Watch Teach For America CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard’s Featured Session at SXSW EDU
The rapidly evolving education landscape took center stage in March at SXSW EDU’s first-ever entirely digital event. The closing day featured a powerful conversation between Teach For America CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard and Big Picture Learning Co-Executive Director Carlos Moreno, focusing on the leadership needed to reinvent teaching and learning for the future.
Elisa and Carlos tackled questions like: How can we develop the next generation of diverse, equity-oriented leaders in the field? What should classrooms of the future look like? How can we move away from a one-size-fits-all model and meet every student where they are, build on their unique aspirations and strengths, and meet their unmet needs?
Watch these two dynamic educators who are helping to define a new era in education leadership:
SXSW EDU: Educator Leadership for Equity and Justice
Carlos Moreno: Thank you, Elisa. I’m super-jazzed for this conversation. It's great to finally meet you in person—or virtually. And I'm coming to you from a wintry northern New Jersey—in Montclair, New Jersey. So excited for our time together today.
Elisa: Yes. Maybe we should start with introductions. My name's Elisa Villanueva Beard, and I'm the CEO for Teach For America. I’ve been in my role since 2015. And I have been with the organization—really grown up with the organization—since 1998, when I was a corps member, and I’ve been on staff in various roles for nearly 20 years now.
Carlos: Wow, that's just uncanny, our parallels. So, I’m Carlos Moreno, the co-executive director of Big Picture Learning, and I have been with the organization for exactly 19 years and have been in this ED role also since 2015 and have held a variety of roles during my journey. It feels like we've been on somewhat parallel tracks.
Elisa: Yes. And look forward to being able to share a cup of coffee with you when things sort of get back to normal. Well, I'm excited about the ground that we're going to cover today in our conversation and to really just center on this historic moment in time for education and our students, and what it means for the learning and leadership required so we are pursuing equity and justice for our kids and for our country. I’m really psyched to be able to dig into the content today.
Carlos: Same here. I'm really excited for it.
Carlos: Again, we’re unscripted—so it's just kind of flowing. I was going to start off just by asking you a little bit about you and the work that you're doing. And is there something about your own personal and professional upbringing that led you to this place that we're in right now?
Elisa: Yes. Thank you for asking, Carlos. So, I grew up in South Texas, which is where my story begins. I grew up on the Texas-Mexico border. And my mom came to the United States from Mexico at the age of 17 with a formal eighth grade education. My father's family is also from Mexico. But my mom figured out when she got here that education was a pathway to opportunity. So much so that she decided, “If I'm going to get married, I'm going to pick a man who has a college degree.” She had convinced herself that if she married a man with a college degree that her kids’ lives would be different. My dad is, by the way, awesome, and they've been married for 48 years.
My mom always told me and my siblings—three girls and one boy— “I want to make sure that you all are self-sufficient, and you don't have to depend on anyone to live your full life. Education is the pathway.” So it wasn't a surprise when I ended up in college in the Midwest. I went to a small, really incredible liberal arts school called DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana—which is a world away from McAllen, Texas, and the Texas-Mexico border. And when I got there, I met a new America. I met a white America. I met a middle-class, upper-middle-class America. And I was convinced that the hardest part of my adjustment would be that I was in this this new world. And then I came to realize pretty quickly, when the classes started, that I was really underprepared for the rigors of college. And the reason that was shocking is because I was that kid that did everything right. I was the kid that got straight A’s. I was student body president. I was an all-star basketball player.
And to then be confronting a reality where I thought I wasn’t going to make it—I started to believe I wasn't college material, and that this place wasn't for me. So much so that I called my mom a few months into it and told her I didn't think I was going to make it, and I thought I needed to come home. And she said, with the very strong support of my dad: “You're actually not welcome home until you get your degree from DePauw University. You can do it, and you’ve got to keep going.” And so for an 18-year-old to hear that, that's deeply struggling, was really difficult. But the only way to get to the other side was to go through it. And so I just kept going. I learned to ask for help early in my life. My professors were incredible.
