Brittany Packnett (D.C. Region ’07) is the Director of Government Affairs in Washington D.C.
I am not a black man.
My brother is. My father was. So are Derrick, Nikko, all three James’ and 32 of my other 3rd Grade Superstar Scholars at King Elementary in Southeast D.C.
And in a country which still regards most of them as failures or threats, I still wonder, three years after leaving the classroom, whether I did enough for those brilliant young men entrusted to me (and whether, as a black woman, I ever could).
This was one of many topics of timely discussion during our gathering at the 42nd Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Annual Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C. last week. For the second year, Teach For America’s senior leaders came together with over 300 African American staff, corps members and alumni to grow, reflect with, challenge and celebrate one another, engaging in important conversations like the prominence of STEM with champions like Tatyana Ali and NASA.
It was #TFAatCBCF, or, our #TFAmilyReunion. We’re fortunate to belong to an organization that takes its Diversity core value seriously enough to make a sizable financial commitment to create special opportunities like this. There is no denying how wonderful it felt to be surrounded by colleagues who not only share your racial identity but also your passion for creating a just world for kids who look like us, too.
And that’s how I ended up thinking of Derrick, Nikko, and all three James’ all week. As a 3rd grade teacher, effective instruction literally meant life or death for my students. If they weren’t proficient on standardized tests, there would be a prison bed waiting for them. Did I empower Derrick, Nikko and all three James’ enough to escape that future? Did I empower any of them enough to gain entry to Teach For America themselves one day? Were they welcome to our TFAmilyReunion, or were they merely the props which we used to make ourselves feel important?
Like most of you, I may not be a black man, but those questions remain central to this work. Our charge to close the achievement gap calls us to prepare educators who are capable of preparing young black men to surmount the unique challenges awaiting them. The fact that I am not a black man does not excuse me from this responsibility—it doesn’t excuse any of us. If we do not intentionally, actively create a reform culture that values and addresses the needs of young black men, we will continually eclipse their potential through stereotypes and the racism of low expectations. And that makes us part of the problem.
My brother Barrington followed me to some of the most rigorous independent schools in our hometown. He was a star athlete, but the older he got, the less he was celebrated for his intellectual prowess. Even in excellent schools with great teachers, he was often neither respected nor empowered academically. He was told he’d never be able to read, frequently didn’t receive equitable allowances for minor diagnosed learning disabilities, and was ignored in class. My parents’ financial means meant we escaped failing public schools, and still, he was cheated.
The rigor of private schooling meant my brother succeeded despite these injustices. But what he truly needed, in addition to excellent practitioners, were educators who cared enough to view diversity as central to their practice, and were driven to be better teachers for him.
When I drop my brother off at Yale Divinity this fall, I’ll be thinking of Derrick, and Nikko, and all three James’. Did I value them or vilify them? Could they thrive in my classroom culture? Was I the kind of educator I wanted for my own brother? And were my expectations unyielding, resolute, and high enough for them to have the opportunity to get to Yale, too?
Derrick doesn’t need me to save him. He needs me to make these questions central to my work. Nikko needs me to demand that Teach For America and others involved in this fight find answers. James needs us to remember that being honest, culturally competent, anti-racist educators is the only way to get to “One Day.”
That job belongs to all of us.
A St. Louis native (by way of New Britain, CT), Brittany taught in the 2007 D.C. Region corps. Brittany recently attended the 2012 Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference where Teach For America supported two issue forums with members of the Caucus, “From Boys to Men: Breaking through Educational Barriers” and The Annual STEM Braintrust.