This interview was originally published in Edutopia for Black History Month.
The theme of Black History Month this year is “The Crisis in Black Education.” The scope of the crisis is considerable: Results from the National Assessment for Educational Progress—a test that’s also known as the Nation’s Report Card—show almost no change in the achievement gap between White and Black students over the past 50 years. To help unpack the challenges facing African American students, we talked to educators who are tackling this crisis and implementing meaningful solutions.
We spoke with El-Mekki about his educational background, his priorities as a school leader, and how he plans to inspire more African American males to become teachers.
EDUTOPIA: Can you paint a picture of your childhood and when you first became aware of race as an issue?
SHARIF EL-MEKKI: I went to a pan-African elementary school in the Freedom School model. It was called Nidhamu Sasa, which translates as “Discipline/Freedom Now.” A lot of our conversation was around Afrocentricity and social justice. And so it wasn’t this particular clarion moment outside of school where I experienced something that pointed out race to me.
EDUTOPIA: Sounds like an amazing school. What was the curriculum like?
EL-MEKKI: There were always conversations around justice, oppression, and Afrocentricity, and race was always a part of the dialogue. We took courses like political science and looked at colonialism and its impact around the world. Dr. Sonia Sanchez would come in and do lessons. Angela Davis came and did a mini-lesson, as did people from the Wilmington 10.
EDUTOPIA: So you learned about black history from the history makers themselves.
EL-MEKKI: Yes, and we had this level of awareness of politicization early on. It was always just part of the conversation, part of case studies, part of research and our book reports. There was no “February is Black History Month.” Every month is Black History Month. February is just the Blackest.
EDUTOPIA: How do these sensibilities and values from your past inform your priorities as a school leader today?
EL-MEKKI: I think there’s a similar focus on intentionality around community. The thing that is always on the forefront of my mind now is “Who is in front of our children?” We want talented, committed, and dedicated staff who are experts in content, and skilled at using a social justice lens to make sure kids are empowered. We need teachers and staff who can also do the emotional work of teaching, to make sure we’re not just talking about math or reading, but how to help our students navigate the world.
Another aspect of my past that I bring into my school today is our mission that students should be able to lead and serve in their community. We teach them to be responsible in their community—that they have to lift as they climb, and be a true leader.
EDUTOPIA: This is a great segue, since at Edutopia we strive to share practical tips for educators to improve student learning. What specifically would you say we can do to help our black and brown kids?
EL-MEKKI: First of all, I think for our students of color, we need to recognize who they are, and I don’t mean from the media or just from hip-hop culture. We need to understand and respect, and know who they are by listening to them, understanding what their aspirations are as well as their fears, what frustrates them, and what motivates them. I always stress to my teachers that they’re not just teaching content, they’re teaching children and then the content. We need to make time to show children that we care about them by being genuinely curious about who they are and what they bring to the table, and then doing what we can do to support them.
I think the second thing is we have to make sure that the adults in the building are operating with a high level of cultural competency. It has to be every staff member in the building, the teachers and administrators, but even more importantly, the policy makers. If you have schools full of culturally competent adults working with children, but then you have policy makers who are not culturally competent and enacting policies like underfunding schools or deprioritizing the training needed to support cultural competence, build relationships with students, and respond to communities’ needs, then the system will fail.
The whole ecosystem has to be supportive of black children, and we know historically it has not been and it still isn’t. So the work is not done. Yes, the school is the hub, but politicians need training around cultural responsiveness so that they can understand this is how we support schools in being the dynamic institutions that they should be in our communities.
EDUTOPIA: Can you elaborate on how the educators in the building can help support black students?
EL-MEKKI: I think we can help reinforce their identity in positive ways. We use this term—“windows and mirrors” theory. Typically, a black child’s education is like looking at windows. Eighty percent of teachers are white females, and when our students look at the people in power, they’re usually white men. So they’re constantly looking at this window, at people who don’t look like them. We as educators need to carefully craft mirrors where these children can see themselves in these situations and experiences. Schools and districts have to be really cognizant of the experiences of our black kids as they go from room to room, from grade to grade, from school to school. What is that experience, and how do we make it an empowering experience by helping them see themselves?
EDUTOPIA: In terms of creating more mirrors, you’ve been working to get many more black educators into the profession in the Philadelphia community via The Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice. Can you say more about that work?
EL-MEKKI: There was a time when there were more black men in our schools, particularly in our cities, but the number is much less now. And of those black males, many feel isolated and need support. So we started the fellowship to support these educators, and to work as partners with our district, as well as universities and nonprofits who were also interested in diversifying the teaching field in our region. After a couple of years of that, we started working with the Department of Education and their Teach to Lead series, which really helped us refine our program. From there we did surveys and got feedback from current and aspiring black male educators to figure out where our work could be most effective.
From that experience, we came up with three pillars for The Fellowship: The first is that we hold convenings two or three times a year for black male educators. The second is that we do a lot of advocacy work, whether it’s the Department of Eds at the federal or state levels, with the district, or within schools. And then the third pillar is trying to influence the pipeline. We found that the pathway to becoming the leader of a classroom starts in middle and high school, so we ask: How do we engage middle and high school students to think about teaching as a career?
Two years ago, only 28 black men graduated from teacher colleges in the entire state of Pennsylvania. We meet so many black men who are intensely interested in education, mentoring, and other social justice issues, but a lot of them never thought about teaching. When we asked them, “How many black male educators have you had?” the answer was usually, “Oh, one,” or “Two,” or “Zero.” So just helping to change that narrative, we think, is an important part of the work.
EDUTOPIA: Is The Fellowship open to educators outside of Philadelphia? And if so, how might they join?
EL-MEKKI: Absolutely it is. And our membership is not just black males. Anyone who’s interested in diversifying and supporting current and aspiring black male educators can be members. If anyone is interested in joining, they can sign up at our website, 1000×2025.org, which refers to our goal of having 1,000 black male educators in Philadelphia by 2025.
EDUTOPIA: So that we end this discussion of a crisis on a positive note, what gives you hope?
EL-MEKKI: We’ve been grappling with the challenge of figuring out how to support students in really leading and serving in their communities. One of our young teachers, Gerald Dessus, who used to teach literature, is now teaching social justice. Students start off the year by discussing the meaning of identity and community. And then they start diving into different social justice efforts that were led by youth, and dissecting those by looking at case studies.
What I love about this—what gives me so much hope and inspiration—is that they’re digging deeper to understand what they did well, and what they struggled with. They ask themselves, “As I pick and choose how I want to lead and serve in my community, what lessons can I learn from them?” That is so motivating to me, to see 130 eighth graders preparing to go into high school, where they’ll take African American history and then other history classes and have a sense of who they are and what they stand for.
One of my all-time favorite quotes was when a student told Mr. Dessus, “Keep up the good work, Mr. Dessus. You’re an inspiration to many future young Black instructors.”
I also draw inspiration from alums who are like, “Hey, you know what? I’m going to be a teacher.” I know some people cringe when they hear the idea of social justice warriors. But I embrace that. I love it, and I love seeing our youth leading the charge.