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Top of Mind: Sharif El-Mekki, CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development

Each month one member of our incredible community will share inspiration in the form of books, documentaries, podcast episodes, poetry, art, keynotes, and more. They’ll reflect on why it matters to them and NTC’s bold vision, sparking awareness and continuing to push curiosity as we go forward.

What’s top of mind for you?

As an educator, I have found Brother Amir Sulaiman’s work as an artist-poet incredibly important. Another artist, Dr. Sonia Sanchez, reminds us that, “All poets, all writers are political. They either maintain the status quo, or they say, ‘Something’s wrong, let’s change it for the better.’” So much of effective instruction means that we are saying the status quo is wrong, using the mindsets, skill, and will necessary to be effective means committing to make things better for our students and thus for ourselves. As Amir says, “We. Must. Win.”

What quote is resonating with you today?

“You will be someone’s ancestor. Act accordingly.”

Please share your reflection on why this matters to you and how it might drive our greater NTC to a brighter tomorrow?

Our ancestors are living, breathing parts of our future.

If we stand on the shoulders of giants, intellectual academic and educational ancestors who fought for equity and educational and racial justice (which are inextricably linked), what do we draw from? What do we pour into? What are the systems we create? What are the curricula we write? What are the feedback loops we honor? All those questions are connected to both the idea of educational justice, the purest form of activism, and this idea of standing on the shoulders of folks, who are maybe lost in the pages of history, but we still feel their impact. So how do we go forth?

We must demand results, not rhetoric.

If two ships leave the same port, I read once, and they’re going straight, but one changes direction by one degree, years later, generations later, they’re going to be in very different places in the world. I think about the same type of trajectory for our work. What do we need to shift and shift radically? Forget the one degree of difference. Suppose we do 20 degrees? And what will it mean, not only for students, but those who serve them directly? What are the policies, the educational ecosystem, writ large, that will look very different if we keep equity and educational justice and racial justice front and center in all our decision-making and all our rethinking and reimagining?

A lot of people are doing “reimagining,” but I’m nervous that it gets caught up in the rhetoric and not the results, execution, and movement. I’ve been to countless meetings where people talk about what the problem is. I’m like, “We already know what the problem is.” I thought this meeting was about, “Okay, here’s what we’re doing today … step one. Here’s what we’re doing tomorrow. Here’s what we’re doing next week.” And then there’s a disconnect between [what happens in meetings] and the people who actually work in the schools. [If we are going] into the leadership team meeting, and we know we need to have an execution plan by the time the meeting ends, we need to communicate to families, [be able to say,] “Hey, here’s what we’re doing,” or, to staff, “Hey, here’s what it will look like next week.”

We must commit to getting feedback from students and those closest to the work on how they experience our leadership.

Brian Stevenson talks about this proximity to the work that is so important, the urgency of now, of actually accomplishing something and holding ourselves accountable. It’s absolutely critical. And without that accountability…. Everyone’s talking about school and system accountability. We have to be accountable for not just running our lips but putting forth real effort, doing things, and being accountable for that. That’s why feedback loops are so important. Asking people we purportedly serve, “How are you experiencing our leadership?” Not just our words: “Hey. Does this sound right? Does this look pretty? Does this website capture?” No, it’s “How are you experiencing our actual leadership?” Getting that feedback from students, families, and educators will hold up a mirror — “Okay. Did we do that or did we not? Do we put up or shut up?”

We have to be accountable for not just running our lips but putting forth real effort, doing things, and being accountable for that.

We must nurture individual agency, student agency, for our collective work.

[Another poem by Sulaiman] I love listening to periodically is, We Must Win. This idea that we must win is just germane to our work. For our collective survival and our collective future, we must win. And to win, we’ve got to do a whole lot better than what we’ve been doing.

[Amir is] somebody who would visit our school and talk to our students. And the response from students … that feeling of “Oh, yeah.” Making sure students realize that they didn’t create this problem, but they’re certainly part of the solution. They would leave feeling empowered, helping them connect the dots between their work and historic work of liberatory and racial justice efforts. When a 14-year-old can see that — “Oh, there’s a connection between how I’m feeling and what I want to do, for my community and in society” — and there’s a connection to other freedom fighters, it’s like, “Oh. Wow. I see my space, I see my role. I see my connection.” I think it can be pretty powerful.

It’s definitely individual, but it’s part of a collective and communal effort. I think as an educator, across the past 30 years of this work, that I’ve never not been in community with others. I also think it’s important that students, our youth, and people adjacent to education who may not necessarily be traditional educators, see their role in this space. Again, it’s a problem they didn’t create, but they have leadership and opportunity and lived experiences that warrant their voices being amplified.

It’s like that quote, “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.” Making sure that we see students as part of the solutions, not just these vessels for us to fill. What are different ways students can see themselves as leaders now? Not like, “Oh, when I graduate from college. Or, when I get gray hair, or when I have X amount of whatever.” What you’ve lived so far and what you’ve experienced at our hands is important.

We must build trust and use their feedback as the mechanism of change.

What does it look like for a student to say, “This is how I’m experiencing this. This is how I see myself in this space. This is how I see you and your leadership.” And the same with families, right? Same with community members, same with educators that we say we’re developing or inviting into the profession. Make sure their feedback is in the feedback loop: “What should I start, stop, and continue? How are you experiencing my leadership and partnership?”

Simultaneously, in order to do that well and build that culture of feedback, we have to build trust. If not, people are either not going to say it, or not going to say it truthfully and honestly. Soliciting feedback, and making that part of the mechanism of change by building the trust and community where people feel like, “Oh, yeah. Not only will I not be punished in whatever way or marginalized further for speaking my truth, I’ll be listened to and heard.”

[It’s about] shared leadership … because feedback is going into, potentially, a hierarchy or a power dynamic, that really ultimately isn’t going to serve certain people. So that trust gets completely broken and rebroken and rebroken over time. It’s the difference between a principal saying, “Oh, yeah. We created ‘affinity space’ for our black and brown educators [and students] to talk.” They’re already talking. What power have you ceded and given them? What decision making did you give them? What budget did you give them? And where are you listening to what they actually talked about?” And they look at that as equity as the end game.

In our work for justice, our students can be our ancestors, if we listen to them.

[That notion of] equity isn’t the end game. Equity is supposed to help us get to justice. Right? And I think equity becomes this passe, impotent narration. The end game is justice. What does educational, racial justice, look like? We shouldn’t just be mitigating [inequity] while the system stays exactly the same — “Let’s add this band aid, and let’s add this.” And that’s what it is. It’s a series of band aids and splints. [Rather than approaching] it like, “Okay. How do we reimagine this and restructure it in a way that we don’t have to add a band aid?” It’s actually purer, refined, as we rebuild it. And I think the idea of intergenerational leadership is the critical piece, the agency of those being served, in particular, the youth, to hear their voices.

About Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the founder and CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development Prior to founding the Center, El-Mekki served as a nationally recognized principal and U.S. Department of Education Principal Ambassador Fellow. His school, Mastery Charter Shoemaker, was recognized by President Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey, and was awarded the prestigious EPIC award for three consecutive years as being among the top three schools in the country for accelerating students’ achievement levels. The Shoemaker Campus was also recognized as one of the top 10 middle school and top 10 high schools in the state of Pennsylvania for accelerating the achievement levels of African-American students. In 2014, El-Mekki founded The Fellowship – Black Male Educators for Social Justice, an organization dedicated to recruiting, retaining and developing Black male teachers. El-Mekki blogs on Phillys7thWard, is a member of the 8 Black Hands podcast and serves on several boards and committees focused on educational and racial justice.