Skip to main content

Approaching the work through the lens of a Black woman

Alumna Christine Smith discusses her participation in our region's first anti-racist professional implementation cohort

By Whitney Stoepel-Brewer

March 22, 2022

Alumni Conversation Series: Christine Smith

Christine Smith is a Chicago native and a 2015 Teach For America Chicago-Northwest Greater Indiana corps member. She has spent the past six years working in education as a diverse learning teacher, both in the high school and middle school setting. And she recently transitioned to the nonprofit space and now works for OneGoal Graduation in Chicago. She recently participated the region's first anti-racist professional implementation cohort and spoke with Wisam Fillo, Director of Alumni Leadership Advancement (Talent) about her experience. Watch the video or read the transcript below. 

Wisam Fillo: I want to begin by just asking you what motivates you to do the work you do to work towards educational equity?

Christine Smith: I'm most motivated by experiences that I had growing up in Chicago within also the experiences of my peers. I grew up on the south side of Chicago and I was fortunate enough to attend more selective private magnet schools, schools that you have to test into. Schools where we are looking at different data points and all of the different metrics to determine whether or not you are, "Good enough suitable for that environment." But I remember talking to peers that I grew up in my neighborhood and just talking about what we were learning in class and covering in class, and I realized very quickly that we weren't doing the same thing. And although our schools were arguably less than five miles apart, there was a major difference in my experience and their experience. And that's just something that stuck with me. I just believe that all children should have access to an equitable culturally competent education.

Wisam Fillo: I feel that directly relates to your participation this year in the region's first anti-racist professional implementation cohort, sponsored by the region. And I wanted to know how that connects to your trajectory. How might... You did it alongside a bunch of alumni. How might we begin to tap into the potential of our alumni, such as yourself, because there are 3,000 in the region?

Christine Smith: I think that this is a conversation that alumni are willing to have. And I think it's a conversation that has been a long time coming. I think about my experience as a core member and a lot of the questions and wonderings that I had about the program implementation or just like my experience at the school that I was placed at and the... I just had a lot of wonderings. And so I think it would be a good opportunity for alumni to reengage with Teach For America. I know that alumni have a variety of different experiences. And so this would be a way to see the ways in which the organization is continuing to move forward. The ways in which we are working to that greater goal of one day students having in culturally relevant education, but then also giving yourself the opportunity to pause and reflect and engage with anti-racism work in a way that isn't performative. Something that really resonated with me about these experiences is that there were no White participants.

And so there was an opportunity for people of color to talk very transparently about race and inequity in a way that usually doesn't exist in spaces where we talk about anti-racism work. There was an opportunity to be very candid with amongst community and feel safe and not have to feel like you have to perform or you need to be so pristine and politically correct with your answers.

“There was an opportunity for People of Color to talk very transparently about race and inequity in a way that usually doesn't exist in spaces where we talk about anti-racism work.”

Christine Smith

Greater Chicago-Northwest Indiana Corps Member 2015

And it was nice to be in a space where the feelings, thoughts, and experience of White people weren't centered, which felt very powerful because you were able to then do some deep digging and uncover the ways in which you've internalized racism, the ways in which you've perpetuated racism, the ways in which we live in it because it's intrinsically ingrained into our daily lived experience from just a structural standpoint to just the ways in which we interact with each other daily. And so I think it would be a great way to reengage alumni, which could potentially be a way to potentially increase in recruitment or enrollment numbers or for fellows. I do care that they, that my White colleagues do engage in anti-racist training and they do the work.

But I don't... I guess it's not that important to me right now just where I am in my journey, because I'm more interested in how that plays out in my life and my lived experiences and how that impacts the way that I show up in different spaces and the way that it shows up for me personally and professionally and how I can continue to work, to move towards anti-racist practices so that when I do become a leader, I don't embed them into the systems or the routines or the policies that I enact or the partners that I allow into the space or just the thought processes that I have or the lens that I come in with.

Wisam Fillo: I feel like what you shared really just answered and hit on how your identity impacts how you approach and do your work. But have you seen that change and shift as you've been in more healing spaces like you described or... Yeah. Working along lines of difference or along lines of similarity with other Black people? Yeah. Just how has your identity impacted how you approach your work right now?

