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Indy's Leading Changemakers: Celebrating Our Black And African American Leaders

For Black History Month, we celebrate our Black and African American corps members and alumni who are committed to the movement for educational equity here in Indianapolis. Learn how our leaders are contributing to collective impact. #OneDayINdy

A young Black teacher holds the classroom door open for her student.

February 21, 2018

Here in Indianapolis, more than 80 Black and African American Teach For America alumni and corps members are contributing to systemic change. Hear from several of our leaders about their career paths and aspirations, how their racial identities have shaped and driven their work, and how they are leveraging their individual careers to contribute to the collective movement towards educational equity.

Shanae Staples (Metro Atlanta 09), Alumna

Current Role: Founding School Leader, Kindezi Academy

As the School Leader, I am responsible for the development, implementation, and management of our school's academic and culture visions. I support teachers and administration in achieving strong academic outcomes for students, developing strong and meaningful partnerships with students and families, and in growing their instructional practice and leadership. 

Career Path: 

As a member of the 2009 Metro Atlanta corps, I taught first grade at G.A. Towns Elementary. I remained at my placement school after my TFA commitment before joining the Metro Atlanta staff as a Manager of Teacher Leadership Development. There, I supported 37 second-year corps members, across various contents and grade levels. I moved to Indianapolis and joined the 2013 Indianapolis Principal Fellowship, while serving as the Founding Academic Dean of Enlace Academy on Indy's west side. In 2015, I was selected to receive an Innovative School Fellowship from The Mind Trust and spent a year working with the founding Enlace team and board to plan and charter Kindezi Academy. I am now in my second year as the founding school leader there. My long term goals are to continue having a profound impact on students in underserved communities and educators in developing their instructional and leadership capacities.

Identity/Role Models/Education Pursuit: 

My identity as a Black woman has had a profound impact on the work I have done in education. In my own upbringing, I was afforded opportunities in education that even my own siblings did not have access to. Having attended a high performing, private school in elementary, I was tracked to gifted and advanced placement courses upon entering public school. My neighborhood peers and brothers were often tracked to remedial and low-rigor courses. I watched low expectations and low rigor instruction become a staple for students who shared my identity and grew up in low income areas all the way through college.

My parents and family were always purposeful about sharing the power in my identity and ancestry and ensuring I capitalized on the educational privileges I had been afforded. In college, one of my professors, Dr. Stephanie Evans, continued pushing me to walk in my legacy and genius as a black woman by pushing me academically and personally to pursue and excel in rigorous courses. This  led me to join the TFA corps and work to provide equitable education for all students, regardless of identity and socio-economic status. I also felt an imperative to help students understand their identity development and the history of their culture to empower them to stand on their foundation as kings and queens, innovators and creators, and engineers of society.

Leah Birhanu (Indianapolis 17), Corps Member

Current Role: 7th Grade Mathematics Teacher, Indiana Math and Science Academy West

Career Goals: 

My short-term goal is to implement some kind of permanent art program at my school to help give the middle school students more of an outlet for self expression. In the long-term, I plan on continuing my work in education and joining the Teach For America staff.

How has your racial/cultural identity influenced your perspective on diversity, equity, and inclusiveness? 

Throughout the past year and a half, I've chosen to spend a lot of time creating art to help me understand my identity as an ever-changing part of myself, rather than one singular box to check. I've begun to see how difficult it is to define my identity, and how beautiful that is. I can empower myself and challenge my students to do the same by bringing their authentic selves into the classroom every day.

Which individuals and/or experiences have most shaped your identity?

I was adopted at the age of one from Ethiopia into a wonderful biracial and bicultural family, and this has without a doubt changed my life the most. I grew up being encouraged to stay grounded in my experience and connected to my culture. There is a high percentage of kids who share similar identities at my school, and it's been so awesome to be able to connect with their experience and create more genuine relationships in the classroom!

Mychael Spencer (Indianapolis 13), Alumnus

Current Role: Principal, Stonybrook Intermediate Academy, MSD of Warren Township

Career Path: 

I was a 2013 Indianapolis corps member. During my final semester in the corps, I also served as the Dean of Students for the Freshman Academy. I was accepted into the Indianapolis Principal Fellowship in the Spring of 2013. I was an Assistant Principal in IPS before transitioning into my current role as Principal in the fall of 2016.

Why did you choose to pursue education?

When asked this question, I often say that education chose me. Originally, I had intended to pursue a career in medicine. However, almost immediately after I stepped foot in the classroom, it was clear that the school was the very place that I was needed at this time in my life. I feel that education is at the epicenter of many disparities within our community. By serving as an educator, I feel that I have the potential to make a direct impact on the trajectory of my students and community.

