February 14, 2017

By Leah Andrews-Willis, Dean of Culture at STRIVE Prep – Montbello

When I think about STRIVE Prep’s work on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) I am eager to share my perspective, not only as a person of color, but as a person who, from a young age, has truly valued the impact of education.

Education is liberation.

This is a value instilled in me by my father and aunt that I share with my scholars.

Growing up, my father, who was a civil rights attorney during the Civil Rights Movement, taught me that education is the greatest tool against oppression and injustice. My father remains the greatest influence on my educational path today, and I am proud to share my knowledge and experience with our scholars daily.

This year as we as we celebrated the birthday and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr,. I shared with our scholars the educational achievements of Dr. King, and emphasized the importance of education as a weapon against oppression. It is important to share this history with our scholars not just to show our young students of color that we value an important piece of Black history, but to show all scholars that we truly believe they can be the change we want to see in the world. As allies and as people of color within the network, it is important to have these conversations of empowerment with our scholars. My experience and perspective is unique because it mirrors an identity I can share with many of our scholars. It is important for scholars to see themselves represented in the classroom – both through who is teaching them and the lessons we are teaching.

That’s why I appreciate STRIVE Prep’s growing commitment to DEI. As a member of the network’s founding Diversity Advisory Council, I get to expand my influence beyond the classes and hallways of my school. I get to help lead all those in the network toward deeper understanding of DEI and challenge us to be more intentional about creating an environment that ensures Dignity for All. Indeed if we’re going to ensure that all scholars, families and staff feel like we honor and respect the rich diversity of who they are and the unique talents they bring, we must take a hard look at ourselves as educators and ask the tough questions: Are we allowing ourselves to be vulnerable about what we do and do not understand about others’ cultures, backgrounds and educational experiences? Are we humble enough to acknowledge our privilege and biases? Are we being as courageous as we can be to speak up for all those in our community who might not feel they have a voice?

I’m proud to be a part of an educational community that’s not afraid to ask these questions. And, I’m excited to help lead the conversations that will help us answer these questions with a loud and resounding “YES” because when we create Dignity for All, we also raise the voice and experience of everyone in our community for decades to come.

I know because I remember how it felt for one of my teachers of color to lift me up and help me find my own voice. You see, it was in Ms. Tamara Rhone’s African American studies class where for the first time, the teacher at the board looked like me. It was the first time, the teacher represented me, valued me and taught me my own history. It was the first time, I thought I too could become a teacher. And, when my former teacher, aunt and mentor surprised me in my classroom last year, it was the most memorable moment I’ve had as an educator.

Today, as I interact with scholars as a school leader, I remember how important her influence was on me and it’s what motivates me as an educator of color to show up, speak up and build up my scholars every day.

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