Christine Smith: I'm still thinking about it or approaching the work through the lens of a Black woman, a Black woman from the south side of Chicago, because there's a specific branding that comes with being from Chicago, a specific... Another level of branding with being a Black woman from the south side of Chicago. And so I lead with that. Historically I have approached the work with trying to actively fight against stereotypes, actively be very mindful of the way that I present myself in certain spaces. And so I found myself not bringing my whole self into spaces and bringing bits and pieces or arguably a shadow of myself. But now having I'm engaged in the anti-racist cohort and then just other continuous learning, I'm bringing a fuller version of myself. I'm not as apologetic about things. I'm not looking to coddle or make sure people are comfortable. I'm not making sure that what I say isn't too radical.

I'm speaking from a place of truth and I'm more willing to apologize or explain, elaborate if necessary, but I'm not trying to sugarcoat or be palatable or making sure that it doesn't look a certain way or sound a certain way or come off a certain way. There's a level of freedom that I have now that I didn't experience before. I also think that just comes with age. Older twenties Christine is a lot more interested in what I want and what makes sense for me versus younger twenties Christine wasn't really sure about anything, wasn't necessarily confident. And so I was just doing the things, playing the roles, trying to stumble my way through.

Wisam Fillo: Something my friend and I were talking about the other day was that as people of color, we've also women of color lost people and have lost pieces of ourselves in the pandemic and just in life. And so sometimes this idea of bringing your full self to work doesn't acknowledge that sometimes we are unable to bring our entire full self to work as Black women, as people of color and to constantly suggest that or encouraged that we do that is, can be painful. So yeah, just a nuance to that thought. I want to talk to you a little bit about your transition because you transitioned from the classroom to you were coaching at your school and then you are now in the nonprofit space at OneGoal. And so just curious, what was the process of looking for a new job? Because I know as our alumni watch this going to be a lot of people who are either looking for a new job take even just considering it and could might learn a lot from. Yeah. You talking about your experience and journey.

Christine Smith: I think it was, one that was intentional and one that was pretty lengthy. I knew that I wanted to leave the classroom. I think I consciously made the decision. I think it was November, 2020 just because my work day and my post work life just meshed together. There was no separation. I spent some days 12 to 13 hours a day on the computer. And so there was no work life separation. There was no work life balance. I think that was also exasperated by the fact that I was also in grad school full time. So once I make that decision, I started early January, February. I started reaching out to folks, TFA cohort members that did the core with me in 2015 that had left education and have moved on to at tech, who have moved into nonprofit spaces. I started scheduling the one on one meetings.

"How have you been, what are you up to? How did you make your transition?" I started reaching out to folks that I've never spoke to before. So I heavily utilized LinkedIn. I looked at people in roles that I wanted or thought I wanted and I just introduce myself. "Hi, my name is Christine. I'm currently doing this. I would like to do that. I'm in grad school to become a principal. Can you tell me a little bit about your role or about yourself and how you got there?" And to my surprise, everyone that I reached out to just like call called, messaging responded and they were more than willing to talk to share and just help me along the way. I've also come to realize that the TFA alumni hood is strong. Alumni definitely look out for each other. So I remember reaching out to folks that I never met that were in the 2012 cohort in Boston or the 2010 cohort in New Orleans had no context whatsoever besides being a TFA alum.

And they were like, "Hey, you should reach out to this person. Let me connect you to somebody from my cohort. Or you should look out for this organization. Or here's a website of nonprofits and this is how much they made. This is what their annual donations look like. If that's something that if you are really... if you want to make sure that you get a decent salary, you want to make sure you look at a nonprofit that's funded well. Or if you're looking at EdTech, these are the buzzing EdTech spaces. These are the more established ones. These are the upcoming ones." That process lasted about nine months. I sent a lot of... I completed a lot of applications, a lot of which went unanswered. So that's a part of the process. I interviewed with a lot of folks, but, and I think I also received a lot of opportunities to continue to teach, but I knew that I absolutely did not want to teach anymore.

And so practicing saying, "No, thank you. But I'm currently not interested and being okay with... I just left this offer. It sounds nice. It looks nice on paper, but no. I absolutely am committed to leave my classroom." And I think that is something that I want to share with alum that are looking to leave. Once you decide to leave, leave, regardless of what opportunities pop up, or if you just... If they promise you, "You'll have this many classes and you'll have of this many preps," or whatever the bell and whistle is. If you're leaving, leave, and be okay with that.

Wisam Fillo: It would be great to never feel we're in a teacher shortage. But the reality has shown us that if you do leave and you decide you really want to come back, you can.

