Pioneer Profile: Ijeoma Anyanwu

In this Pioneer Profile with Ijeoma Anyanwu (2014 Alum), she talks about what drives her to address systemic racism in her work to transform education. Ijeoma currently serves as Director, Office of District and School Transformation at Boston Public Schools. She was featured at the 2021 Agents of Change event as an Alum driving meaningful change during crisis. 

Tell us about yourself and how you came to education.

I took a less traditional route to where I am today than most people in the field. As far back as I can remember, I have always been interested in the art of teaching. As a child, I remember lining up my dolls and teaching them what I was learning in school – something that also helped me to retain the information I was learning as well. It wasn’t until much later that I realized the act of teaching at that young age gave me the authority and a sense of self agency in my own learning -- and for the first time, I felt empowered to learn. I began to think, “If only our classrooms can be structured in a way that allows for more children to experience this empowering feeling then maybe more of us students and my fellow classmates would actually like school.”  I then, at the age of nine, thought I was going to be a teacher because I felt I had a natural inclination for it and could make this vision come true. 

But my dream of being a teacher was shut down as I navigated the realities of through the American K-12 education system as a child of Nigerian immigrants, with teachers who never embodied the ethic of care and enthusiasm that I remember showing my dolls. I began to think maybe the art of teaching, as empowering as I understood it to be, could never play out in reality because I had never experienced it. What’s more, I felt extra pressure to ensure my Nigerian immigrant parents’ efforts, struggles, and pain did not go to waste; they had moved from a country still suffering from the impact of colonialism and new age imperialism to the U.S. for more opportunity. So I instead set my sights on becoming a doctor, telling myself at least it seems clear to everyone how doctors make a difference in people’s lives. However, God had better plans for me – revealed through my own lived experience within the American public education system. 

Growing up in DC, schools were zoned by neighborhoods. When my family fell on hard times, my mom had to move our family of five into a one-bedroom apartment in the home of a nice lady she knew from work. Luckily this nice lady’s address was zoned for a school on the “good” part of town: Deal Junior High School in Tenleytown/Chevy Chase, one of the richest, whitest neighborhoods in DC. But before I graduated, we moved to a two-bedroom apartment in Petworth, which was then a divested community, marginalized, and neglected by the city -- like most majority Black DC communities at that time. I loved my community and the people in it. But in light of this move, I was rejected by my first-choice high school, Wilson Senior High, because I no longer qualified to attend the schools in the Tenleytown/Chevy Chase neighborhood.

Both I and my mom were completely distraught by this outcome, but for different reasons: I was distraught that I would not get a chance to finish up school with my friends, and my mom was not happy that my only other option would be to attend the neighborhood school. Even as a Nigerian immigrant new to this country, my mom realized something that I had yet to know: that not all schools were created equal, and that the American education system was set up to fail students that looked like us. However, to my and my mom’s reprieve, there was a guidance counselor at Deal JHS -- whom God allowed to favor me, that sprung into action when she heard I did not get in to Wilson SHS, looking at my grades and making a case for me to be accepted into Wilson based on “merit.” I remember my counselor naming my other option -- my neighborhood school – and they shared this look like, “Oh, we can’t let her go there.” They, too, understood something I did not about how our school systems work.  As a child, living in my ignorant bliss, I was just happy I got to attend school with my friends even if I had to take two trains and sometimes a bus to get there!

Fast forward to my gap year of service with City Year upon graduating college. I found myself back in the same DCPS classrooms, this time seeing for myself just what my mom and guidance counselors understood many years before. I served in a school “East of the River,” on the complete opposite side of the city, with racial and socioeconomic demographics more similar to the Petworth neighborhood I grew up in than the Tenleytown/Chevy Chase neighborhood I went to school in. Some things East of the River were the same as my school experience: the teaching practices unfortunately were still the same, and the children were just as smart and full of potential. Yet the differences were stark: the schools were resourced differently, and had different narratives of success associated with each. I couldn’t help but think it was because the socioeconomic and racial demographics of the schools were also different.

