After four years in the classroom, William Jackson walked away from teaching. He sought a way to teach kids what our schools aren’t: about their value as people of color – and specifically as Black people – and what race means for them both in and far beyond school.
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William Jackson never was, and never will be, satisfied by test scores.
At age 24, he was the highest performing science teacher in Atlanta Public Schools. Despite success, he focused on his doubts: he didn’t feel like he was preparing his students to thrive beyond the test.
“I was teaching in a Title I school, where eighty to ninety percent of the students received free or reduced price lunch, and they got the best test scores anyway,” he says.
“These kids had previously done well on tests, so I was doing a good job with students who were arguably already good at taking tests. But for those who couldn’t apply what I taught to life, or acquire information independently, I wasn’t helping.”
Humility aside – becoming the highest performing teacher in just two years suggests that William was doing a heck of a lot more than just helping good test takers remain good test takers – William strikes you right away as a person who will never be satisfied with symbolic success.
An Education Pioneers Alumnus and an Echoing Green Black Male Achievement Fellow, William is the founder and Executive Director of Village of Wisdom (or VOW), a nonprofit in Durham, North Carolina that supports Black families and their children to “develop the resiliency and self-confidence necessary to overcome the academic opportunity gap.”
Through his work in founding and leading VOW, William is ensuring that Black children and their families have well-explored, positive racial identities to enable them to thrive in and outside of school and construct new systems to replace those that don’t serve them.
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Though he’s currently working outside the classroom, teaching is clearly in William’s nature. He weaves powerful stories throughout our conversation.
“Imagine if your [white] child went to school, and eight months out of the school year, he learned about Black history, and Black leaders, and then one month out of the year, he’d learn about white history,” William says.
Spending your day in a place where you learn about (and often from) people who don’t look like you, and who aren’t familiar with your culture is not only emotionally taxing, but also cognitively exhausting.
“Independent learning means kids have to continually check information, think about goals, and assess where they’re at,” William says. “But Black children often have things like low teacher expectations, disproportionately harsh punishment, and teacher devaluation of their culture unfairly taking away from that brain capacity. They can’t fully participate in the learning process, while being emotionally taxed by these ideas.”
The disconnect between home and school for children of color can put them at a disadvantage because of the energy it takes to navigate both. William refers to it as “code switching”—how kids learn to operate successfully in different environments, especially when those environments are culturally dissimilar.
“If I take this child out of his home culture and put him in a place that doesn’t mirror the context at home and what’s valued there, then not only does he need to switch what he needs to learn, but also to deal with emotional turmoil that comes with someone constantly devaluing his home culture,” William says. “And it all has an impact on your identity.”
Without a solid identity, he points out, it’s hard for any child to focus. Being hyperaware of how you’re “supposed” to behave at school, for instance, is undoubtedly draining for kids. For Black students, having a strong identity is especially critical to cope with the cultural devaluation they often experience in schools.
“We’re asking Black kids to code switch because their cultural practices don’t reflect white ones,” William says. “The message kids frequently get from school is that they need to code switch because their own culture has little value.”
The solution isn’t getting rid of different contexts, William points out, as the ability to move easily between cultures and contexts is incredibly valuable in today’s global society. But where we have more work to do in schools is realizing where, why, and how we expect Black students to code switch to reflect white culture.
There’s an important opportunity here that William notes: “How can we create school environments where more than one cultural context is frequently used?”
William wants kids to have pride in who they are and in their home culture. A strong positive self-identify gives them the emotional support they need to navigate school environments and equips them with the skills they need to thrive in our global society.
“Kids need to have ‘cultural elasticity’ to maintain the skills necessary in an increasingly global marketplace, and those who aren’t will be left behind,” William says. “I’m working to build a sense of pride in our kids so they can handle switching back and forth between contexts.”
“Cultural elasticity” (as coined by Dr. James Johnson) matters for all of us. In fact, the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI) reports that in the private sector, when both inherent diversity (such as ethnicity and gender) and acquired diversity (traits you learn, like appreciating cultural differences or “gender smarts”) are present in leadership, those companies best the competition. CTI reports that “employees at these companies [with inherent and acquired diversity] are 45% likelier to report that their firm’s market share grew over the previous year and 70% likelier to report that the firm captured a new market.”
Recognizing and appreciating each other’s differences is part of what makes organizations powerful, and it can work for students and communities too. William asks, “How do we shift our society to one that allows everyone to celebrate who they are?”
He’s asking about a systematic shift, and it starts with addressing race.
“When we begin to have conversations about how we’re going to move toward schools that address race, then we can teach students how their own experiences make them more resilient,” William says. “We can encourage children to create new systems that work for them, which takes energy, power, and creativity. ”
In our schools as a whole, William would like to see a lot more leaders and schools address race as part of students’ experience.