I did terribly my first semester. I did better my second semester. And then I was thriving. I was just as competitive as anyone else, because of course I could do it. Of course I had it in me to do it. And I thought I was going to be a lawyer. And then I just started to get mad about what had happened to me that first year. I started to ask the questions like, “Who else does this happen to?” And how is it possible that kids can do everything right, you feel literally lied to, and then the challenge is that many don't make it through. It shouldn’t be up to any kid’s will or whatever to have to push through such a thing.
And that's what led me to my passion of working toward educational equity and excellence for all kids. And I found my path through Teach For America. I had a friend in college who joined Teach For America, and I started to realize, “Oh, wow, this is a group of folks who just reject reality as it is, and are so committed to creating a fundamentally different world for our kids alongside many others—and will tear down walls for kids—whatever it takes.” And I wanted to be part of that team.
We know that this problem is deeply systemic. We know for a fact that all kids have the intelligence. All kids, no matter what, can do it. They just don't have the opportunity. Many interventions are needed. And what TFA does is we bring leadership to the field—exceptional, equity-oriented leaders. We find, we rigorously select, we train, and we support our teachers to go into low-income communities in urban and rural America for at least two years. And the idea is that they do whatever it takes to meet the needs of our kids. And in that pursuit, they're also learning about the system. They're learning about their own leadership and developing their leadership to pursue change for the rest of their lives.
We've been up to this for 30 years now. Our network is 65,000 strong, and folks are working within education and outside it to drive the change, whether it's in government and policy, law and medicine, or social entrepreneurship. And what I'm most proud of is that, when you look at our entire alumni base, 80 percent of them literally have committed their lives to working in education or have a career serving a low-income community, when most of us were not on that path. We met our kids and our hearts and minds change forever—and we pursued working to ensure every child has an equal chance in life ever since. So that's my story and how it connects to the work that I do at Teach for America. And what about you?
Carlos: My goodness, there are so many synergies. Thank you for sharing that, Elisa. A short, short version—and I'd love to, when conditions allow us to be in person, to actually share more deeply in terms of our journeys—but I’m a son of immigrant parents from the Caribbean, athlete in high school, played basketball as well. I'd love to hoop it up with you at some point.
I knew that, just because of the conditions in which I grew up, and the experiences that I had as a young person growing up in the Bronx, I needed to change my circumstances. And for me, the only path that I knew existed at that time was to leave New York, leave the Bronx, and get a college education, and go into business—not really knowing what that was. And I did that. But in that journey, I was constantly challenged by someone who was a good friend of mine. And I need to say his name—Danique Dolly—who, when I was finishing up my undergraduate degrees, he was finishing up his master's in teaching. And he used to challenge me around how important it was for more Black and brown brothers to be in education. And I used to give him a hard time because he went to a prep school, and I didn't go to prep school. And he had his own story, which I wasn't listening to and wasn't trying to hear. I had my own preconceived notions of his journey. And I was just like, “You know what? When all young people can have the type of experiences that you had in high school, let me know—and I'll consider going into education. But for now, I'm going to go try to make some money.”
Long story short, fast forward, after working in business, and at an international nonprofit for a while, we ran into each other. He told me about the school where he had been teaching at for a number of years, and it was about to expand across the country, and he was about to become a principal. And he was so insistent on it. And he got me to come in and spend a half-day in that community. And talking with young people, and watching the interaction of the adults with the young people—the ownership that young people had in there and for their learning, and it was unlike anything I had seen. I didn't think it was possible. I started volunteering. And next thing I know, I'm having really deep conversations with my significant other about a career change, and I'm in the classroom the next year. And fast forward 18, 19 years later, here we are.
Elisa: I love it. That’s incredible. Thank you for sharing that. And I want to, I want to dig more into that, as you say, when time allows. Maybe, Carlos, what we should do next is talk about what all that means in the context of this pandemic and what it means for our kids and our students. Let’s start with situating the reality that we're living in right now as a reminder to us all.
The truth of the matter is that we're a year into this pandemic, schools being shut down nearly a year. We still have 15-16 million kids who lack access to devices or connectivity—so they’re locked out of learning, literally. We have 1-3 million kids who we don't know where they are. They're lost because they haven’t engaged with us since schools closed. Half of our kids are still not learning in school. And we also know that studies are telling us we can expect for our kids to be six months to 12 months behind. And that doesn’t even consider where they were coming into this. And then, of course, we know that our kids aren't having the ordinary social interactions. Not all of our kids are in safe environments. And we're watching the spikes in anxiety, depression, suicide rates for kids under the age of 18. And that’s the reality we’re in.
