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Five Black leaders in Education pose for a group photo.

Celebrating Black Excellence in Education

February 10, 2023
These leaders are helping to redefine education and create greater access to opportunity for Black students, families and communities

Last year, Walton Family Foundation Education Program director Romy Drucker and artist, actor, author and activist Common hosted a roundtable conversation on Black Excellence in Education with some of the most accomplished leaders in the field.

To celebrate Black History Month, we’re excited to share highlights from that session and spotlight the innovative leaders who are elevating Black voices and improving lives in their communities.

A Conversation on Black Leadership in Education
Last year, artist, actor, author and activist Common and the Walton Family Foundation sat down with Black educational leaders to share their thoughts about the future of education.

What does the idea of legacy mean to you – and what do you think your legacy will be in this work?

Kaya Henderson, Founder & CEO of Reconstruction US, co-host of Pod Save the People:

I think about legacy in a few different ways. As an educator, my job is to create possibility for young people to open doors for them and to help them travel a road maybe that they haven't traveled or their parents haven't traveled. But even in my walk, I wasn't supposed to be chancellor of DC Public schools. I'm a little girl from Mount Vernon, New York, who went to public schools and got to one of the highest seats in education. I hope that people see that if I could do it, they could do it too. I think an important part of legacy is the connection between past and future. And so for me, knowing Black history, knowing Black culture, knowing what we've overcome as a people empowers me and helps me to keep moving. Teaching our kids our history and our culture is super important to me. We as a community need to empower ourselves, empower our own young people. I think that's really an important part of my legacy.

Educator Kaya Henderson speaks with artist, actor and activist Common.
Kaya Henderson, CEO of Reconstruction US, speaks with Common during a roundtable discussion on Black leadership in education.

Shennell McCloud, Chief Executive Officer of Project Ready:

I'm a single mom, born and raised in Newark. I have a five-year-old, four-year-old, and a one-year-old. Everything that I do has to be rooted in a better future for our children. I run two organizations now, Project Ready and Be Ready. Project Ready focuses on voter activation, voter rights and voter awareness in Newark. And Be Ready focuses exclusively on getting more Black women elected to office and championing a Black woman's policy agenda. It's the first organization of its kind in New Jersey. Getting involved in Project Ready and getting involved in voter rights and making sure that we're getting more Black women elected to office, to me, is all rooted in the Black legacy that I hope that we can create within the city of Newark, New Jersey.

Shennell McCloud speaks during a conversation on Black leadership in education.
Shennell McCloud, chief executive officer of Project Ready, is a New Jersey mother of three.

Gabrielle Wyatt, Founder of The Highland Project:

I'm the proud leader of the Highland Project, which is a nonprofit that is investing in Black women's legacies and redefining what wealth really means. As part of the Highland Project, every year we invest $100,000 in 15 women [to support] their legacies for the future. I always grappled with what the word ‘legacy’ meant until I was business planning in 2020. My board chair said to me, "Well, what do you want to seed seven generations from now?" And I just thought, "Oh my God." That's a really long time. I can only think to the next 10 or 20 years maybe. But I started to think about my time in education systems and what still was missing. And I think it was that we weren’t investing in seven generations forward of Black women continuing to lead progress in our communities. We've always led progress in our communities but within constraints. And so I hope that part of my legacy is that I've helped to marshal resources that we've never had access to before, so [Black women] can realize our visions.

Gabrielle Wyatt holds a conversation with artist, actor, author and activist Common.
Gabrielle Wyatt is founder of The Highland Project, a national network of Black women leading education, communities, systems and institutions.

Common, Artist, Actor, Author, and Activist:

As life goes on, I think more and more that I want to impact people in ways so they are able to live better lives. I have certain ways I've been able to go along that path and set my intentions. At one point in music I was like, okay, this music is for a higher purpose. Then I learned through acting and storytelling how healing and inspiring that can be. And I want to [impact people] through that. I want people to see their lives changed through the work I've done, through music, through acting. But also through getting laws and policies changed and creating institutions that actually cultivate young people to be holistic people – in everything from academic education to health and wellness to spirituality. It could be in schools that we've created, or it could be in neighborhood centers that are already established. It could be through a new idea and a way to bring people to the power of themselves, the love of themselves and love of the most high.

 Common. Black Education leaders roundtable 11
"I want people to see their lives changed through the work I've done," says Common.

Marcus Shedrick, Student and Leader at Phelps High School:
I think for me, it would be saying that students and children can have an opinion and can help out the adult world. We can have our point of views about how we feel about our school education and how it can be improved. It just takes for somebody to be able to be in this position, like how I am here now, to be able to give y'all my opinions and how I feel about it.

High school student Marcus Shedrick gestures while in conversation. Seated next to him is Walton Family Foundation Education Program director Romy Drucker.
High school student Marcus Shedrick offers his views on the future of education in a conversation hosted by Walton Family Foundation Education Program director Romy Drucker.

What are the ideas we need to be talking about right now in education?

Kaya Henderson:

When low-income young people, Black and Brown kids, struggle with things, we pull things away from them. We've watched education get reduced to Math and English. We've watched it be reduced to worksheets. We aren't developing kids' talents, because we're so focused on developing kids' test scores. Part of my work is showing we can do both. You have to inspire kids to greatness.

Kaya Henderson speaking

Shennell McCloud:

We need to see more Black and Brown leaders in education, period. My four-year-old son doesn't get to see a lot of other Black male representation in education. The only Black man that my son has ever seen sitting in a seat in his school is the security officer and the office manager. That is it. And he's four. He's got a long way to go, but that's all he's seen so far. And so I think seeing more Black and Brown people and investing in them as leaders is something that's important.

Shennell McCloud speaking

Gabrielle Wyatt:

What I want to see in the future of education is that we're actually asking this question for ourselves and our babies: What does thriving look like when we're 70-plus years old? How do you get there with this definition of wealth being, “I'm thriving.” Not how much money is in my bank, but that I'm happy, I have access to great schools, I'm healthy. I want to see much more creative process. How do we actually really change what teaching and learning looks like?

Gabrielle Wyatt speaking


[We need to find] a creative way to teach. It has to be alive. It's a living organism. Our lives are growing and changing. So you can't use those old school methods. Something that worked last year might not even work the next year for all we know. [We need to] understand education from a living, breathing aspect.

Artist, actor, author and activist Common holds a t-shirt printed with a Black Women Are Everything logo.
Artist, actor, author and activist Common holds a t-shirt printed with Black Women Are Everything logo.

Marcus Shedrick:

I feel like school shouldn't just be a world of just academics and just getting your work done. I feel like I personally go to school to get my work done, and then be able to go to every other class where I see what my passions are.

Conversation excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.

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