Christine Smith: You can. Exactly. It's not a hard leave. It ebbs and it flows as long as you're credentials and your professional educator license is up to date, you can always come back.

Wisam Fillo: Yep. Yep. That's cool. You talked about that process being challenging also because you were in grad school getting your principal license and I want to talk a little bit about that. You have your principal certification. What was that process like? What inspired you to pursue school leadership? What impact are you hoping to have this year and beyond once you step into that school leadership role? Yeah. Let's talk a little bit about that.

Christine Smith: It seemed like the at the time that I made the decision, it seemed like the logical next step I'd been a teacher for four or five years. And so as you start to talk to different people, there's always like, "What's next conversation?" So it's like instructional coach, assistant principal. My principal at the time had just completed her certification process at National Louis. One of a few of my colleagues also did their certification at National Louis. So I considered National Louis pretty heavily. Also went back to Teach for America to see what schools we had partnerships within the Chicago land area. So I considered DePaul, but ultimately what I decided on was what would be the most financially attainable for me. And then what I could honestly commit to in terms of workload an hour. So can I still maintain a work-life and school balance as everything would be full-time? At the time pre-COVID, I thought, "Okay, I can be an instructional coach." Because of my lens as a diverse learning educator, I could help teachers understand that providing accommodations on modifications aren't a Herculean task.

It's something that you can do every day. And then also drive home the point that it doesn't just support students with various needs, but it supports all learners in the classroom. So that was my lens. That was what I was thinking about as I went through the program, COVID hit and so it became exclusively online. Everything just became online. And so I said, "Maybe not right now." Because during my internship experience shadowing my principal, I saw how quickly decisions needed to be made.

I saw how often she was on the phone, how she was getting emails late at night and everything needed a quick turnaround. And so you lost that sense of humanity as a parent, as a principal, as a daughter, a sister, a friend, cousin, whoever, all of it mushed together. And oftentimes your role is principal superseded everything else. And so as hard as she tried to hide it, I could just see and feel how stressed and overwhelmed she was. And that was true for the other principals that I spoke to during my internship experience. And so I said to myself, "Not now, maybe later."

I think right now my thought process is when COVID becomes endemic, I'll consider it again. But right now that we're still figuring out COVID and the many variants and mask optional versus mandatory vaccine optional versus mandatory while all of that is still up in the air. I will not be leading a school.

Wisam Fillo: You're touching on mental health, protecting your energy in order to be the best person for yourself, because ultimately you have to come home for ourselves at the end of the day. And then for all of the people that you work alongside love and whether that's in OneGoal or being a school leader, we have to protect our senses of self. So I'm curious what you think are some of the ways that the districts could support our educators mental health so that they can empower future generations of students, those of the students who are in the classroom and out of the classroom.

Christine Smith: The times of COVID. We always talk about it being unprecedented times. We haven't talked about what that means to try to function or live or exist rather in unprecedented times. So talking about anxiety. What anxiety looks like, how it presents. That it doesn't always look like whatever we think anxiety is or depression. People experience a lot of loss and the grief process doesn't just end at the funeral, once the person has been forever memorialized. That grief ups and downs, it has its ups and downs, it ebbs and flows. And how that still impacts you in your day to day experience providing space and opportunities for students and teachers, administrators are like to have time to actually grieve and process. So we have bereavement days as staff, but what about a wellness day?

Can you actually take a wellness day and not say, "I'm still grieving." Or "Can I just take this wellness day because I'm just not feeling it." It's Friday or it's Tuesday I'm I just really, I'm not feeling it. And that just be it. And then just like the day progresses on, I think also providing access to SEL curriculums for all students.

I know that principals have a lot of autonomy on which curriculum they go with if they have the funds to do it, but making sure that all students have access to an SEL curriculum so that they can start to speak truth to power so that they can say, "Oh, I'm experiencing anxiety or I'm feeling sad or I'm feeling..." Not necessarily. I may be feeling depressed or I may be feeling left, whatever Black means or just also naming that it's okay not to be okay. And that no one expects you to be happy all the time. As a human, there are a variety of emotions that you can feel and experience in a given day and you don't have to be happy all the time. It's unrealistic. And then norming like, I would say finally just following up with someone. If you ask them how you're doing, wait for their true response. Don't expect someone to say, "I'm okay. Things are good." If someone says, actually I'm not okay, listen, and then follow up.