Over seven years ago when I received my offer to join Teach For America in Nashville while sitting in the back of my creative writing class, I didn’t know just how much I would grow to care so furiously about educational equity.
I knew the issue was important—don’t get me wrong. I’d read the facts and figures, I’d learned the alarming statistics and the disconcerting ACT scores and graduation rates. And I was inspired to work for change. But even when I met my ninth-graders that first year, I discovered that the data and figures didn’t do the problem justice. They didn’t fully capture DeJuanta’s story or the disparities in Nijay’s college preparedness from the kid down the street.
During my second year of teaching ninth grade, I attended Teach For America’s 20th Anniversary in Washington, D.C. Sitting in a room of 10,000 people, I suddenly realized how many people were in my corner—how many people were waking up every day to fight for kids in so many different capacities.
There were so many people in Nijay’s corner. In Jasmine’s corner. In DeJuanta’s.
It was the first time in my life I felt like a part of a movement—a force of change that was truly, passionately, vehemently fighting for something.
My life at that point hadn’t forced me to fight for much; I had a privileged upbringing and the obstacles my students were attempting to surmount were unfamiliar to me. And at that point, I did not recognize that the work I was doing was, simply put, a fight for justice.
That weekend, I watched Arne Duncan take the stage, amazed that the secretary of education would take his time to come talk to me (okay, me and 9,999 others). Then Obama delivered his video message for us. Kaya Henderson stood up. Geoffrey Canada told us he thought “we might actually win” this educational equity thing. Even writing about these moments five years later, I have chills.
These snapshots represented something not only for me as a teacher, but for my students. These were moments of spark. These people were the catalysts for change. I looked around: my peers were the change…I was the change—or, rather, I was part of it. Part of this movement. For Dejuanta. For Nijay. For Jasmine. For Kristine.
This weekend, I’m returning again for Teach For America’s 25th anniversary weekend, except I will come as a Teach For America staff member, a writer, a young adult with four years of teaching under her belt and an enduring passion for this work.
Now my days look different: I work with Teach For America alumni teachers (you know, all those people who continue teaching beyond their two-year commitment; there’s about 11,000 nationwide). I coach some of them in their classrooms, help support their professional development and make sure they have access to the moments in this movement that can change a career—like this coming weekend.
It can feel a little strange to celebrate the anniversary of an organization whose entire mission is fueled by the premise that ideally the organization will not exist one day. Except that it’s not a celebration of the organization, it is a reflection on the hard work that has been done and a gathering of its leaders and partners—a time to appreciate the incredible work so many leaders and teachers have done to move the needle for kids. A chance to recognize the people who have altered trajectories and changed the game for students all over the country. It’s an opportunity for us to remember that we are not alone in this work: we are not the only teachers, the only leaders, the only holders of knowledge.
We have a long way to go; we have a lot to learn. We have changes to make and we have incredibly hard work to do to ensure that kids in this country have access to an excellent education, and we’re under no impression that we can do it alone. But this weekend is a weekend for us to learn and remember that we are not doing this alone.
We are a movement, tens of thousands strong, and we are all going to D.C. for the same reason: We believe that—no matter the zip code or the color of skin or the neighborhood—every kid in our country deserves access to an excellent education and we’re here working like hell to get there.