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Indianapolis Leaders of Color: ‘Representation is Not Enough’

Young alumni and community leaders of color across roles in education share how the F.R.E.E. Fellowship’s race-based leadership development is critical for advocacy and equity.

Indianapolis canal walk illustration

By Cece Zhou

August 27, 2020

“My lived experience and identity has been as asset to the work that I do in that I have experienced trauma, hunger, bullying, economic struggles, racism, and academic and personal failure. This list is not exhaustive, but I have been through enough to know what it'll take for my students to succeed in and out of the classroom.”

Seth Shoopman
First Grade Teacher, KIPP Indy Unite Elementary
F.R.E.E. Fellow

The Indianapolis Foundation for Racial Equity in Education (F.R.E.E.) Fellowship led by JuDonne Hemingway, TFA Indy’s senior managing director of leadership development, in collaboration with TFA Indy and the Collective Indianapolis, offers professionals of color consistent access to specialized professional development, executive coaching, skill building, and community. Its inaugural cohort is comprised of 16 Indianapolis leaders of color who represent a breadth of narratives and perspectives across Black, Latinx, and AAPI racial identities. Their personal and professional experiences as people of color open pathways for them to meaningfully champion their students’ voices and aspirations.

Unequivocally, they also share the belief that representation is not enough to attain the racial equity necessary for all children to thrive in Indianapolis.

In Indianapolis, an increasing percentage of public PreK-12 students are non-white. In other words, in order to ensure all students are on a path to economic mobility and a future filled with possibility, we as educators must be equipped with the cultural competency to teach an increasingly dynamic student body, one that encompasses Black, Latinx, AAPI, multi-racial/multi-ethnic, Native American, and other racial and cultural identities. And even within those groups, students embody a diaspora of subracial groups and lived experiences distinct from the white dominant culture that we must dismantle in order to attain equitable outcomes.

Take a deeper dive into how three of our F.R.E.E. leaders has been shaped by their racial identities throughout their lives and careers, what role the F.R.E.E. Fellowship plays in emboldening their advocacy efforts, and how they’re advancing racial equity as part of a broad and diverse coalition in the circle city.


Lauren Lopez (Indy ’12): ‘Students need to know that leaders of color are being invested in’

Grades 6-7 Math Teacher, URBAN ACT Academy

As a Puerto Rican woman, I think I have a unique experience. I identify as Afro-Latina, which means that I am both Black and Latina. I honor my African ancestral ties and my Spanish ties. Racially this means that I am bi-racial, both Black and white. Ethnically and culturally, I am Puerto Rican. Accepting and understanding my identity has been a journey. Because of this mixed heritage, I have been able to sit in rooms of all types and push for equity in many ways. I do not know everything. I know I have much privilege due to my lighter skin but because of that, I feel responsibility to show up for those who aren't in the room.

So often we continue to have conversation as Black and white; it is time that leaders of color from non-Black background push anti-racist conversations in their communities as well. This is important to me because I am doing it right now. It is exhausting work, but it needs to be done. For me, the Latinx community can be just as problematic as the white community in its thoughts about Blackness. I am ready for the conversation to be had much more boldly.

As someone who comes from a low-income background, I was told education was the only way up and out. I think there is a huge correlation to educational attainment and economic mobility, and I have been a first-hand witness to this. As a leader in education, it is my job to ensure that all students, especially those who have historically been left out, receive equitable access and opportunity. It is my job to hold students to high expectations and remind them of their ‘why.’ I believe that schools and districts need to not only recruit people of color but also invest in their development, support their voices, and intentionally provide them with the space to grow and make lasting impact. Students need to know that those leaders of color are growing, are learning, are being invested in, and are being developed for more. Schools and districts need to prioritize equitable practices, equitable policies, and an intentional anti-racist agenda. Through the F.R.E.E. Fellowship, I hope to gain the skills to help push these ideas further.


Anthony Wallace: ‘Our children and families not only need us present, they need us fully engaged’

Special Education Teacher, Tindley Summit

Research shows that students of color perform better and experience academic growth when taught by a teacher of color. This means that children of color need to be taught by more teachers that look like them. But Black children not only need to see teachers of color in the classroom but all throughout the school system—as the superintendent, the principal, counselor, social worker, occupational therapist, speech pathologist, reading specialist, and more. Whatever role we occupy, we should be effective and bring change to this system of inequity. Our children and families not only need us present, they need us fully engaged. They need us bought into the community they live in. The families need us to be fierce revolutionist and activist. The families need us to fight for their survival and their future generations.

