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Teach For America & CDF Freedom School Partnership

Creating Safe Spaces For Black Educators Through Liberation and Innovation

By Alexzandria Cormier-Hill

October 21, 2021

For the Black community, learning has always been a gateway for liberation. Renowned educators like Septima Clark, Booker T. Washington, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Edmund Gordon leveraged education to create opportunities, cultivate pride, and transform the trajectory of Black futures for centuries to come. And sadly, as history has shown us, these valiant efforts were (and continue to be) met with intense, systemic opposition.

The Challenge

Today, Black students still experience the greatest educational inequities. And while numerous studies have shown the immense impact Black teachers have on the lives of Black students and all students, only 7% of teachers in U.S. public schools are Black.

A Legendary Solution

In an attempt to close the representation gap and circumvent oppressive tactics meant to derail Black children’s potential, the Children Defense Fund (CDF), a landmark civil rights organization founded by Marian Wright Edelman, created the CDF Freedom Schools® program. The contemporary program is a direct descendent of the Freedom Schools established during 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer, when college-aged volunteers taught in makeshift schools grounded in the principles of youth agency, Black history and culture, critical inquiry, and movement organizing.

Establishing CDF Freedom Schools nationwide provides Black youth the chance to receive robust curricula rooted in liberation, community history, and academic excellence. With the help of CDF Freedom Schools trainers, fondly known as Ella Baker Trainers (EBTs), and Student Leader Interns (SLIs), Black teachers and children are empowered to acknowledge, celebrate, and cultivate the power of their heritage through culturally relevant instruction.

PBS Newshour Highlights CDF Freedom Schools

Gwen Ifill’s PBS NewsHour segment: 50 Years On, Freedom Schools Still Teaching Most Vulnerable highlights the importance of the CDF Freedom Schools® Program, which builds on the Freedom Schools of the Civil Rights Movement. The CDF Freedom Schools model supports children to excel and believe in their ability to make a difference in themselves and their families, schools, communities, nation, and world.

Approaching Educational Equity Through Innovation and Community

To ensure the next generation of Black educators and students are fully versed with the tools and spirit to carry this legacy forward, CDF, Profound Gentlemen, Profound Ladies, and Teach For America’s Black Educators Promise Initiative (BEP) have teamed up to create a unique inaugural fellowship: The Ella Baker Child Policy Training Institute Professional Development Seminar stewarded by CDF, as well as one-on-one coaching and cohort support from Profound Gentlemen and Profound Ladies.

Over the span of a year, 10 Black TFA educators will attend a series of seminars exploring how to employ culturally relevant education in classrooms, drawing on the model of CDF Freedom Schools.

We sat down with a CDF Freedom Schools Ella Baker Trainer, Courtney Linsey, and BEP fellows Nelvia Johnson, Crista Washington, Nicollette Jones-Flowers, Gregsha Lee, and Brent Chapuis to get a deeper understanding of what this experience has been like for them so far. 

Here’s your glimpse into who these teachers are, the work they’re doing, and how this fellowship is helping them grow as dynamic leaders in the classroom.

Courtney, what does it mean to be an Ella Baker Trainer (EBT)?

Courtney: "To carry her namesake, is an honor in itself. When I think about her and the type of mindset and philosophy [she had]it was always serve first. I try to adapt that in my life. Serving as a seed that will always bear fruit. When I think about the heart behind Ella Baker, the question "Are the children well?" come to mind. And if the children aren’t well, then I can’t rest. Until that’s done. That’s a high honor."

Tell us about how you designed the fellowship experience. What are you hoping fellows get out of the experience and why?

Courtney: "It’s about culturally responsive instruction and pedagogy. One thing I want to emphasize to the teachers is Goldie Mohammed’s idea of cultivating genius. When they come into the classroom, each student has genius-level talent. Culturally, if you meet them and access things that are important to them, you’ll get something that you wouldn’t get otherwise. It’s understanding that each person has a genius and it’s up to us as teachers to help cultivate that genius. 

What do I hope they get out of it? I hope they understand that they’re not alone. We’re not perfect. Vulnerability in the classroom is a good thing. Understand that they too have a level of geniustheir own authenticity is genius and I don’t have to put on airs to be a good teacher. "

“I hope they understand that they’re not alone. We’re not perfect. Vulnerability in the classroom is a good thing. Understand that they have a level of genius—their own authenticity is genius and they don’t have to put on airs to be a good teacher.”

Courtney Linsey

CDF Freedom Schools Ella Baker Trainer

(BEP FELLOWS) What attracted you to this fellowship?

Grey: “Seeing some of the groundwork CDF is doing. I’m excited to be able to collab with other alumni to be able to potentially create some change for other educators that look like us. There’s a lot of unspokens that occur to BIPOC people. It’s important to share amongst each other–you're not the only one experiencing this. Maybe we can be a part of what helps it to change, to spark a convo so that there’s a level of exposure for things we are responsible for as educators.”

