As the saying goes, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Exposure—to subject matter, to role models, to experiences—can make all the difference in shaping what the future can hold.
When students see themselves reflected in their educators, it changes lives.
Growing up in Syracuse, New York, a black male teacher changed the trajectory of my life, challenging me to be the best version of myself and spurring a lifelong interest in building stronger, more equitable education systems.
But in my adopted home of Philadelphia, only 4% of teachers are black men in a school district with a student body that is 50% black and 27% black male.
This reality inspired my best friend Rashiid Coleman and me to launch the Black Male Educators Convening (BMEC) in 2015 with a local group of educators.
It was born of a need to cultivate the next generation of black male educators, but also out of a brotherhood bond to reimagine the space differently for all students—especially for black boys and young men, like us.
Our work is showing a generation of young [black] men that teaching isn’t just a strong career option, it’s an act of social justice.
We launched BMEC from the couch, after discussing our frustrations with a system that didn’t seem to value our full input or capabilities as educators.
Rashiid recounts his time in the classroom as a “go-to” disciplinarian rather than a content expert.
“When I was in class, other teachers would drop their kid with me because they thought I could do a better job with their behavior,” he says.
In order to better understand these challenges, we decided to bring together black men from across the city—from clergy and businessmen to policymakers, educators and young men exploring career options.
At our first national convening in 2017, we anticipated 350 attendees. We ended up pushing back the walls of the ballroom to accommodate the 750 men who showed up.
In the years since, with support from the Walton Family Foundation and others, our numbers have grown to nearly 1,000 attendees annually, offering networking, mentorship and professional development in the education space.
As educators, we discovered that when students of color sought out black male role models, what they found were by-and-large entertainers and athletes.
So many other pedestals remained empty, including teachers, with too few career role models to advise and inspire.
To recruit and maintain a growing base of black male educators, districts must empower these educators to make change.
Our work is showing a generation of young men that teaching isn’t just a strong career option, it’s an act of social justice. It’s revolutionary, and if they choose education as a career path, they will find the support needed to be highly effective in the space.
To be effective means more than just filling bodies in the school system.
To recruit and maintain a growing base of black male educators, districts must empower these educators to make change and offer solutions founded in the communities they are a part of—and the students they serve.
Through learnings at the convening, we created a cadre of programming for students. One recently brought 12 students from North Philly to the Harvard Kennedy School of Government to hear from leading minds in education, media, tech and policymaking.
For many of these students, it was the first time they had met black people in power. These experiences show black students that the world is theirs for the taking.
As Rashiid and I look to the future, the national convening will remain an important first building block to a more equitable educational landscape in Philadelphia, and hopefully beyond.
As we take our message to more cities with the launch of our new initiative, Summer House Institute, for black male college students, we also will work to diversify the range of career opportunities for black and brown men in the public education sector.
Not everyone wants to become a teacher. But everyone wants to have impact—whether through education, technology, media or elsewhere.
We remain laser focused on our goal: To ensure our children see themselves reflected at the head of the classroom. When you do, it changes not only the perception of what a black man can be to his students, but what he can be to society at large.