“We need to ask schools how they’re helping kids cope with racism,” Williams says. “Racism impacts depression, anxiety, health, and more, and schools need to address it. If you’re a charter school operator and you’re targeting kids of color, you must address students’ experiences with racism. And we’re not addressing it. We’re not focusing on race, the one factor that makes the experiences of kids of color different.”
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A group of Village of Wisdom (VOW) Black children and their families are sitting in the boardroom of Freelon Architecture Firm in Durham. The firm won the bid to construct the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, and the VOW group are here for what William calls a “Black Genius Field Trip.”
William describes the powerful moment when the firm talked about changing their vision for the museum substantially, to more than double the building’s square footage. “The Freelon agency said that there was too much Black history to fit in the four floors they were allotted for above ground constructions,” William says, “so they dug five levels below ground to match the depth of history that needed to be included.”
The purpose of VOW events like the Freelon field trip, William explains, is that they reaffirm kids in their race and identity to continue to build them up. They also deliberately connect race to greatness.
“Frequently what happens when a person of color does something great is that we distance them from their race,” William says. “All of the things done to separate Blackness from incredible prowess, at VOW, we join them back together. It’s possible for someone to see themselves as Black and amazing at the same time. Kids act in powerful ways if we allow them to do that.”
In addition to Black Genius Field Trips and community events, VOW is working to build a village around the families in Durham alongside other local organizations. Through Family Learning Villages, VOW gives parents the space, time, and information to have deliberate and purposeful conversations about maintaining a positive Black identity. The sessions are powerful for entire families.
“During one of the last sessions, one of the kids came in, so I asked him, ‘what do you want to know about Black history?’” William says. “He said, ‘I want to know who came up with the idea that Black people are less than.’”
William pauses at the weight of that statement. “He summarized everything I was trying to do,” William says. “But he has to process that idea, that Black people are ‘less than,’ and we can’t act like it’s not going to impact his academic performance and career.”
VOW also teaches children and their families about having a growth mindset, an understanding that intelligence isn’t fixed, but can grow. Believing that you can become more intelligent by working harder is especially important for Black children as they combat false and public narratives about their abilities that suggest otherwise—narratives that can be destructive for Black students.
Take testing for example. The practice of asking students to identify their race before they take a test impacts Black students’ performance on that test. When Black students are asked their race before taking a test they perform worse than if they’re not asked to identify it:
“If you ask a kid what their race is before they take a test, Black children will use cognitive energy to disprove performance stereotypes, taking precious cognitive resources away from thinking about the actual test,” William says. “Studies have shown that significant change in performance can be achieved by teaching Black kids about growth mindset.”
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If we are to achieve real equity for all children—and especially for children of color and children from poor families who have been systematically left behind—we must talk about race and systemic racism. But leading that work comes with the responsibility of truly understanding it and why it’s critical, no matter the color of our skin.
“Why is it that people feel so capable of handling diversity when they’ve had no training, don’t know measures behind it, or know the impact of racism on all people of color?” William says. “If you’re going to launch a diversity initiative, without even one person of color who has that knowledge, aren’t you doing that work irresponsibly? That’s relevant to white people, Black people, and people of color. All of us who want to do work in communities of color, if you haven’t done the work to investigate why things are as they are, why should you be in power?”
And too often, William points out, achieving “diversity” can be more symbol than substance, which does little to move us toward equity.
“Diversity isn’t just a representation thing. You have to think about racial equity,” William says. “You need someone with expertise in the field, not just a placeholder so you can say you have a person of color on your board.”
William points out that no matter how much we embrace diversity work, if we don’t change the systems or structures that are racially biased or racist, and seek to bring people of color on board who have a committed investment and interest in improving the situation of people of color, we won’t make any progress to achieve racial equity.
“Over and over again we see efforts meant to be for people of color not led by people of color,” William says. “How do you move that power to Black folks or people of color to do this work? It’s a really important conversation that people must have.”
For all of us who work in education, and especially for those of us who work in communities of color, William notes three requirements that we should all meet.
“First, we should be willing to assess and measure how well the organization improves people’s ability to disrupt and navigate racism,” William says. “Second, to have a conversation about if the leadership at the organizations that serve people of color both reflect the people being served and are people invested in equity, beyond just racial representation. And third, the people in the community should have a say in your leadership, and the majority should be willing to nominate you as a leader or as a reflection of them.”
Ultimately, if we can have the tough conversations, really assess power and privilege – and what giving it up looks like – and ensure that education’s leaders are invested in creating equity for children of color, then we’ll be empowering ourselves and our students to achieve racial equity, and as William puts it “to propel kids to create ideas that render racism irrelevant.”
Kendra Racouillat is the Senior Writer for Education Pioneers. She works to tell powerful stories to help ensure that our nation's brightest leaders continue to choose high-impact career paths in education so that every student in our country receives an outstanding education.