Brianna Stephens (Indianapolis 17), Corps Member

Current Role: Spanish Teacher, Northwest Community High School

Career Goals: 

Right now I'm focusing on developing into the educator that my students deserve. In the long-term, I would like to get into elected leadership to fight for educational equity on a much larger scale. 

How has your racial/cultural identity influenced your perspective on diversity, equity, and inclusiveness?

Growing up, I saw how children of color, including myself, were disadvantaged by the educational system. And many of the same problems are still present. By being able to understand what my students are going through, I can help them navigate their feeling and their frustrations and I can help them to voice what they are.

Which individuals and/or experiences have most shaped your identity?

My grandfather, who passed in 2016, was a champion of education for his children and grandchildren. He did not have the opportunity to finish high school. Nevertheless, he worked several jobs at once to make sure his children went on to higher education and then continued to save money for his their future children to go as well. He helped me pay for college and instilled in me such a great love for education. He helped so many people besides just his family, because he understood the importance of generosity to those around us. 

Darius Sawyers (Indianapolis 13), Alumnus

Current Role: Assistant Principal, Paramount School of Excellence

In this role, I observe, support, and evaluate teachers. Also, I manage the school's recovery system which supports student’s readiness to read, write, and perform mathematics.

Career Path: 

I started my TFA corps career in Fall 2013, teaching high school Biology and Physics at Fall Creek Academy. After two years at FCA, I spent eight months working at TeenWorks, which is a non-profit providing summer jobs to high school students. In the spring of 2016, I returned to the classroom, becoming the Middle School Team Lead at 103. This leadership experience propelled me to apply for TFA Indy’s, Indianapolis Principal’s Fellowship. This fellowship afforded me the opportunity to attend Columbia University to earn a Master’s in Educational Leadership. My time at Columbia University prepared me to assume the Assistant Principal role at Paramount School of Excellence for the 2017-2018 school year.

How has your racial/cultural identity influenced your perspective on diversity, equity, and inclusiveness?

Being a black man in America has made me more conscious of having a seat at the table. I have watched many decisions being made for communities that went against that community’s desires. They did not have the voice or platform to speak up for their beliefs. This reality has constantly driven me to ensure I provide a voice to the voiceless and hope to the hopeless.

Why did you choose to pursue education? 

I chose to pursue a career in education because of my educational experiences. I attended Indianapolis Public Schools throughout my K-12 education. I graduated second in my senior class, and thought I had been equipped to handle the academic rigor of college. However, once I made it to Indiana University, I found myself studying three times as long as my peers to pass the same exams. This let me know my K-12 education did not prepare me like I anticipated. At this moment, I decided I did not want other students to face these academic barriers. I joined Teach For America to ensure students could see their true potential as they reach their goals.

Aleesia Johnson (New Jersey 02), Alumna

Current Role: Innovation Officer, Indianapolis Public Schools

I’m responsible for the design and execution of the district’s strategy as it relates to the launch and expansion of Innovation Network Schools. I’m also responsible for the design and execution of our district’s efforts to expand school-based autonomy.

Career Path: 

I started my career in education in 2002 as a Teach For America corps member in Paterson, NJ where I taught 6th grade Social Studies and Science. After my corps commitment, I returned back to Indiana (my home state!) to be a founding teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep Middle School. I taught at KIPP Indy until 2008 when I joined the founding Teach For America Indianapolis as a Program Director. In 2010, I returned to KIPP Indy to join the school leadership team and remained there until 2015 when I joined IPS as the first Innovation Officer. In terms of the future, I’ve enjoyed systems leadership and look forward to continuing my work to contribute to my community through this work.

How has your racial/cultural identity influenced your perspective on diversity, equity, and inclusiveness? 

My racial identity is inextricably connected to my perspective on diversity, equity, and inclusiveness. I am a black woman; I live my life and do my work as a black woman. I am a mother of black children. So, my perspective on those topics is a lived perspective and experience. We know that we live in a country that has been built on systemically racist policies and that much of what we work to address in education is the result of those policies. The work for me is deeply personal because, quite literally, the well-being of my family, my children is at risk.

Why did you choose to pursue education? 

I think education ultimately chose me. My mom was a teacher for several years and is now an elementary school principal. It wasn’t the field I initially sought to enter though I knew I wanted to work in a field being in service to others. Ultimately, I decided education would be a good fit because (1) I loved school—still do!—and (2) I had a lot of admiration for my mom and her work with students and couldn’t think of anything more impactful and important to do than to try and have that same impact on a group of students.