Getting Proximate with New Orleans: Q & A with EP Alum Meladee Evans

In the EP Blog post “Four Places to Support Equity and Boost Your Career Like Nowhere Else,” we discussed the importance of the network’s “accelerator cities” — some of our smaller locations that are high priority because they have a particularly high demand for talented leaders, as well as offer unique opportunities to impact education and advance careers rapidly. New Orleans is on that list, along with Memphis, Kansas City, and Tulsa.

2014 EP Fellow Meladee Evans began her career in education during her placement at Algiers Charter School Association in New Orleans. Although she was a newcomer to the city, she has since made NOLA her home and is the Co-Director of Talent Strategy for KIPP New Orleans. In this Q & A, she talks about why New Orleans is special, changing, and in need of those who are committed to “getting proximate” through hard work and time.

What makes the New Orleans education space so different and special?

New Orleans is unique in the education landscape. There's probably no other place like it nationally in the sense that it’s about 94% charter schools. After Hurricane Katrina, with the establishment of the state-run Recovery School District, the charter school system became the public school system. Education Next provided a good overview of the post-Katrina reforms in this 2015 article. In 2018, the local Orleans Parish School Board will take oversight of the 52 charter schools developed by the Recovery School District. So, more change is on the horizon.

How has the opportunity in New Orleans also led to new challenges?

The public school system was struggling before the storm and there were some plans to disrupt that. But once Katrina struck and many schools were either damaged or destroyed, public education here was completely restructured. In the aftermath, many displaced teachers and school employees were let go, and a lot of people came from out of town to be a part of the education reform happening.

There have been a lot of academic gains and positive growth in the school system, but there have also been a lot of negative feelings within the community. Many people, particularly in the Black community (which makes up the majority of the New Orleans population) feel like things were done to them and not with them. The changes here happened drastically and I don't believe there was much equity regarding influence over decision-making. And personally, as a Black person engaged in this field and working for a white-led organization here (meaning the C-level executives are all white), I understand those feelings and feel strongly about doing what I can to help repair that. I've made it a point to hear from community leaders and parents in focus groups, interviews, and surveys about their thoughts and perceptions on ed reform. These are often candid conversations that I appreciate sincerely.

I believe there are many people and organizations that see the need to come together and are ready to enact change.  So, for that reason, community and parent engagement is becoming the next wave of education change here. And high-quality professionals with an understanding of the context here, and ideally from the community, will be needed to help lead that change with and alongside the community. This is definitely long overdue but it's necessary.

You agree with the idea that to create equity and effect meaningful change in public education, people should take civil rights leader Bryan Stevenson’s advice to get proximate to people and communities – and stay close. Why is that important in New Orleans?

When I personally heard Bryan Stevenson talk about proximity, it resonated a great deal with me, particularly as it relates to people from the community serving the same community. I am not from New Orleans. It’s my adopted home now. But, I think when someone has grown up in the same community in which they are serving, they automatically share something with that community that signals how much they care. There is a built-in trust and understanding. So, for example, when thinking about education leadership or a charter school board, I think it’s important to consider the candidate background within the community as it relates to their ability to understand the lives of the students being served.

In my work, I’m always asking questions like “what’s this person’s background?” or “what guided this decision?” or “how did we get here?” I think that’s important. I mean, what good are any of us if we aren’t challenging each other in the way that we think, process, and act? In my new role I won’t just be asking the questions, but I’ll have the opportunity to help guide our approach to how we best intentionally recruit, develop, and advance people in a systematic, equitable, and transparent way. That’s the goal. And I’ll continue to build relationships with educators from here, seeking feedback on how we reach that goal along the way. I feel passionately about our students seeing themselves reflected in their teachers and leaders and additionally, I believe we must all continue to develop our cultural competencies no matter what race or background. Our students deserve for us to do the best work we can for them.

Do you think you have to be from a community in order to get proximate?

No, I don’t. Like I said, I am not from New Orleans.  But, I do think you have to put in the work. I’m definitely still doing my work.

My advice would be to get connected to community organizations that are really tapped into what’s happening in the city. I recently joined a group through the Urban League for people who want to understand the education space. Everybody is challenged to be involved in the community in some way and there are panels and individual speakers who talk about the history of education in the city. Representatives from the Board of Education recently talked about community engagement and why parent engagement is important, for example.

There is another group called the New Orleans Alliance for Diversity and Excellence, started by a charter network CEO. He is very passionate about making sure that Black educators have the space to grow and become leaders of organizations.

Other good routes to get proximate are through community volunteering and by attending public school board meetings. I learned a lot about New Orleans from volunteering at a homeless shelter for teens. Outside of the comfort of school or a classroom, you can gain a much better understanding of the other things that students and families are dealing with on a daily basis.

There are certainly different avenues that you can take, but I do think it’s important to be proactive. Ask colleagues at your EP placement for more advice about how to get educated and connected.

What would you want Fellows considering New Orleans to know?

The people of New Orleans are wonderful and welcoming people. I want to stress that no one here has the feeling that outsiders shouldn’t come here, by any means. But, I do think that community members rightfully want to be involved in the decisions that change their city and they feel very prideful about wanting to preserve what is unique about the city. That means that Fellows and new people should come in with their ears and hearts open — listen and merge into what New Orleans is because it’s an incredible place.

My initial placement was 10-weeks long, and though I had no idea if I would be staying permanently, I knew it was important to maximize my time in understanding this amazing city. I set up meetings and lunches with colleagues who are native New Orleanians to learn about their backgrounds and why they chose education. I took time with everyone from directors and executives to receptionist and front office staff. Everyone has a different perspective and they are all important. I valued my time spent listening. All that listening helps me understand how to work alongside New Orleanians and help advocate for their priorities, even if they’re not in the same room at the time.  

Additionally, Fellows should know that there is never a dull moment in New Orleans. There are so many amazing music festivals and good food. I've been here for three years now and I still haven't visited every place that I've been told I need to eat! There's always going to be something to do or something to get into. And most of all, New Orleans just has really good people.

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