Corps Member, Priscilla Harris, Hosts 'Mask Off' BlackTech Week Event For Miami Educators
February 27, 2018
This Black History Month, Priscilla Harris, a 2016 Miami-Dade Corps Member, hosted the 'Mask Off' Lab, a BlackTech Week event that empowered educators of color to explore innovative and entrepreneurial ideas. Read the story to learn more about Harris and her event.
One of the most treasured aspects of Teach For America, is the diversity of our corps members. Not only are our 160 corps members diverse ethnically, economically and geographically (77% share the background of their students), but they are also diverse in their mindsets, joining Teach For America with degrees from numerous fields of study. While all corps members are grounded in the shared experience of TFA’s Institute training, their varied individual perspectives allow each teacher to frame their classroom experience in a creative way that is unique to them.
2016 Miami-Dade Corps Member, Priscilla ‘PJ’ Harris, is an outstanding example. She is a fifth grade teacher at Edison Park K-8 Center. Her degree in Africana History from Union College in New York has grounded her passion for educational equity. “If you don’t know your history, you’re doomed to repeat it,” says Harris. “Up until college, I didn’t know much about the deep richness of our history, because it’s not taught in low performing schools. Their focus is normally just on numbers and scores. I said, ‘I’m going to make a change by exposing my students to their history.’”
Harris incorporates her knowledge of black history in her English and Language Arts classes each day; she doesn’t limit these lessons to Black History Month. She inspires black and brown students to recognize the power from which they come and their ability to have an impact today. She encourages them to think towards how they will lead in the future.
Furthermore, Harris is driving her fellow educators of color to make history of their own by creating a platform for them to engage around education, innovation and entrepreneurship. This month, she hosted The Mask Off Lab, a BlackTech Week event for educators at A Space Called Tribe, Miami’s newest incubator for entrepreneurs of color. Harris’ desire to create more opportunities for her peers to innovate around education was sparked after participating in TFA’s StartUp Summer fellowship last year. Through this experience, she interned with BlackTech Week and Code Fever Miami, helping to produce STEM and entrepreneurship summer camps and hackathons for K-12 students in Miami.
“After interning with BlackTech Week and Code Fever Miami, I was inspired to be innovative. As simple as it sounds, I learned that I could be more than a 5th grade Language Arts teacher. I can be an entrepreneur, business woman, social media guru, and still teach. This month, I organized The Mask Off Lab to expose educators to something not discussed in our regular professional development sessions. I wanted my fellow educators, especially women, to see that they do not have to be one dimensional. They can do it all. As an educator who has had this experience, I wanted to motivate others to maximize their time and skills and build upon it.”
Inspired by a concept from one of her favorite historical black authors, W.E.B Dubois, Harris framed her event and its title Mask Off around Dubois’ idea that African Americans hide behind a veil, or put on a persona that often strips them of their culture and creativity, in order to survive. “Even today in 2018,” she says, “We are hiding behind our masks. I want my peers to be living their true selves. This lab is an intro to how we can live our truth.”
At the event, educators convened around three segments, conversation, resources and action. The conversation kicked off with small group discussions around two articles, ‘The Black Girl State of the Union’ from ELLE Magazine and ‘Booting Becky and Choosing Myself’ from The Huffington Post, both of which centered around the expectations and criticisms of women of color in educational institutions and in the workforce.
Next, a series of speakers presented resources for the educators in attendance to begin thinking creatively about tangible solutions for leveling the playing field for underserved students. The group heard from Wilfred ‘Jr.’ Rivera, a teacher and author who has harnessed the power of social media and his skill for motivational speaking to make positive content go viral, Willie Avendano, co-founder of 01, an education lab that fosters agency and creative confidence in students by empowering them to shape their worlds through technology, 2015 TFA Miami-Dade alumnus, Eric Steen, a teacher and founder of ‘My Student Blueprint’ an app that helps students stay on track towards graduation and Zakiyya White, a 2014 TFA alumna and teacher who just launched her own event planning company called I’m a Vibe. Each presenter showed how feasible it can be to explore entrepreneurship while teaching.
The last portion of the event pushed participants to use their talents and ideas to come up with a plan of action. One participant came to the conclusion that she was successful at pursuing scholarship opportunities. Knowing many low-income students are held back from their dreams simply due to finances or lack of technology, her goal was to develop a way to help low-income students access the resources that helped her. She developed an actionable plan and is now moving forward with building an online resource where students can easily find and apply for scholarships.
Reflecting on her event, Harris says, “This workshop was exhilarating to say the least! A year ago, I would have never imagined partnering with BlackTech Week and the Teach for America Alumni Leadership Development team to organize an event. I was elated that nearly 30 people participated and left feeling re-energized and ready to put their ideas into action. Planning has always been a passion of mine, and now that I have executed my first event, I look forward to what the future holds.”
Congratulations and great work PJ! We can’t wait to see what you do next.