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Educators of Color Encouraged to Find Their “Get Down”

This year, the annual Corps Member of Color Retreat went virtual, with a theme of "caged bird" inspired by Maya Angelou. 

Lunch at Corps Member of Color Retreat

By Derick Derick Stephenson

February 26, 2021

Since 2017, Teach For America Eastern North Carolina has hosted a regional convening known as the Corps Member of Color Retreat.

The retreat initiated from an intentional effort to create a space designated specifically for corps members of color to build community among one another, in addition to allowing them to connect with staff and TFA alumni of color. Traditionally, the retreat consists of participants convening in one location to engage in a series of professional development sessions, discussions, and outings as a community.

The Retreat Goes Virtual

This year, the tradition continued virtually with the Corps Member of Color Union and Re-Union. In December of 2020, Teach For America Eastern North Carolina hosted the CMOC Union—a panel discussion offered to current corps members of color in the region.

Panelists aligned their talking points with the theme of the “caged bird,” inspired by Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The theme was selected out of reverence for Maya Angelou’s legacy, which possesses a powerful narrative of resilience and triumph. The “caged bird” was used as a representation of the shared experience for people of color in the pursuit of equity.

For Teach For America Eastern North Carolina, emphasis was placed on corps members of color convening around the theme to build community, as well as better understanding how the collective can better support the individual in their development. Thus, in continuation of the conversations generated by the CMOC Union, Teach For America Eastern North Carolina presented the opportunity for corps members of color to reunite once again.

Profound Impact

When speaking of how the Corps Member of Color Retreat (CMOC) has benefitted him throughout the years, Teach for America Eastern North Carolina 2016 alum Jerry Clyde says, “It gave me the resources to empower my students and for me to help them identify their identity, and help them to tap into their power when they are in these difficult places.”

Many alumni who have attended past retreats offered reflections of how powerful it was to have a space designated for building relationships with other people of color. The retreat “really helped me find a sense of community and really helped me feel like I was truly supported,” says Stephen Ucheomumu (Eastern North Carolina ’18). 

Often, many alumni go a step further, acknowledging their appreciation for Teach For America Eastern North Carolina staff member Keiyonna Dubashi, the visionary who has been the lead advocate and organizer for the retreat each year.

“It gave me the resources to empower my students and for me to help them identify their identity, and help them to tap into their power when they are in these difficult places.”

Jerry Clyde

Eastern North Carolina Corps Member 2016

Building Community through 'Villages'

“Villages” are at the heart of the CMOC Re-Union: they are small groups that participants are invited into, serving as an intimate community for activities and reflections. Throughout the two-day virtual experience, under the direction of facilitators referred to as “Village Guides,” educators explored how their personal journeys aligned with the “caged bird” theme.

They grappled with questions such as:

  • What is your bird?
  • What is your cage?
  • How can our community support you with releasing your bird from the cage?

These questions prompted beginning teachers to vocalize challenges they were currently facing and allowed them to name the type of support they needed, particularly from a community of people of color. One corps member offered the following reflection of their “cage” and current obstacle(s):

Education is a wild ride of growth, joy, sorrow, and struggle. As much as we teach our children to be who they are, education stifles the teachers who speak these words. This might just be a feeling of someone who struggles in a cage of fear, expectation, and identity. […] I know that my whole story needs to be told to be free. I am my untold story and it still hides in this cage.”

Many educators who attended the event shared similar sentiments within their reflections, indicating the necessity for a community that understands their experience and provides wisdom.

The 'Get Down'

Wisdom Amouzou (Colorado '13), Empower Community High School co-founder and executive director, was able to empathize with obstacles that current corps members shared. In his Re-Union keynote speech, he highlighted areas of his career in education that made him in tune with how the caged bird feels, ultimately expressing how the urge to present himself to his students in a more authentic fashion led him to his “Get Down.”

Alluding to the Netflix series The Get Down that follows the rise of hip-hop music and culture in the 1970s, Wisdom shared that his personal “get down” was sparked by a street drummer’s performance. According to Wisdom, despite having never played the drums before, after fundraising for equipment through, he found that incorporating music into his algebra lessons helped increase his connectivity to his students and impacted the culture of the classroom. Additionally, it assisted him in breaking apart from the stereotypical understanding of teaching.

As part of his message, participants were challenged to consider how this may apply to their circumstance, emphasizing the necessity for educators to merge their passions and things that bring them joy with how they present themselves in the classroom.

More directly, Wisdom prompted all who listened to answer the central question of his speech: “What is your get down?”