And of course, when we say “OK, and who's been impacted the most?” Those being impacted the most are of course those that are feeling the effects of Covid, the economic downturn, the longstanding racial inequity and injustice that exists most for our kids and our communities of color and kids growing up in low-income communities. So we center in all of that. And then you ask “What this means for education?”
And I heard this great metaphor, and tell me if it resonates with you—but it did for me—from a colleague who said, in education, it's like we've been driving on this road, and the road has never worked for us. There's been potholes in the road the entire time. We see shards of glass, nails strewn all around, and we just continue to figure out how to dodge the risks and find parts of the road that make us go faster, to make progress. But what's happened with Covid is our tires have literally imploded, and we're racing to figure out how to patch up the tires, get air in them, and get the car moving again. But we could do that, and the car just isn’t going to go very far because the road already doesn't work—the road hasn't worked for a long time for our kids. And so, isn't this a moment and a time to just say, What if we invested in a new car—maybe a new car that doesn't even need tires? What if we started to build an entirely new road? And maybe even interrogate if the current road [is] leading us to the destination we want in the 21st century environment, in global society. Is the road built to lead us to the right place?
And what if we just came to terms with the fact that this education system was built over 100 years ago—different time, different place? It didn't even assume girls and kids of color were part of the workforce or, you know, public life. And this is a moment to say, what if we responded and reinvented our learning and the leadership development to get on a fundamentally different trajectory? That's the opportunity here.
And there's so many folks doing such great work that have been thinking about this for so long. And you're one of them—you and your organization at Big Picture Learning have been up to this and obsessed with student learning and centering students in the design of schools. So, I'm just so excited to learn from you and have you share, what does this moment mean, and what are you learning as you consider the work ahead?
Carlos: I so appreciate that, and proud to just share a little bit about where we are. I think we would both agree, and I think the consensus is around what education should be, and it should prepare young people for life, work, and citizenship. But the question still remains—and often even in our own learner-centered world—whose life, whose work and citizenship that is truly in service of who?
So, our schools are charters, and they’re district schools, and serve predominantly any combination of some of these following groups—and I'll use some familiar labels: students of color; students that qualify for free or reduced lunch; English language learners; new arrivals to this beautiful country; students with learning disabilities; and students that are living day in and day out with unaddressed trauma.
Now, we like to think about our people in slightly different ways, right? We talk about our learners as young people who come from incredibly culturally rich communities, caring and loving homes and families, and learners who are brilliant, who are absolutely caring, talented, and all-around badasses that are just hungry for a window of opportunity that they just haven't had an opportunity to have.
In terms of the hallmarks of our Big Picture Learning design, I always try to bring in the voices of folks who I think have just said what we believe so beautifully. And the sister bell hooks just talked about how education, at its purest, is a practice of freedom. And for us, our form of teaching and learning is deeply engaged, needs to be deeply engaged, and exciting for both the teachers and the learners. And when we think about this practice of freedom, you have both parties who are equal players in contributing and sharing in this learning experience, and students who are not just taught information that they're expected to commit to memory and recall when asked—but rather they learn to think critically in this nonconformist way, in an unconfined way.
And the adults in our schools, who educate as this practice of freedom, teach not only to share information, but to share in this kind of intellectual jujitsu and, like, spiritual growth of our babies. I think what's beautiful, Elisa, is that when students are taught in this liberatory kind of way, the lessons that they learn carry over into their lives outside of the classroom as well. And that's, for us—I think we would agree--that's the big purpose of education. And over the years, I've learned that—from both of our work as teachers, principals, and in my work as a district leader—that we are all born with this insatiable thirst to constantly learn and grow and are changed by our ideas. Right? And we're born curious, and we're excited when we discover new things and concepts. I’ve seen it with my own daughter. I know you've seen it with your beautiful boys. Somehow, somewhere in grade school, learning becomes uncool, unexciting, and just straight up boring. And then, that's when we get into our parent-teacher-educator mode.
And I've shared recently that I believe that true equity-driven, learner-centered education should feel and look like love to educators. And when people hear that, they're like, “Oh my gosh, here goes Carlos on this love talk.”
