Bakari Ukuu moved to Kansas City as a Teach For America corps member in 2012. He is originally from Tulsa, Oklahoma (and is very excited to hear EP is expanding there in 2018), but found his place in Kansas City and decided to put down roots. While an instructional coach, Ukuu joined Education Pioneers and worked in the Kansas City Public Schools in the Curriculum, Instruction and Professional Development department where he helped embed social justice standards and develop culturally-responsive curriculum, while also delivering districtwide professional development. We talked to Bakari, now a vice-principal, about the opportunities available in Kansas City for those who are willing to commit and do the work, as well as what makes the City of Fountains so livable and enjoyable.
Q: What are the opportunities for young professionals in Kansas City?
Kansas City is ripe for people who are willing to roll up their sleeves, do the work, and engage in conversations, particularly across lines of difference. The growing diversity in the inner city provides an opportunity for great coalition-building to demonstrate what's possible for students across racial and class differences.
There's also a lot of innovation going on in both technology and education and they’re converging to create a robust education tech space here. The opportunities in Kansas City are vast in those areas.
Q: Can non-natives or transplants make a real difference in Kansas City?
I’m a transplant to Kansas City. This is my sixth year in the education system here. And I went from classroom teacher to vice-principal in a relatively short period of time. I think that, in of itself, shows that there's a need for strong, dedicated, driven leaders in education in Kansas City. At the same time, you have to obviously do your due diligence, stay connected, and stay abreast of what's going on in the space.
Q: How do you suggest EP Fellows connect and make an impact?
If you are a Fellow who has not had any traditional experience in education and you’re learning about the space and issues in-depth for the first time, just soak it all up. Sit in on as many conversations as possible. Kansas City is a place where you can really get connected. Connect with the EP Partners. For example, the Lean Lab is always having conversations around issues that impact education. There's this organization called The Collective, which is Teach For America's alumni of color, and they have regular series of events. So, I would say that tapping into the community and getting connected is one way.
Second, just go all in, give it your all. And don't be afraid to say “yes” because people will respond to those individuals who are ready to make an impact. They look at you and say, "Okay, we see someone who's committed, let's give him a platform to continue to learn and grow."
Third, don't be afraid to ask questions. I think sometimes when you're new to a city, space, or organization, you feel you can't ask questions. Do it anyway. Don’t be afraid because you never know who you're talking, who they know, and how they might propel you forward. I mean, I'm sitting next to someone who is doing consulting for Chicago Public Schools who knows leaders who are hiring. That’s a great opportunity for someone who might have a desire to move to Chicago and work for the school system. So, ask questions, get connected, go to area events, and don't be afraid to say “yes.”
Q: Do you have particular advice for those who might want to make Kansas City their adopted home and place of impact?
I would say to a person who wants to make Kansas City their place of impact over the longer term, show your commitment. That, to me, means showing up. It means volunteering. It means being available. I think it also means, again, asking questions that show people you are committed and want it. Kansas City is very welcoming to those who are willing to do the work.
I would also advise them to be willing to do the job that is needed now, with the knowledge that it could lead to the role they may really want or be best suited for in the future. I didn't come in to Kansas City thinking I was going to be a vice-principal. I came in giving my best to my teaching role, which led to becoming an instructional coach, which led to Education Pioneers and becoming a vice-principal. Be willing to go above and beyond. Show that you're committed to the outcomes of all kids and not just the ones who are in front of you, or not just within the role that you are seated in at the time. For example, if you do data analysis, don’t just stop at the data set that is in front of you. Look for other connections and invite conversations beyond what your job description may say.
Q: What excites you about the Kansas City education space?
I’m excited to see positive growth from both our school district and our charter schools. As it relates to education, Kansas City is starting to look at itself as one eco-system and not separate entities of charter versus district—as many other cities across the nation seem to do. Not that we haven't had those divisive conversations in Kansas City in the past, but we're getting to a place—a much stronger place—where the superintendent of the district is talking to the superintendents and leaders of the charter schools. They have a regular standing meeting. The district and charters are engaging in conversations that bring educators across school systems and school sites together. They are talking about what it means to get it right for kids, period, not what does it mean for your building to be the best building or your school district to be the best school district. I’m excited that our conversations have become about what it means to serve all kids in Kansas City to the best of our abilities as adults.
Q: What makes Kansas City not just a great place to work, but a great place to live?
There's something for every taste in Kansas City. Whatever you like, salsa dancing, barbecue, clubs, lounges, comedy shows, concerts. There's always something going on in Kansas City that’s worthwhile.
We are in middle America, so the cost of living is great. You will need a car, but everything is within a 15-20 minute drive. So, transportation is not a major issue. You can park downtown and ride the streetcar for free. The streetcar goes downtown, which is where some of our main hotspots are. We have the Power and Light District, which is a very popular hangout for young professionals. We also have another place called The Plaza, which is a beautiful outdoor mall.
Q: What's an attribute of Kansas City that makes you love it?
I love that Kansas City is a big city with a laid-back feel. At its center is a kind of southern hospitality. You can get the big-city feel and hang out with lots of people and be in that environment, but you can also go on a walking trail or enjoy the green space. I love that I can tap in and out of the big-city feel and enjoy country living based on how I'm feeling from day to day.