. Struggling to learn despite the digital divide, experiencing food and housing insecurity, maybe coping with the loss of a loved one, without a tight hug, strong dap, or a shoulder to lean on.

Let me connect the moment to the responsibility. I’m a product of the love and support of my family and friends, but also of the Black teachers who have invested in my development and my future. Who did so even when the working conditions did not enable their own success. I’ve since become a teacher: I’ve instructed high school courses in West Philadelphia, undergraduate courses in State College, PA and Washington, D.C., masters level courses at the University of Pennsylvania, and I currently teach working professionals at Grand Valley State University. I’ve even taught in a correctional facility in Davidson County, Tennessee. I know the power and responsibility of a well-placed teacher who delivers culturally relevant and socially practical pedagogy, precisely the programming Brothers Empowered to Teach seeks to accomplish.

I know a lot of us see the education sector as ground zero for racial oppression and, with the right training, nurturing, and the outlets to express our creative gifts, would flock to teaching roles and education policy as a life calling. And with an activated purpose, agency, and intrusive advising, Black men will persist in and graduate college at even higher levels. Precisely the environment the fellowship program provides.

But I also know the racism and bigotry that undermines our pathway into teaching. Precisely what Brothers Empowered to Teach is fighting. I could see it on them, I could smell it on them, and every encounter with them brings me back to my younger self, being thrusted into a movement for educational justice, being called to think, work, and serve. Being called to teach.

And as an education philanthropic community, some of us might think we have choices. To join the fight or not. But I have a responsibility. To bring the resources to the fight.

New Orleans is a Kresge focus city. I speak on behalf of the Education Program, my colleagues on Kresge’s Boys and Men of Color Workgroup, and our American Cities Program. We’re proud of this partnership and honored to be invited to this table. It is important that we cultivate this type of work. Larry and Kris have relationships across the city and state, with schools, colleges, government, and community groups. They’re Black leaders whose commitment to freedom and racial justice is certified. Who disrupt norms and step outside their comfort zone to meet the needs of marginalized communities. For too long we have allowed inequities in funding to persist by overlooking those who are loyal to the soil, rooted in the community, and most proximate to challenges and solutions. When we do this, we perpetuate the very inequities we claim to want to dismantle. We cannot remain on the benches and watch as the pandemic destroys the progress these organizations helped accomplish.

We have the responsibility to disrupt inequitable and unjust systems and ensure that all students can reach their full potential. I assume this responsibility with deep respect for students’ humanity, and a profound understanding that we can only achieve these ends in partnership with our grantees. I’m inspired by the ways Kristyna and Larry have adapted under the current conditions. This partnership deepens Kresge’s commitment to equity and justice in education and beyond, and to helping our grantees build stronger futures for the students they serve. We’re thrilled to amplify the voices of ground-up education leaders who are committed to ending systematic oppression. And we’ll be watching closely to see how this partnership unfolds and what it has to teach us. Thank you.

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BE2T is led by Larry Irvin and Kristyna Jones, two veteran public-school educators. To learn more about BE2T, visit www.be2t.org.

Kristyna Jones (left) and Larry Irvin, co-leaders of Brothers Empowered to Teach, stand next to each other for a posed photograph..
Kristyna Jones (left) and Larry Irvin, co-leaders of Brothers Empowered to Teach. Photo courtesy of Brothers Empowered to Teach.
Kresge staff is working remotely, and our offices are closed until further notice.  See our promise to partners during COVID-19.
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