But when we think about it, like, what does love feel like? Because we've all been in love, and hopefully we're in love. Right? You bounce between exhilaration and euphoria and increased energy. You have some sleeplessness and loss of appetite, some accelerated breathing. But you also experience some anxiety, right? A little panic, and feelings of despair when your relationship suffers or your plan suffers even the smallest setbacks, because you care so deeply. And that's what it might feel within a Big Picture Learning school that is humming on all cylinders—because that's not how it always is and not how it always feels—but when you see it and you feel it, it's pretty beautiful.
Now, in a much more practical way, some of the core elements and practices that you will see across our schools are, we always begin with paying attention to the whole learner. So, focusing on the learners’ interests, their passions, their lived experiences, their challenges, knowing their families deeply and their community deeply, and knowing all these things, give us a very different entry-point into working with our young people. And one that's a lot more challenging, I think, is that you will see our schools begin our work by focusing on students’ strengths and not their deficiencies. Right? So, providing each learner with that freedom to develop and grow and just recognizing their responsibilities and accountabilities to their communities, and to themselves, and to their families, is really a transformational moment our young people. And it looks like young people learning outside in the real world for us, engaging in—through their own selection and choice—internships, apprenticeships, shadow days, learning expeditions, all those components. And working and learning alongside adults around really specific areas of interest and curiosity for them while also having that opportunity to learn, explore, expand the possibilities, and begin the process of building their own professional networks and developing social capital, which is so important for so many of our young people.
I'll just say, lastly, around these elements, that we're just using an archaic set of tools for judging competence in this country. So we need to assign a high value to demonstrations of competence. We talk about knowledge, skills, and dispositions—and doing so in real-world settings and contexts. So broadening and deepening the evidence we will expect, accept, and start to respect regarding learning. So a final and important element that you'll find in our schools is that students can demonstrate learning in different ways, whether it's presentations of learning, exhibitions, student-led conferences with elementary school students, or portfolio defenses—like any number of different forms where learners can demonstrate their grasp of content. Just these rigorous assessment methods employed, and true learner-centered schools even take that a step further and show that not only have students grasped concepts, but that they know how to apply them.
And lastly and relatedly, with regards to what we're seeing and learning during Covid, we have seen standardized testing be completely canceled in some places. My home state, New York State, did it. And it makes you wonder: if these assessments can be easily canceled, could we perhaps take the time to reassess how we assess learners? And use these tests to improve learning and teaching post Covid and remove the high stakes tethered to these assessments?
And we also continue to hear from educators, students, and families—from not just our schools, but also some more conventional schools and systems—who are trying to navigate how to innovate and personalize the learning for their young people without being physically in a school building, or with in-person restrictions if they're meeting in person. I know y’all are in person in Houston. And there has been a unique opportunity for the spread of the learner-centered approach that focuses more on student interests based on real-world, connected learning. So, it's a lot we're seeing, a lot that we're learning. And I'm sure it's just going to continue.
And it leads me, Elisa—I'll share as a lead-in [to a] question I have for you, is that we need an urgent approach that addresses the fissures within education. That begins with conversations and action around racial inequities and how the design of our school systems has been failing BIPOC students for far too long. So I'd love if you could share, how are you and Teach For America thinking about what's needed right now for your teachers?
Elisa: You are speaking my language, Carlos. Everything you said is just what I think is needed. And it's a moment for us to ask, how do we grab on to this? Because I'm just so struck by watching our alums who are leading in classrooms, and our principals [and] system leaders who are leading in the way you're describing—and how do we codify these incredible pockets of possibility of ways to do work that lead to real results for kids?
I am just so focused on the idea that we cannot leave a generation behind, which is the conversation right now. We're literally on the brink of leaving an entire generation behind. And when I think about that, as you describe, I think about it on all fronts—our children's mental and emotional wellness that must be addressed with love and with cultural competence, you know, as you described, and also academics of course, and just overall quality of life.
