In Celebration of Black History Month

At Education Pioneers, we aim to embody the spirit of our core values, one of which is Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. It is important that we honor and continue to celebrate the contributions and commitments of diverse individuals in our world who are doing extraordinary work, inspiring new generations of leaders, and dedicating their lives to creating equitable educational opportunities for all.

So, in celebration of Black History Month, we are spotlighting several EP staff who self-identify as black with a few Q&A’s:

If you could connect with a Black History trailblazer who would it be and why?

Gerald Fanion, Senior Director, Partner Engagement for Tennessee and New Orleans: Echol Cole and Robert Walker are two people from the past that I would connect with and learn more about their story. These two men were killed on February 1, 1968 in Memphis after seeking shelter in the back of their garbage truck. As the two men sat on the back of the truck, there was a malfunction that caused the two men to be crushed. Neither survived.

These two men who lost their lives had no idea that their unfortunate death would spark a movement for change and equality in Memphis. They couldn’t imagine that their death would ignite protests for nearly 1,300 additional sanitation workers who simply wanted better working conditions and a living wage. They couldn’t see that their death would lead to a prominent display of four words, I AM A MAN. They couldn’t have known that their sacrifice would lead to a movement in Memphis that would capture the attention and support of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. They certainly didn’t know that their death would lead to King’s assassination just a few months later.

This year, the City of Memphis commemorated the 50th anniversary of their death. I took a moment to visit the location of their historical marker and I imagined speaking to these two men to say thank you! Thank you for making the ultimate sacrifice and sparking a movement for equality in Memphis that changed the world!

Seun Shokunbi, Manager, Advancement for Greater New York, EP Alumna: Anna Julia Haywood – principal of what was then known as M Street High School (now Paul Laurence Dunbar High School) – the country’s first Black public high school with alumni such as Charles Richard Drew (pioneer African-American surgeon) and Eva Beatrice Dykes (the first African-American woman to receive a doctoral degree). M Street High School was known to churn out an elite group of students who would have attended Ivy League universities, if not for the racial prejudice of their time. I wish Ms. Haywood were around now to demonstrate how, with all our progress to date, we can still create school districts that raise all children to levels of academic excellence, making them competitive worldwide.

Cornelius Lee,Associate Director, Learning Delivery and Operations: Bayard Rustin was a civil rights organizer and activist, best known for his work as adviser to Martin Luther King Jr. — he was a key player in the planning and execution of the March on Washington. Also, he was a gay man. Queer people of color have shaped black activism for decades, yet there is frequently an erasure of the LGBTQ history in the Civil Rights Movement. I’m an openly black gay man who is a fierce advocate for the rights of the marginalized in our country, and I believe my unique position as both gay and black help shape the multiple perspectives I am able to engage with as I support the fight for oppressed populations in our country.

What does education mean to you?

Cornelius: One of my favorite quotes sums up my personal relationship with being an educated black man in America: “Education is an ornament in prosperity and a refuge in adversity,” (Aristotle). I will be forever grateful for the educational opportunities I have been afforded, and I know that in certain contexts I have greater access and agency than some other members of the black community who have not had an opportunity to obtain certain levels of education. Education is access–it is protection–it is social currency–it is political capital–and for many, it is life or death.

Seun: Ms. Haywood exemplifies what education means to me – it’s a right, not a privilege. Therefore, it’s something to be fought for – and sometimes the fight gets dirty. But ultimately the goal is recognizing that sufficiency for some and adequacy for others is not equity.

What inspires you in your work?

Seun: My personal history in public education, and knowing what is clearly possible. If not for one teacher in my 7th grade remedial English class (Ms. Calovi) advocating for my right to be in Honors English, my life trajectory would have been the total opposite of what it is today. Similarly, if not for the brave pioneers of the 1800s to 1954 and beyond, many more inequities would still exist in public schools beyond those we’re still addressing.

Cornelius: I am inspired by my team at EP that is currently all women of color. I am inspired by the people who get up every day and fight battles that are seemingly insurmountable, but they manage to make headway despite the odds stacked against them. I am inspired by our Fellows who “get it” and understand why this work is important, and in return they fight a bit harder and give a bit more of themselves to the work.

What is the impact of diversity in your life?

Seun: I had the unique experience of being raised both in an urban community (e.g. predominately Black and Latino) and a suburban community (e.g. predominantly White). This experience taught me the importance of not letting one voice or group outshine another. We desperately need more leaders in our schools and district offices who look like and can empathize with our most marginalized students so their needs are genuinely acknowledged and addressed.

Cornelius: I don’t see diversity as merely something based on ethnicity or race–but rather diversity is reflected in life experiences and the beliefs we hold about the world. I am the product of an amalgamation of different people, ideas, and experiences. I am a patch work of cultures, social movements, and artistic expressions.

EP staff are some truly extraordinary people. Learn more about who we are here and about how we’re committed to continuing the the conversation here.