Pioneer Profile: Tracy Session

In this Pioneer Profile with Tracy Session, EP's new Vice President of Program, he talks about community, family, and the category of leaders who continue to inspire him.

1.      Where did you grow up and what was it like?

I grew up in Long Beach, California and in and around Compton, California. It was both a challenging and loving place to grow up. Challenging because it was so diverse. I think when you live in any community that is as diverse as Long Beach you’re going to encounter situations where various divergent interests create conflict within your community.  At the same time, I think that diversity gave me a sense of how to get along with others and offered me early exposure to other perspectives. I would also say that my neighborhood and, specifically my household was really poor. From a very early age I started working or earning for my household, and while that obviously taught me a lot of important lessons, it was also hard to have to be a meaningful contributor to my household at a young age. With all that said, it was loving because there were a lot of people around who cared. There were a lot of intergenerational families clustered in my neighborhood that taught me to respect and draw on the strength of my ancestors, which is what keeps me grounded day to day.  

2.      What do you like most about where you live now?

For the past seven years now I’ve lived in Oakland, California. I love the diversity of Oakland—it’s one of the most diverse cities in America— and the exposure I have to points of view beyond my own. I also love that it’s home to so many social justice movements. A lot of communities say they’re about social good and investing in community, and in Oakland there’s a palpable feeling that that is true here. I also appreciate being proximate to nature so I can find solitude and remind myself of what’s important, hike with my dog … you know, real Bay Area stuff.

3.      What is your favorite school memory?

There are two that come to mind immediately. The first is Ms. Sandra. Even though my family didn’t have a lot of money growing up, they really valued and prioritized education. I went to a private school for a couple years—I think it was K-1st grade—and Ms. Sandra made quite an impression on me. She really cared and focused on supporting the whole child. In retrospect, that experience demonstrated to me how much my family loved and invested in me, pooling resources so I could go to this school. And, as someone who works in education now, it’s crazy to think about that little school, because it meant so much to them and it was not an upscale school, and was likely not even meeting the bar that I would want for my own kids, but it was everything to my mom and grandma. The other thing that I remember is in ninth grade I earned the Pursuit of Excellence award from my school for my writing, or maybe it was general English. It was a big deal to my family: my mom, dad, grandma, and aunt were really proud of me. That’s also when I realized this school thing might be for me.

4.      Which leader (alive or not, in any field) do you most admire?

I don’t have one individual leader; instead, the leaders I admire have a unique perspective on transformational change—one that I try to emulate. An example of that are the Black intellectual and political thought leaders from the first half of the 20th century. They are incredibly, endlessly inspirational. Martin Luther King, Jr., Langston Hughes, W. E. B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, Ella Baker— these leaders had tremendous vision. You can tell by reading their writing and speeches that they understood they may never see the justice that they were aspiring for; they were doing the work they did on behalf of their grandkids and future generations. Yet they knew they could inspire, organize, mobilize, and push our thinking, because their work, like the leaders who came before them, was situated in a broader struggle for justice in this country. And, as a result, would be a meaningful contribution in a long history of struggle that would continue beyond their existence on earth.

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

The above quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. is a great example of that. Most people, when they reference that quote, focus on the fact that he says it “bends towards justice.” I believe specifically the ‘long’ piece of the quote was his focus. He knew his vision would take time, he had the courage and conviction to pursue it, and he had faith that even if he never saw his dream come to fruition, there would be people who would come up behind him, on that long moral arc, to take up the mantle. I reflect on that often when I get caught up in the need for immediate impact sometimes; I try to remind myself I’m contributing to the long arc and those contributions along the way matter.

5.      When was the first time you thought about working in education?

My mom and dad planted seeds very early on that education was important. The experience that really crystalised the notion of a career in education was becoming the guardian of my cousin when he was in 8th grade. It gave me the perspective of a parent for the first time and the hard choices that parents have to make.

As a person of color in America, your likelihood of success is dependent on so many different variables. Because I was my cousin’s guardian while studying at UCLA, and then afterward when I was a Coro Fellow and a TFA Corps Member, that afforded him access to institutions and opportunities other young people in his situation didn’t have. For me, working in education gives me a sense of purpose and focus to contribute meaningfully to a system that may not provide all the young people who look like my little cousin with those same privileges that he received, simply because I happened to step up to be his legal guardian. Institutions are both limited and very powerful in shaping opportunities for children, and it’s my responsibility to ensure that the institutions in and around education are more fair and just.  

6.      What has been your most memorable moment working in education?

I don’t think it's happened yet! I think it’s coming up—the third graders I taught in Atlanta are graduating from high school this spring. I taught them and still think of them as 8 and 9 year-olds and now they’re on the cusp of being adults and figuring out what they want to do with their lives—that’s powerful to think about. I’m proud of the work they’ve put into school, to building community. It connects back to the MLK quote I mentioned earlier though, because I left my third grade classroom and didn’t truly have a sense of what that meant in the grand scheme of things. When I was teaching my kids in Atlanta, I had no idea what I was contributing. I saw incremental growth, but that didn’t mean my students were going to make it to high school graduation and have the choice to go to college like they now do. It will be really great to reconnect with them and see who they are now as adults (or big people who think they are adults; although their Instagram pages are edging towards adult, they’ll always be little to me).

7.      What do love about your job?

Across many roles, current and past, I really enjoy coaching and developing people. Now at EP I’m looking forward to diving into how we create an experience that is transformative for Fellows so they commit to the work in the long term. Given that I don’t work directly with Fellows on a day-to-day basis though, the question I’m constantly asking is how do I create a transformative experience for the people I manage and the people on my team.  Right now, I’m getting a lot of energy from the work we need to do to reimagine where we’re headed as an organization.

8.      If you had a magic wand, what’s one thing you would fix or change?

Two things that are top of mind for me right now: that my home would magically have another 1000 square feet to accommodate all the baby stuff we’re accumulating and that the Lakers would be a little better this year. What’s the point of having Lebron James if you aren’t gonna make the playoffs?

On a more serious note, given the threat to our institutions—low trust, a lack of checks and balances, corruption, and the degree to which civil discourse is eroding—I’d want to create the conditions where people (all people) felt like they could be seen, valued, heard. Where everyone saw everyone as humans so we can work through problems.

9.      What are you still learning to do?

I’m learning so many things! As I’ve advanced in my career, I’ve noticed that the more responsibility you take on, the more blind spots you have, and how critical it is to lead with an inclusive lens that truly understands the challenges and opportunities at a level of depth that resonates with the people most proximate to the work. I want to use my position and power in a way that feels inclusive. And I don’t think it’s something you’re ever done learning; it’s a really important part of being a leader and to my own leadership philosophy, and on my best days I try to acknowledge that I can always be better at that. Context changes so you need to keep learning how to be inclusive, get better at it, and be mindful of it.

10.   What or who inspires you?

Moms! Every time someone asks me, my mom is the first person that pops into my head. She didn’t go to college, she was a single parent for most of her parenting experience (I have 7 brothers and sisters), and she was super resilient and unflappably positive--which is why I think I’m generally a pretty positive person. She’s constantly thinking about others. The privileges I have today are because of my mom; the challenges I have today are not insurmountable because of her example.

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