And I would say top of mind for me are a couple things. The first is, can we just get the basics right, from like, what our kids need in terms of tools? We've been talking about the digital divide for decades. There are still 15 million kids that do not have access to devices and connectivity, as I said earlier. And we're a year into this. It's unacceptable. It's just unacceptable. We've got to resolve this as a country. Let's solve it you all! Because this isn't going away. We live in a digital age. We live in a connected, global society. And this is a tool for learning. I've never said this is “the thing,” but this isn't going away. And so, how we prepare to go back to school—with backpacks and pencils and paper—devices and connectivity go on that list. And then, alongside that, let's really get our teachers developed on how to become proficient in using this tool so that we're optimizing it as a tool for real learning and possibility. That’s one thing.
The second thing I would say—which really is just building off what you said—is we have to approach this with a humanistic and trauma-informed approach to our kids. The thing that I'm most worried about is that we see, “Oh my gosh, learning loss—[that means] remediation. [But] the way into this is through kids’ interests, as you say. Our kids are so disengaged. This is the time to figure out where they really are, what they’re passionate about, what they want. And that's the way in.
And, to the point about love, you and I speak the same language. We actually did a study on this. We studied our teachers that were good in their first year and were good in their second year, and [our] teachers that were good and became great. We had all these theories on what was going to be the lever that makes them great. You know what it is? It's love and relationships. It's when we're able to really see our kids as our very own that you just go all in. And that's just a non-negotiable for us as we are approaching our kids. And as they come in with jagged student profiles, there's not going to be a way for us to say, “Oh, you are all third graders. Here's what we can expect then.” No.
And so, to your point around testing, we do have to figure out how to get information about our kids so that we can be strategic and smart about the interventions. I totally agree that high-stakes testing is not the thing to learn to. But [we need] a tool to empower our kids and our families to know where our kids are academically, and on all these dimensions of development, so that we can really drive and own the learning ahead.
The other thing that I will say is, just like we’re leaning in to support our students, we have to lean in to support our teachers in this moment. The social and emotional wellness that we have to nurture in our kids, we must also nurture in our educators.
Our teachers, as everyone has seen now—everyone has access to some [idea] of, what does it mean to be a teacher?—it's really hard, and our teachers hold so much. And some people try to make this two different conversations, about students or teachers. Well, you all, we have to be about both. This is a mutually reinforcing relationship, and conditions have to exist for students and for teachers to thrive, to be their best selves, to unleash their own creativity and leadership, to meet the moment.
And the final thing that I will say that's on my mind is, this is not an education problem or “that district's” problem. This is a community challenge. The pandemic has shown us, our schools do so much. They hold so much together. Our kids come to schools with so many unmet needs. And it's not sustainable or durable for us to say [that] the schools have to solve all these problems. Instead, we need an ecosystem of support. All these systems are interconnected. They all play out in the classroom. So how do we come and orient ourselves to [the idea] that every kid is our kid? We all have a responsibility to lean into the creative solutions to be community-driven in how we support our kids. And so that’s top of mind for me.
I think prioritizing these actions helps to get us on a path to not only responding but considering how do we reinvent and do the work differently. That's what's top of mind when we consider training and supporting our own teachers.
And with all of this, Carlos, the thing that's so top of mind is the leadership required to walk through the moment and be able to lean into it. So I'm just so curious…This has been a hard year—what are your thoughts on the attributes of leadership that you're leaning into or you're observing are just so critical for us to be able to meet the moment for our country, for our kids, and for our future?
Carlos: Thanks, Elisa, and definitely we need to get that coffee when we're able to. I'll say, my leadership has been tested during the past year. I don't think any of us would have imagined being in the state that we're in. And it's reminded me that the role of a leader is not inherently attached to an overflowing basin of knowledge. It's, in fact, quite the opposite.
Carlos: So, as I’ve started to approach leadership, it is important to accept that there is much required and expected of me, and much required and expected of us. But I also understand that I am constantly learning and growing in ways that impact and shape my approach to leadership. So I am a different leader today than I was a year ago. And this is where I think that admitting that I don't know what I don't know, while bringing with me my lived experiences—those forged, whether in the Bronx or in Rhode Island or in Jersey—totally influence how I lead. And acknowledging limitations of knowledge, experience, and a willingness for me to do so publicly, is part of my personal journey.
And just given all that we have been experiencing, more than ever, leadership matters, as you pointed out. And particularly the breakthrough leadership that I, and we, advocate for. And rather than just adjust to new norms, we encourage leaders to not settle, but rather push for new forms. And when we talk about new forms, we talk about new forms that recognize the importance of culturally relevant leadership and the importance of Black and brown students seeing themselves reflected in their teachers and what that means for their success.
