Creating Communities of Excellence: Q&A with Derwin Sisnett

Derwin Sisnett asks big questions: How can we create a whole community of excellence? And how do you anchor communities with high-performing schools?

In his work as Founder and Managing Partner of Maslow Development Inc. and Co-Founder and Senior Advisor of Gestalt Community Schools, Derwin seeks to answer those questions by harnessing the power of “wraparound” services—as well as wraparound infrastructure.

To share the ideas from his work in Memphis around the country and help others do this kind of work, Derwin will be a panelist at the #EP2016 National Conference, where he’ll talk about “True Partnership: Empowered and Engaged Communities.”

1. Tell us about your story. What in your life or career led you to advocate on behalf of others?

I grew up in a neighborhood in New York where—like most neighborhoods in New York City—one block is great, the next block is not so great, but the schools were pretty much all not great. But there were pockets of excellence within schools. I was just lucky enough to be in the pockets of excellence.

Even so, it created this dissonance of wanting to be a nerd and basically, be a bad kid. All of my friends around me were struggling with that same dissonance. It goes back to the idea of a school being a change agent, but at the end of the day, we still had to go home.

Reflecting on that as an adult—getting lucky enough to go to a high-performing high school that was a two-hour commute on public transportation—I wanted to know: how could we change this scenario? How can we create, not just pockets of excellence or hallways of excellence, but a whole community of excellence? It has led me to do the work that I have done and continue to do.

What got me to Memphis is interesting too. I moved here to teach, but I never heard back from the local school district. To this day, I haven’t heard back. I ended up going over the bridge to a local community college in West Memphis, Arkansas. Almost like high school, I had this unnecessary commute to a community college. But I was grateful for the opportunity to sneak my way into teaching that way.

Then, eventually, I began working on my doctorate in educational psychology. My thesis became the charter application for the school I opened in 2008. At the time, I was writing the application on behalf of a community development corporation, and in the middle of my writing the application, they recruited me to be their executive director. I was on this fast track of community development in schools that has helped mold what we do now in community engagement and community development.

In 2008, Yetta Lewis was my first hire as founding principal. She ran the school and I chaired the board and ran the community development corporation. In 2011, we talked ourselves out of a job to start Gestalt Community Schools. We took the existing school under our umbrella and created five more like them.

What people may not yet know is that, as of early August, Yetta Lewis has assumed the role of CEO of Gestalt and I am a Senior Advisor. I remain super engaged, but have launched a new organization called Maslow Development, Inc. (named after Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs) that takes the ideas from what we do in Memphis around the country to help others do this kind of work.

2. Tell us about your work. How do you work to serve underserved students?

What’s different about Gestalt is that we take a holistic approach. This approach is why we named ourselves “Gestalt”—meaning the unified whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

We need to think beyond just schools and classrooms. We need to think of everything happening in and outside of the classroom. How can a scholar engage with school if he’s worried about what’s happening at home? What Maslow does is not just think about wraparound services, which are totally necessary and needed, but also what hasn’t been focused on, which is wraparound infrastructure—the built environment immediately surrounding a school that contributes to the long-term health and sustainability of a community, like health and wellness space, performing/visual arts space, green space, and quality affordable housing.

In Memphis, what we did at Gestalt was eliminate 24 acres of blighted property and another 18 acres of undeveloped land. In their place, we built a middle school and a performing arts center that’s right across the street from an old shopping center where our high school is, which is next to a dental and medical clinic that serves low-income families. In the future, we are developing a wellness center that doubles as a school gym. The idea is that while we could have just focused on school and rested on our laurels with academic success, we knew that we needed to do more than that.

In addition, what is happening around the schools is an affordable housing partnership with Habitat for Humanity. Habitat is first-come, first-served and you put in your sweat equity. We have families who could have been in homes as early as January, but instead they wanted to be in this specific community around these specific schools. These schools are where their kids go. They are making deals with their landlords or staying with relatives, just to wait it out because they want to be in this community. This is a community that people wanted to leave just a few years ago. So, to us, that is the way to tie in real community development and community engagement. 

I was a psych major in college, so you are probably seeing a theme with how we name our organizations. Maslow’s name is important because of the wraparound infrastructure and services. You can’t get to a point of self-actualization at the top of the pyramid if you are not addressing the bottom or the foundation first. Once you address safety, food, and shelter, then you can deal with building relationships. Then, you can address creativity and eventually, self-actualization. The idea of Maslow is to really focus on the entire pyramid by way of anchoring communities with high-performing schools.

3. At #EP2016, your conference panel will focus on “True Partnership: Empowered and Engaged Communities.” Why is this topic critical for understanding how to better serve students?

I think, like many folks, that we are all guilty of thinking we have the answer or we have an idea of what the answer could be. Where many of us go wrong is we think we have the answer and it is to the detriment of asking the customers or who we serve what the answer should be.

I’m pleased about a shift in the conversation. Now we are talking about design thinking—allowing people to really think about being empathetic to the people served. When you are actually sitting down with the people you serve, that’s totally different from coming up with an idea and saying, “I hope you like it.”

We went from “what do you think about this idea that I came up with alone” to “how about we come up with this thing together.” Let me be authentic about your response and reaction and if it needs to change, then it will change.

I’m excited about that and this panel because it allows us to talk about this. Honestly, three years ago or even a year ago, I am not sure people would have been receptive to actually, authentically working with a community on a solution, as opposed to being the one with the bright idea taking all the credit for bringing something to the community.

4. Describe yourself in three words.

Doggedly optimistic. Determined.

5. Describe your vision for K-12 education in three words.

Community, community, community.

6. Rapid-fire choices:

  • Coffee or tea?

This is tough. My family is West Indian and from Barbados. So, tea is a big thing. But in the ed community, coffee is fuel. So I am shifting. Now, all of a sudden, I am straight black coffee. As much as I want to stay true to my roots and say tea, I am going to say coffee. Coffee is my thing.

  • Baseball or basketball?

I grew up playing baseball. I’m a Little Leaguer, a traveling All-Star. So, I will stick with baseball.

  • The mountains or the beach?

Another tough one. With this one, I am going to stick to my roots. There is something about the beach that is peace.

  • House of Cards or Game of Thrones?

House of Cards, no question.

  • Twitter, Facebook, or Snapchat?

I’m old school. I’m that guy who is still learning to use all of these things. I do not have a Snapchat account. So, I am going to go with Facebook.

  • Kindle or the real thing?

The real thing. As much as I am a digital person, I have to hold it. I can remember more with something that I am holding.

  • Pokémon, Go or No?

No. I hear about it, but I still don’t even understand what is causing people to … die. Kind of strange. It’s like drugs. I am not even going to experiment with this thing that seems to be causing people to do dumb things.  

August 25, 2016