2021 NACSA Leadership Conference Reflections

Black and Brown leaders are central to educational equity. They need our support.

             – Naomi Shelton @ The 2021 NACSA Leadership Conference

As the 2021 NACSA Leadership Conference Plenary started with the question, “Did you find education or did education find you?” I started reflecting on my own journey to working in education, which hasn’t been the typical one. I did not start my career as a teacher or grow up in a household with parents who were teachers. My parents are engineers and as a journalism school graduate I started my career in corporate public relations. But that wasn’t the end of my journey.

In 2013, got involved as a board member of a small charter school in Kansas City — Crossroads Academy. Stepping foot in that building for the first time was so reminiscent of my own elementary education experience — intentionally diverse, community-oriented, creative and grounded in high expectations. It was an experience that shaped my life and one that I’d spent years trying to figure out how to recreate for other kids. So I knew after that first visit I needed to be involved.

And I was! I joined the board, served as board president, and eventually joined full-time as a staff member. During my tenure Crossroads grew into a network of schools, serving students from across Kansas City. But we didn’t grow from nothing; we started with a strong foundation of leaders who looked like and shared the experiences of our students. As a Black woman with Black women peers, I could spend less time making people comfortable with who I am and more time focused on creating a high-quality educational environment where all students could thrive. Families sent their kids to our schools because they knew their needs would be met, no matter their life experiences. Our staff were empowered to teach students in ways that were authentic to them. All of this yielded a higher performing, more equitable school for Kansas City’s kids.

The value of this experience brought me to NACSA. The work we’re doing to amplify and advocate for quality schools that center communities is central to the work I want to be doing. I believe that every community deserves to have schools that look and talk and feel like that community – schools that grow from the community and are responsive to the community. Communities need schools that celebrate diversity and the strong expectations we all have for our students.

That work begins with a more diverse group of people leading change with powerful ideas for how excellence and equity can be achieved. The participants in this year’s Plenary: Women Changemakers in Education at the 2021 NACSA Leadership Conference gave both validation for my experiences and challenge to lead that change. As they each discussed the unique challenges Black and Indigenous women face in leadership – balancing our inner warriors and peacemakers, critics who are quick to throw reputational daggers – I felt affirmed and found myself snapping my fingers, shouting “Amen!” and hurrying to tweet it all. But I was also challenged to keep returning to what drives me to do this work: the success of our kids. Their call to create authentic spaces – like the ones I experienced early in my educational career – reminded me of my responsibility to allow students and the next generation of diverse leaders to bring their full selves to their learning and their work.

We DO need Black and Brown leaders to ensure equity in our schools. But Black and Brown leaders can’t do it alone. Creating excellent and equitable schools requires all of us – people of color and white people, conservatives and liberals, parents and educators – working together, building systems where all kids cannot just survive, but thrive.

It’s the best way to create excellent, diverse schools for all kids.

Attendees of the 2021 NACSA Virtual Leadership Conference can watch the recordings of Plenary: Women Changemakers in Education and all conference panels here.

Courtney Hughley is the vice president of communications at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. She works nationally to share NACSA’s roadmap to address the lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion within the education movement; build authorizing systems and policies with communities, and share best practices across the education field.

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