One of the things I've learned over the years is that creating authentic and deep, lasting relationships with young people is at the center of care in leadership. And when we talk about true servant leaders—true servant leaders know that vision doesn't exist in some far-off future, right? A vision is where you come from each day, and it's how you think, it's how you act. And living the vision means making an intentional effort to achieve goals now and work our mojo to bring the future into the present, which is not easy. And as people that lead or aspire to lead in transformational ways, it's our duty to channel what I call our leadership soul. We can call it spirit, essence, or source. It's the force behind our thoughts. It's the stuff that makes us who we are. And it's our words and our actions.
True servant leaders understand and tap into this inner voice to manifest our vision, our values, and our actions. I listen to that inner voice. And it's more commonly referred to as our character. And Elisa, you and I know, because we've been around the block, character is so critical in youth work. Because one's true character, especially in adults, always shows up. Everyone tries to define it, and it's not hard. It's what you choose to do when no one is watching you. So this leadership work, that channels this leadership soul, calls for a devotion to a practice of—for me it’s, like, self-reflection, ongoing inner growth, awareness, and education. It's just followed by this consistent action in support of our vision toward this more inclusive world for our babies.
And once again, on a more practical level, that work can look something like being selfless and kind to yourself. Recognize that you're your own chief steward. It's about doing the work. We got to acquire knowledge. It’s our giving, our influence, and our compassion. It's about creating safe spaces. We have to identify our trusted circles. And when we can be fully vulnerable and love with abandon—and then we’ve always got to focus on impact. Do the little things, and then I firmly believe the successes and the wins and the breakthroughs will come after that. So, I'd love to—now, this is our first interaction—consider you as part of that inner circle, as I think we're kindred spirits in some ways, and continue to build and become that for one another. So that's some of my theory around leadership and what I think is necessary.
Elisa: Yes. It so resonates, and it's a lot of what's on my mind too, Carlos. I’ve synthesized three things that I'm intentionally focused on, and you literally hit on all of them. I call—the first one is spiritual hope, which I've been practicing and leaning into, and I'll describe what that means in a second. And then learning how to stand powerfully in the face of uncertainty is my second one. And then the third is centering equity in everything that we do.
So, on the spiritual hope one, my observation—as you said—is that the most transformational leaders are able to live in this hope and possibility, even in the midst of so much challenge, which I, too, have experienced as you described. This last year has been really hard for me, personally and professionally. And you're able to sort of sustain that hope. I've been thinking and leaning a lot into this, and I always carry Dr. Martin Luther King’s words with me, where he says, “We must accept finite disappointment but never lose infinite hope.” And so that's always been something that I carry with me.
And I've gotten deeper in this, where I've been learning and studying this teacher and psychologist named Tara Brach, who gave me the words spiritual hope. Her principles come from Buddhist practice, but there really are similarities to many faiths, I would say, and many spiritual paths. But the essence of spiritual hope is that—it is centered in not needing the world around you to work the way you need it to [in order] to be happy. You don't find peace because of the world around you. Instead, it's finding this awakening—awakening what’s within you already, within all of us—that recognizes suffering but is able to manifest something within you that leads to kindness for yourself and others—love, empathy, compassion.
And the idea here is that we all have this within us—and if you believe everyone has that within us that you can really tap into it. And it's only when you're able to manifest it within yourself that you can manifest it with others. And if you're able to tap into that in others, then in fact it leads to this healing—community healing, and community caring for each other—and ultimately leads to freedom and liberation, and allows you to lead. That's only when transformation can happen—where you say, “Educational inequity, we can [take that on],” and you can see the possibility of that. You can radically imagine something different because you're tapped into something within you that gives you strength. And, of course, you've got to find your ways to do that. For me, it's praying, as a woman of faith; meditating; I like to run. But we all have to do the self-care to be able to tap into that.
And to me, that leads to the second one, which is how you stand powerfully in the face of uncertainty. I feel like I've been talking a lot about that, because as you think about 21st century education, you’re like, “Well, our kids are going to have to be prepared for jobs that—we don't even know what they’re going to be.” And, what kind of society is going to exist in 15 years? And pandemics—is that a new norm? Right?