The differences in the outcomes and narratives surrounding the students I had the privilege of working with East of the River, compared with my own lived experience in schools in Tenleytown/Chevy Chase, sparked my reflection. It was then that I decided to commit to pursuing a career in education. I wanted to further explore why those differences in outcomes and experiences existed for schools operating within the same system but serving different demographics of students in different neighborhoods. Why was the narrative explaining the difference in outcomes across the two schools centered on the racial differences between the groups of students -- as if that had anything to do with their ability to learn or their potential, rather than the difference in the way the system staffs and resourced each school? 

I ultimately applied to NYU Steinhardt School of Education and began my journey into a deeper understanding of how America’s education system -- intentionally by design, upholds policies and practices that serve to perpetuate a certain narrative. The narrative that there must be something inherently wrong with Black and brown students and that is why those differences and inequitable outcomes exist. There, I began my journey towards changing that narrative and uncovering the issue at its root: systemic racism. There, I began to understand just why my mom and guidance counselors did not want me to attend my neighborhood school. And that it was only by luck, and God’s grace, that I was able to slip through the suffocating grip of the American education system -- a luxury most Black and brown children don’t get to say they had.

It should not take divine intervention or luck for Black and brown students in this country to access a quality education. This is why my work in this field is fueled by my fight to ensure that all students have access to a quality education as a fundamental human right in order to actualize their greatest potential -- which is especially important as we live in a society dedicated to ensuring students who look like me do not.

What is your current role, and what impact are you making?

Over the past three years, I’ve had the privilege of working with the Boston Public Schools (BPS) within the Office of School Transformation as a Transformation Manager. However, I was recently asked to step into the role of Director to lead the district’s Transformation Strategy. So currently, I serve as the Director of the Office of District and School Transformation (ODST). 

I initially welcomed the opportunity to work with the Office of Transformation because I wanted to gain a deeper understanding of how the education system worked while simultaneously leveraging my skill sets to improve the educational experiences for black and brown students. Historically the work of my office has been to facilitate the development, monitor the implementation, and measure the impact of school improvement plans --  currently, roughly just under one third of the district's schools are designated as “underperforming” or in “Need of Focused/Targeted Support” by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. 

However, I quickly realized in my experience, that the district’s Transformation model focused primarily on schools as the unit of change and all interventions and initiatives were focused at the school level. This was disconcerting as I understood the issue plaguing our public education system to be much deeper and systemic in nature, thereby requiring a different approach. Although our current model for school improvement has led to measurable -- and in some cases inconsistent and incremental -- change for the district’s turnaround and transformation schools, I knew If we wanted to really see sustained improvement we were going to have to address this issue at its root: systemic racism. We needed to take a truly radical approach. This past year gave us the push we needed as an organization to make that very shift.

What were the most surprising education equity and leadership challenges unearthed for you this past year? How are you addressing these challenges?

At the height of the 2020 racial pandemic, BPS made a public commitment to become an antiracist organization. For the first time, more people were willing to engage in race-based conversations tied to our work. Fueled by my own feelings of anger and frustrations triggered by the same 400-year narrative of America devaluing Black lives and dehumanizing Black bodies, I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to do something different. I channeled my anger into action because I was tired of seeing Black people's pain serve as a catalyst for discussions that provide a temporary relief for white guilt. I wanted something more sustainable and intentional to come from this moment of incredible pain across our country. 

At the same time as all this was happening across the country, Ibram X. Kendi had just released How to Be An Antiracist, which provided a framework to have these race-based conversations tied to system policies. Having just begun my role as Acting Director of the Office of School Transformation, I felt convicted to leverage the power of my position to lead organization-wide professional learning based on Kendi’s work. I facilitated critical conversations with cross- departmental leaders to identify racist policies and practices that perpetuated either assimilationist or segregationist racism, because as Kendi would say, “The only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it - and then dismantle it!” And since we know racist policies can be identified through racial disparities in outcomes, that’s where we began. 

