Elisa Villanueva Beard

'Our Children Are Worth Fighting For'

Teach For America CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard (Phoenix '98) welcomes incoming 2016 corps members with an address celebrating the diverse coalition necessary to fight educational inequity today and eradicate it for the next generation.
Tuesday, August 2, 2016

CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard welcomed the newest members of the Teach For America community earlier this month at the openings of Teach For America’s summer institutes in Houston, Mississippi, and Tulsa, and at the closing of the Philadelphia institute. Her address was an inspiring call to action grounded in some hard realities, a declaration of hope and possibility, and a celebration of the collective nature of our work as we help to build the diverse coalition necessary to effect broad systemic change. A version of her remarks is reprinted below.

 

The state of America today is going down in the history books. Fifty years from now, we will look back on this time—the segregation, the racism, the xenophobia, the inequity—and we will tell our children and our children’s children that we lived it.

We will ALSO tell them that we changed it.

This is personal for me. I joined Teach For America in 1998 as a Phoenix corps member. Two years later, I met my future husband, Jeremy Beard, while working at institute in Houston—I was a CMA [corps member adviser], he was a school director (and yes, we worked at different schools!).

Sixteen years have passed, and today Jeremy and I have four remarkable sons. They are brilliant, wise, curious, hilarious, demanding, and loving. And they are growing up as African American and Mexican American young boys in a time when the color of their skin alone can put their lives in danger. We feel that so strongly right now.

When we work for educational equity and excellence, we work to change that reality, and so many more. Because it’s not just about my four boys. It’s the first-graders I taught when I was in the corps—who are young men and women today. It is the students you’ll reach this year. It is millions of children nationwide. Most of you might not be parents yourselves, but starting right now, this summer, all of you have children. The families of this country are entrusting you with the most precious, important parts of their world.

So before you go off into your classrooms, there are two things I need you to know:

  • First, the work can be discouraging--because the challenges facing our children are systemic, entrenched, and enormous. But change for the better is possible. The vast problem of educational inequity can be solved. We must always lean into the hope and possibility.
     
  • And second, this is a collective effort. We are strong alone—but we are stronger together.

The first idea—that this is possible—may seem hard to believe, and there will be days when you feel like this just can’t be done; let those days be few and moments brief.  

The truth is, when we zoom out and take stock of the past 25, 20, even 10 years—there has been meaningful progress in education. It’s undeniable.

Eighteen years ago, when I started as a corps member, people were still arguing about whether or not it was even possible for children growing up in low-income communities to achieve at the same level as their more affluent peers. They were still asking if it could be done—if students of color really could do as well as white students in school.

Today, that’s not an honest question. We know they can. Of course they can.

Students at D.C.'s Mary McLeod Bethune Day Academy, where Jubria Lewis (D.C. Region '02) is the school leader.
Students at D.C.'s Mary McLeod Bethune Day Academy, where Jubria Lewis (D.C. Region '02) is the school leader.

And we can point to hundreds of schools in urban and rural America proving that every single day. I grew up in Texas and I live there today—growing up, it was not the expectation that someone from my neighborhood would go on to college and be a CEO. Far from it. But just recently, the Washington Post named schools from three networks in my home state—KIPP, IDEA, and YES Prep, all founded and run today by TFA alumni—among the top 1 percent of the most challenging high schools nationwide. The vast majority of students in these schools are from low-income communities and are black or Latino—and they are on a mission to get to and through college. The alumni who launched these networks knew this was possible—and we’re seeing it proved possible nationwide. 

When you meet your students, you will see this possibility and potential yourself, and you will be forever changed. But terribly, there are still many folks in our country who need to be persuaded, and they are everywhere. It is our job to raise our voices and tell the truth about our children and let our children show the world that they are wrong.

And we start that in the classroom. We start that with our students themselves.

When the outside world tells our children they are a danger to society, we must tell them they are only a danger to the status quo.

When our students are told they are failures, we must help them see themselves as the leaders they are.

When our children are discouraged, we must help build them up.

When they are frightened, we must stand by their side.

There is a lot to be discouraged about. There is so much to be afraid of. But our children are worth fighting for.   

Because we know the statistics. We know the dropout rates and the ACT scores. The chances of college or a criminal record. Some folks—they see those statistics as a life sentence. Poor kids, black kids, brown kids, Native kids, Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander kids– the statistics say they can’t make it—they won’t make it.

They said I would not make it. They said many of you would not make it. But we’re here to say: screw the statistics. It doesn’t have to be this way.

You are stepping into communities that have been working on a better education, opportunities, and access since before every single one of us was born.
Elisa Villanueva Beard

Today, we reject the world as it is and commit to creating it as it should be.

And we are not doing it alone—that is the second thing I want to talk to you about. This is a collective effort.

You are stepping into communities that have been working on a better education, opportunities, and access since before every single one of us was born. Schools are sacred spaces, and we are privileged to be given the keys to that castle. We will not let our communities and families down. We will be innovators. We will be change makers. But first and foremost, we are partners with the many others here fighting for change.

Individually, for the next two years, you are making a difference, one classroom at a time. But together, you are part of a network over 50,000 strong. In 25 years at Teach For America, we’ve reached over 10 million students. We did that together.

So when you step into your classrooms this year, know there are more than 50,000 Teach For America corps members and alumni behind you. Know our collective strength is with you, and that we are here to help.

And very soon, you will see what all those corps members and alumni have seen: that our children are up against so much. This gets real. Your students are no longer characters in a think-piece on urban poverty. They are no longer anonymous faces behind low graduation rates or failing test scores. Educational inequity is not just a topic in a class, or a subject in a book. It is the stark reality you’re a part of.

You will learn to love harder and care more deeply than you thought was possible. And that drives action for the rest of your lives. Today, 84 percent of our alumni work in education or have a career impacting low-income communities –11,000 of them are teachers, 1,000 are principals, 300 are leading school systems, 250 are advocates and policy makers, over 100 are social entrepreneurs, and nearly 100 are elected officials.  

Corps members working together at Teach For America's summer institute
Corps members working together at Teach For America's summer institute

You are joining a diverse coalition we need to make systemic change in the next 25 years. We are a community that is black, that is white, that’s Latino. That’s American Indian, Asian American, and Pacific Islander. That’s multi-racial.

We are a community from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, and Washington Heights in New York. We are a community who grew up with affluence, and who grew up middle-class, and who grew up in low-income communities.

We are a community that hails from over 800 colleges and universities nationwide—from Spelman and Yale and Maryland; from Cornell, and Texas A&M, and San Diego State—public schools and private schools alike. More and more of us are the first in our families to graduate from college.

We are a community that is lesbian, gay, straight, bisexual, queer, and trans.     

We are a community that is Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, humanist, and atheist, and so much more.  

We are dreamers, we are organizers, we are builders, we are artists, and we are innovators.

And we started our journey for change in the classroom—right where you all are about to be.

So today, harness that love and passion inside of you and use it to take action. Joining the corps was the hardest and best thing I’ve ever done. And it has set me down the path of being all in on rejecting the world as it was and creating it as it should be.

Welcome to this work. Today, we are kicking off what we will be proud to tell future generations about: that we were a part of the change. Let’s begin.

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