And so, we constantly talk about: We need to prepare our kids to be adaptable, to be learners, to be curious. But we can't prepare our kids unless we ourselves are demonstrating that, and what this last year has shown is: There is no playbook, there is no blueprint, there is no linear “this will happen, then this will happen, then this will happen.” That instead, it’s [about] really being tuned into our own values, really being tuned into the strength of who we are, and being able to relate to others, work in powerful partnership with others to find solutions and to get big things done—that's the only way to do it, as we know. And be able to tap into that inner wisdom that we in fact all really do have. So learning how to stand in that, I think, is one of the most important capabilities I've been building for myself, and I think that we all really need to be tuned into if we’re going to meet the moment.
And then the final thing is equity. We talked about how this pandemic, the economic downturn, racial injustice are impacting certain groups differently than others. And so this simply means, let’s lean into really ensuring that we're meeting our kids where they are. Kids have different needs—not one size fits all—so let's do that.
And an example of that very clearly is funding of education. You know, when you look at our U.S. school districts right now, the districts serving the largest populations of Black, Latinx, Native students get roughly $1,800 less, per student, in state and local funding than those districts serving the least amount of students of color. When we look at just what the needs are, that doesn't make sense, right? If we're going to actually make sure all of our kids—as a country, all of our kids are our kids—are able to move through this moment, we're going to have to lean into that and give kids what they need and [invest] in historically marginalized and underserved communities in a way that allows us to do what we need to do. So that's what's on my mind in terms of leadership.
And I know we're running out of time, Carlos—I can't believe this has gone by so fast! But maybe we should just end with a note of hope and what's giving us hope, and then we can close it out. Let me go quickly, and then I'm going to hand it off to you to have the last word, if that works for you.
I'll simply say, my hope is manifesting in watching young kids lead in this moment. This generation deeply understands systemic inequities in profound ways, and [they] are leaning into it. I see it in our corps members, who are teachers—you know, they are just so committed. They are so inspiring. They're dedicated. The way they're approaching their classrooms in rigorous and creative ways, I think, is incredible.
And I'm still thinking about Amanda Gorman as an example of just an incredible leader—[the] National Youth Poet Laureate, who is an activist, and I think moved us all on Inauguration Day in our spirits and showed us what could be. And I think we felt it and believed it in her quote, where she said, “For there is always light, if only we are brave enough to see it, if only we are brave enough to be it.”
May we continue to let our young people lead and show us our way to equity and justice for our country and the nation.
Carlos: Ashe. Ashe to all of that. I think this time calls for an increased willingness to continue to challenge our assumptions about the true purpose and function of education and schools, and allowing our hearts and minds to encourage us to believe and reimagine what is possible. And I am filled with hope by the people—students, teachers, leaders, parents, and community members—that are continuing to bang on the system in a variety of ways, from your most subtle to just straight-up bringing the ruckus when necessary, right?
People like yourself, Elisa, and your leadership, and what may continue to be possible for tremendous organizations like TFA. I am hopeful from folks like Kaya Henderson and the launching of Reconstruction and that important work. That gives me hope. Our newly appointed secretary of education, Miguel Cardona, and some of his early messaging from the nation's capital is giving me hope. And leaders that use their positions and platforms to shine a light on unspoken truths like—shameful plug—Pulitzer Prize winner and creator of the 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones, gives me tremendous hope. I'll share, just in closing, that we're honored to be joining Nikole Hannah-Jones in a one-on-one conversation this Friday, March 12, at 4:00 p.m. Eastern. For more information, please come to bigpicturelearning.org or go to bigpicture.org.
But I am inspired by this conversation, Elisa. I'm sad that it's taken us so long to connect and to meet and engage in conversation. But I'm happy that it happened.
Elisa: Me too.
Carlos: And I’m excited for us to be able to continue this conversation at the next in-person South by Southwest EDU, when we have an opportunity and the conditions allow for it.
Elisa: You got it. Same here, Carlos. Thank you so much. All that you are doing in your organization, and just your presence in the world, is inspiring. So, thank you for the conversation. And again, look forward to being able to get together soon. Thank you.
Carlos: Likewise. Cuídate.