Nelvia: “Learning how the CDF Freedom Schools program teaches from a social justice lens looks like it can help me change what’s going on in my school district. I know my kids have limited access to things. This knowledge would equip me to supplement what I see they’re lacking. The teaching is catered to the needs of a Black educator. It teaches me how needs can be met within the community. This fellowship will give me the tools to address more things that I wasn’t able to address before.”

Crista: “I can connect and work alongside people who look like me, and who are just as passionate about doing the work I’m doing. It was an opportunity to have profound convos about the work we do and share ideas that have been effective for each of us in our classroom.”

Brent: “Teach For America’s willingness to grow. They seek out better ways to do things. I’m always happy to align myself with that–with progress. I appreciate them thinking specifically on keeping Black educators in the classroom...I hope if my work does nothing else, it inspires folx to be better teachers and give something immense to students. Through six years of teaching, I’ve taught my students with love and power, and I feel like I’m teaching their younger siblings even better. I hope that more passionate teachers will stay in it and continue.”

How has the fellowship challenged you as a leader, educator, and liberator?

Crista: “Our first conversations with Profound Gentlemen and Profound Ladies were amazing. The questions we were asked made me stop and say, ‘Wow, do I think I’m a leader worth following?’ They pushed me to think about what I needed to do to become the leader I want to be. Being able to talk through that and grow with other educators who are like me–even better. It was very therapeutic. Also, learning about the organization and how they started, and meeting some of the presenters left me feeling very empowered–I’m ready! I’m ready to dive into more of this work and become an even better leader.”

How does CDF/BEP play a role in your work? How does it enhance it?

Brent: “Any time I can learn from other teachers is good. This fellowship is outside of my normal work time–it’s where I get to deepen my craft. Having access to people that curate resources for me–that’s great for my students. We’re hitting more high points than the curriculum we’re currently using at school. The stipend also helps me spend money on my class. Even with my new baby, I can get things to fill my student’s needs.”

Crista: “It’s transformative and therapeutic–I feel seen, heard, and loved. I’ve grown in my work and as an individual. Being able to converse with others, feeling motivated to do this work. I found people who I can not only learn from, but we’re pushing each other to do this work. The BEP coaches provide you with meaningful info, tools, and skills that allow you and your kids to flourish. This is a safe place to grow and become a better educator. For anyone looking for an experience like that, this is for you.”

Grey: “This space is almost like a well of sorts–I can be refreshed and refueled. I often give so much, and I don’t have anything else. But, I can come to a space where they’re giving so much. And that refuels you. If they can find this moment and do this for their students, maybe we can share these ideas to help us, take something back for ourselves and our communities.”

“I hope to advocate for my scholars in a way they need advocating for and teach them to advocate for themselves. The work that I’m doing–they can do that too.”

Crista Washington

Charlotte-Piedmont Triad Corps Member 2018

How has your identity as a Black educator framed/impacted your fellowship experience?

Nicollette: “I was able to be around educators and be comfortable in my skin. That has been a big deal for me–to be comfortable to say, “I don’t know that” or, “Oh, I do know that!” Recognize all those things in me that I didn’t have an opportunity to pay attention to before. My star can shine around other stars.”

Crista: “Starting as a Black person–it can be difficult to find places that are considered to be safe, seen, loved, heard, and supported. Being part of this opportunity has shown me that there is another safe space where I can show up as the Black woman I am with the different cultural experiences. We explored what we would need as Black people to show up to work whole and healthy. To be a part of this kind of environment showed me how much BEP cares about people of color and not just the fellowship. We need this kind of energy in our community so we can teach the young girls and boys behind us to be their best whole selves. 

Nelvia: “We have to be intentional about making the proper adjustments so students can thrive. I know this is Latinx History Month, but I don’t know enough history, and that bothers me as a social studies teacher. I want students to know their history and others’ history, so they can apply that to how they want to live their lives. Knowing where I’m situated makes me want to work harder."

What has been the most rewarding aspect of your fellowship experience?

Nicollete: “I’ve gotten to see a lot of Black male educators–like unicorn astronauts. This is not a myth–they’re there and doing the work. This made me realize we really can be so different and we can get together and be the most wonderful thing ever.”

Grey: “The tools to revitalize the why. To find something new to ground myself in. I understand why I’m in this space–how do I stay? And I want to leave a mark for other educators of color that are using TFA to change something about their experiences. So that we’re not tokens, we’re stakeholders. Not only speak and be heard, but enact change, for not only us and amongst the alliance, but also for the children we’re serving. They’re the primary beneficiaries.”

Crista: “My hope from being part of this experience: providing my students with more equity. Learn from those who look like me. I look forward to sharing what I learned with my scholars so they can feel seen, heard, and loved. And, I hope to advocate for my scholars in a way they need advocating for and teach them to advocate for themselves. The work that I’m doing–they can do that too. “

Brent: “Growth, progress, and refinement. I still don’t see my end in education, even my end as a second-grade teacher in the classroom. I hope to get better. I feel I’m already better. And, grow for my students. I earnestly believe that when they see growth in me, it translates to growth in them.”

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