Our data-driven conversations uncovered multiple systemic policies and practices that were perpetuating the observed racial disparities in outcomes, and served to uphold the very system of oppression upon which our education system was founded. I shared a presentation of the identified practices and policies in a meeting with the Superintendent, which informed the direction of several initiatives including a review of the BPS exam school policy, district-wide assessment practices, and my personal favorite, a launch of a systematic review of all district policies through an antiracist lens -- which is huge as BPS has not reviewed many of its policies in over 10 years. This policy review, a direct result of my work this summer as Acting Director of School Transformation, is long overdue and serves as a critical first step for BPS towards becoming an antiracist organization. 

What do you see as the most important challenges still ahead of the education sector or in your own work?

The very nature of this work is hard. It requires difficult conversations about race with people who have varying levels of comfort engaging in such conversations. And we are all yet to be aligned on a shared vision on how we want to restructure our education system, which makes it even harder to have meaningful conversations on what the antiracist vision for education in this country should include. 

We must confront that our current education system inflicts violence on its Black and brown students every day. One example is when we choose to use standardized tests, which has origins in eugenics, as a high-stakes evaluative measure of what our students know. These tests woefully fail to capture the unique brilliance of our students of color, and only serve to further marginalize them when there are other varied and valid measures to authentically assess mastery of standards. This issue alone serves as a huge barrier to the work we aim to do to liberate our black and brown students from the oppressive hand of a system that was never designed for them in the first place. The more we hold on to these types of harmful practices, the more the progress and impact of our work towards antiracism will continue to be impeded.

What advice do you have for other EP Alums as they work to meet the current and future challenges in education?

Always aim to address issues at the root -- because when we do this, the solutions we develop will have no other option than to radically transform our system as we know it for the better. 

Our current education system has shown us time and time again that it was not built or designed to facilitate the learning or foster the development of Black and brown students. In fact, it was designed to do the very opposite. The system was designed to oppress and suppress Black and brown expression of their true authentic selves, much like many other systems in this country. It doesn’t matter how well intentioned we are, or how “not racist” we claim to be, the policies that uphold these systems of oppression do not need our approval or permission to do what they have been designed to do. If we are not actively taking measures to identify and dismantle racist policies which are at the root of the inequitable outcomes we see today, we will never be able to actualize our dream of truly becoming an antiracist society that promotes and advances the well-being of every child in America. Not every child will be as “lucky” as I was to escape the crushing grip of a system designed to ensure children that look like me do not have the freedom to amount to their greatest and fullest potential.

Ijeoma Anyanwu (2014 Alum) currently works with Boston Public Schools as Director of the Office of District and School Transformation. Prior to joining Boston Public Schools, Ijeoma served as the Director of Data and Evaluation at the DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative, a federally funded initiative to end intergenerational poverty in one of DC's most disenfranchised communities through direct investments in education, community driven advocacy, and wraparound school and community services. Before DCPNI, Ijeoma spent some time as a freelance consultant supporting various education-based non-profits in DC, Baltimore, and New York with program design, impact evaluation, and continuous quality improvement. Ijeoma further developed her passion for research and evaluation while attending New York University where she received her Master’s degree in Human Development and Social Intervention with a concentration in Applied Statistics and Education Policy from the NYU Steinhardt School of Education. Ijeoma’s work in education is driven by the fundamental belief that every student – regardless of socio-economic status, race, or zip code – should have access to a quality education from birth as a fundamental human right. Her approach to engaging with this work is guided by principles of liberation and rooted in her commitment to fight injustice and dismantle systems of oppression for all people - everywhere. Contact Ijeoma via email or follow her on Twitter @ije_roqs.

If you're an EP Alum interested in writing a story for the EP blog, you're encouraged to email Jennifer Chin, Senior Director, External Relations.  

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