Ten minutes a day. That’s the time investment Tina Fletcher hopes people can make for Black History Month. Ten minutes spent learning about influential Black leaders, past or present.
“As a former history teacher, I have many favorites,” says Tina, a senior officer with the foundation’s Strategy, Learning and Evaluation department.
Whether its Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress. Or abolitionist Harriet Tubman. Or jazz poet Langston Hughes. A few minutes of introspection and inspiration is time well spent, she says.
For Black History Month, we asked Tina and foundation colleagues Jason Terrell and Sonja Ruffin how they view this annual celebration of Black heritage – and through their work, how they are pursuing change.
Tell us about yourself and your role at the foundation.
Jason Terrell, Education Program Officer: I spent my childhood in southwest Atlanta. A village of family and community members instilled in me my core values of Sankofa and harmony. I live these values through a career in education, as a middle school teacher, an ed-entrepreneur, and now in education philanthropy. I use my expertise in nonprofit management, philanthropy and social entrepreneurship to invest in programs and leaders working towards a self-determined life for students and families. A core aspect of my work is helping students access future careers. Unfortunately, research indicates that current pathways primarily benefit young white men. It’s crucial that we ensure the programs we fund yield positive outcomes for all learners. In my work, I also prioritize centering Black leadership by sourcing leaders who authentically represent the communities most affected.
Sonja Ruffin, Education Program Support Associate: I am a wife and mother to three amazing individuals. I come from a large family of Caribbean immigrants who taught me that FAMILY is EVERYTHING. It’s a value I carry with me every day and do my best to instill in my children. I joined the foundation a little over four years ago as a program support associate on the Education team. I assist program officers in grantmaking. Our team has eyes and ears on every potential or real-life grant.
Tina Fletcher, Senior Strategy, Learning & Evaluation Officer: I was born and raised in rural Arkansas. I’m a proud Razorback. I’m a twin, new mother and cheerleader for teachers. My ultimate goal in life is to improve educational outcomes for children in underserved communities and to complete my first trail run without falling! In my current role, one of my primary goals is to support Black colleagues interested in growing personally and professionally. An essential component of my role also centers on research that can help our most vulnerable communities and schools serve our most underserved students and parents. And as the newest member of the SLED team, it is my goal to help ensure our research grantmaking becomes more inclusive with intentional grantmaking to Black and Brown scholars, research centers and minority-serving institutions.
What does Black History Month mean to you?
Sonja: One word, PRIDE. While I am a proud Black woman 365 days a year, there’s something quite special that happens when I turn my calendar over to February 1. It’s a euphoric moment of “Yes it’s my time” … “I am an amazing individual” … “This month I will make my ancestors EVEN MORE proud.” It’s also the one time a year when the Black community is the focus – and a good focus. Non-Black students are taught about my people in schools and around their community. Even when they don’t accept it, the learning opportunity is there. It’s a time for Black students to learn about their heritage, culture, Black art, music and so much more.
Tina: As an African American, former history teacher and lifelong learner, I’ve always appreciated the opportunity to learn about Black history during and outside of the month of February, especially the history of Black people in Arkansas. From internationally known figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, to lesser-known figures such as tennis great Althea Gibson and Arkansas’s very own Daisy Bates, I love the opportunity to learn something new about such inspiring individuals.
Jason: Black History Month serves as a vital reminder to embrace Sankofa, a West African concept of learning from the past to build the future. During this time, I reconnect with the wisdom of ancestors and elders while ensuring my sons are exposed to their legacy. This practice should be continuous throughout the year, but Black History Month serves as a valuable reminder to fill our reservoir of knowledge.
What does it mean to amplify Black voices?
Tina: To amplify Black voices, people in power must have an intentional desire to create safe spaces for honest and transparent dialogue with members of the Black community. Once trust is established and examples of true collaboration with positive outcomes are experienced first-hand, members of the Black community can use the confidence and insight gained to amplify their own voices in those spaces and beyond.
Jason: Amplifying Black voices involves centering Black communities, narratives and perspectives in decision-making and strategic planning. It goes beyond mere recognition and signifies a profound commitment to creating inclusive spaces for learning and sharing and removing hierarchical barriers. This month prompts us to ponder not only Black history but also the social and economic injustices underlying our current system.
Walton's Career-Connected Learning/Pathway's portfolio strives to address these injustices by collaborating with schools and state leaders to tailor education to local economic needs. Our initiative supports innovative curricula like artificial intelligence and hands-on STEM learning while also empowering programs to equip students with technical and durable skills. Together, these efforts aim to bridge high school and career pathways, fostering student success and addressing systemic economic disparities.
Sonja: It means to make Black voices heard. And not just by giving Black folks the opportunity to speak at a conference, but to really be heard. It’s not a secret that Black students have learned about the history of our white peers for hundreds of years. This is why we know all the words to the “Star-Spangled Banner.” But if you ask a group of non-Black Americans to recite one line of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” you most likely won’t get an answer. Amplifying Black voices means taking the time to learn about the people and their history so you can get a real understanding of what has happened before you. And try to make a difference for those who come after you. Black voices cannot only be amplified by Black people.
Want to learn more? Tina Fletcher shares her list of 29 Black leaders to get to know this February:
Booker T. Washington, Coretta Scott King, Althea Gibson, Bayard Rustin, Angela Davis, Daisy Bates, Katherine Johnson, Mae Jamison, Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Serena Williams, Harriett Tubman, W.E.B. DuBois, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Ida B. Wells, Shirley Chisholm, Barbara Jordan, Mary McLeod Bethune, Maya Angelou, Audre Lorde, Dorothy Height, Langston Hughes, Frederick Douglass, Carter G. Woodson, Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesse Owens and Medgar Evers.