Elena Dowin Kennedy (Mississippi '09) shares how her corps experience has impacted her life both personally and professionally.
January 2, 2018
As a Teach For America alumna, why do you feel it is important to continue to be engaged with the alumni work in the Piedmont Triad? How do you stay engaged?
I feel that it is essential as an alumna to remain active within the movement for educational equity. As a 2009 Mississippi Delta corps member, it was an incredibly hard decision to leave my placement region because I felt our work there wasn't done.
Moving from the Delta to Rhode Island, I learned that there was a need there as well and that I could offer value to the school system—even though I wasn't working in the district. My experience was very different from that of CMs working in urban schools. I also found a group of people who were passionate about similar issues and built relationships I value, both through TFA and through Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE).
I recently relocated to the Piedmont Triad region and look forward to finding more ways to be engaged and build new relationships.
Tell us about your favorite thing to do in the Piedmont Triad:
I'm still learning the area, but I love to get outside and explore all of the parks and walking trails Alamance and Guilford County have to offer with my husband and our two dogs.
How has your corps experience shaped you?
I don't know who I would be or what I would be doing professionally without my corps experience. I lived a very insulated life prior to TFA and my students opened my eyes to a lot of systemic inequities that I just didn't see. My time in the classroom was personally very challenging and very rewarding—my students pushed me to examine my assumptions, be more articulate, and to think carefully about my role in building culture and accountability both in the classroom and in society.
I ultimately decided to go to graduate school to study organizational theory as a result of my experience with two different principals who had very different leadership styles and levels of success. I did my dissertation research examining how organizational structure affects the impact of social enterprises.
I now teach social entrepreneurship and strategy in a business school. My experience with TFA definitely changes the way I teach at the college level. The vast majority of my current students come from significantly more privileged positions than the students in my TFA placement school. Part of my job is opening their eyes to the inequities that I was blind to when I was in college. I challenge my students to utilize their business school education to make meaningful change in both their companies and their communities.
Why do you feel it is important to keep equity at the focus of your career?
My experience has taught me to see inequality more clearly. It is my responsibility to help others do the same. Without equity, we as a society are hurting ourselves and our children.
What was the biggest lesson that your corps experience taught you?
Asset-based thinking. This means looking at the actions of someone that you didn't like and starting from a place of generosity—trying to understand what the best possible motivation for their action could be. Beginning a conversation or an intervention assuming the best really expands the potential for a successful and meaningful interaction and increases the likelihood of a successful outcome. It's hard and I'm not always good at it, but taking a moment to step back and reflect with this mindset is one of my most valuable lessons from my TFA experience.