I am a firm believer of what our ancestors believed about education—education is our “way out.” Education is the first road out of a poverty mindset. Through books and intellectual conversations we are able to cross-pollinate our ideas. Education should be a platform of where we listen to one another and learn from one another.

One conversation we should be having more boldly is that "separate and unequal" still exists. This conversation is important to me because I am a teacher of color in an urban school who is aware of the resources that my students and I don’t have access to. My white counterparts live in areas where property values are high enough to adequately supply students with more and better resources. Our students of color are still receiving a second-class education. A second conversation we are not speaking to enough is the amount of trauma our children face and the lack of support they receive for their psyche. Students of color are not receiving adequate treatment that will begin to alleviate the barriers that keep them from being truly engaged in the learning process.

I am afforded the honor to be a father figure, big brother, mentor and facilitator of knowledge to the children and youth of Indianapolis. These children need their teachers of color to grow to their fullest potential. F.R.E.E provides that avenue. Indianapolis is a hub for innovative educational practices and an area where more leaders of color need to fill prominent positions within our schools.

Chidinma Uchendu (Indy ’14): ‘It has been my mission to stand in the gap for those in need’

Curriculum Developer, Public Consulting Group

Indianapolis is in an interesting and exciting phase in school reformation, because there are several avenues to make a lasting impact. This, in addition to Indy’s relational atmosphere and close-knit educational network, caused me to establish permanent roots here. I am intrigued by the current initiatives and challenges we are still facing and plan to research and question more in order to identify and understand the root causes of our challenges. The F.R.E.E. fellowship plays a vital role in providing the consistent access I need to the tools that will help me identify areas in which I can leverage my skills and unique identity in the Indianapolis educational scene, which is an opportunity I have longed for.

For years, the socio-economic and cultural injustices I faced instilled a passion for advocacy and a love for leadership. This mainly stems from witnessing the constant rallies, battles, debates, sacrifices and risks my mother took as a leader in her community, and as a mother. Her perseverance, persistence, and firm stance on justice caused me to develop a stubborn but diplomatic mindset which spurred me into human rights. My mother fought for the rights of the girl child in my town, especially the child’s right to education and self-sufficiency. As a witness to her struggles and a proponent of her belief in education as a fundamental human right and necessity, I fell in love with education. This is what inspired me to pursue teaching via Teach for America. My experiences as an urban educator taught me a three-fold systematic approach; understand, create, and motivate. Teaching caused me to see beyond the surface, thus allowing me to dig deeper to find the ‘root cause’ of the problem which is often ignored or misunderstood.

My exposure in the corps and work with outside advocacy and policy groups in Indianapolis—the Office of Mayor Greg Ballard, Urban Leaders Fellowship, LEE, Coalition for Educational Equity (CEE-Indy) — caused me to rethink how I can make a greater impact. Eventually, in conjunction with the programs’ philosophies, and my African traditions and beliefs, I championed the ‘Ubuntu’ ideology which enabled me to be collaborative in my practice and engaged in the community I served. In all, I have learned to perceive problems and complexities as windows of opportunities and new understanding, which has helped me remain persistent in my goals, and persevere through difficulties.

it is imperative that we see examples, models, and images of who we are and what we want to become. As humans we all want to be seen, heard, understood and protected. We want to see people who share our views and understand our plight in positions that can defend our freedoms, and cause change. A Black girl who wants to be a tech developer, is encouraged when she sees examples of other Black women who are in the same field. An elder who has lived in a neighborhood that will succumb to gentrification—and lead to his displacement—wants someone who will fight for and protect his interest. Unfortunately in the present, this is a need that is sought after but scarce.

It has been my mission to stand in the gap for those in need. It is my aim to reach for strategic areas in which I can affect change and lobby for the interest of parties involved. I believe that we need a seat at the bargaining table in order to ensure that decisions are not made for us but made with us. This has been the driving force behind my aspirations and leadership philosophy.


Learn more about our F.R.E.E. fellows.