Walking (Learning, and Leading) in Memphis


Last week EP Fellows from across the country gathered in Memphis as part of their Impact Fellowship leadership development programming. These convenings are a space for Fellows to develop and deepen relationships amongst the cohort while gaining context on the current education landscape in a specific location (in this case Memphis) and drawing connections between Memphis and the education sector in their own city. 

Throughout the two-day convening Fellows had an opportunity to interact with each other, meet local leaders, and explore Memphis’ rich historical and education landscape. 


It all began on Wednesday evening as everyone gathered at a local spot to reconnect since their last convening in Oakland. EP’s Brianne Stuard, Director of Adult Learning and Community, welcomed everyone to Memphis and introduced two Fellows, Raina Henderson (Impact Fellow at Whole Child Strategies) and Kira Morin (Impact Fellow at Shelby County Schools) to kick-off the evening. They spoke briefly about the work they’re doing at their placement organizations before sharing a poem, “A Love Poem to Memphis” by Kevin Lipe:  

To know the city is to love it, yes

but many here among us think this true:

you’re only “Memphis” if you pass the test

and put the cole slaw on your barbecue.

On clearing that great hurdle, then you know

the greatness of our City on the Bluff.

Here you can see Isaac’s Eldorado,

along with some of Elvis’s old stuff.

The things we love the most here are too hard

to be pinned down by words like “grit” and “grind.”

The soul, the struggle—music’s presence marred

by conflicts, sure, but ne’er by them defined.

The things we do in Memphis shape the sound

of cultures, past, and now, and yet unfound.

Following a round of applause from the 40 EPers gathered at Local Gastropub in Downtown, Reginald Porter, former Chief of Staff at Shelby County Schools (SCS) and currently Senior Vice President at ALSAC/St.Jude Children's Research Hospital, shared his experience about serving as the Board Commissioner for SCS during the merger and demerger of Shelby County Schools and Memphis City Schools. He offered valuable context on the mechanics of those decisions, the impact of poverty on Memphis’ education landscape, and illustrated the high-stakes work happening in Memphis — the bright spots and what still needs to be done to achieve equity for kids.


The education sector is complex, nuanced, and different in cities across the country. We believe  being an effective education leader requires being conversant and credible in the matters that impact schools and communities directly. Our 2019 Impact Fellows explore a range of education topics and how they’re situated differently depending on the city, and have opportunities to get proximate to the work in cities outside of their local landscapes. Last week Thursday was their opportunity to dive into Memphis’ rich civil rights and consider how lessons of the past can make them more inclusive and equity-focused leaders today.   

Ali Jaffery and Benjamin Friedlander (both Impact Fellows at Memphis Education Fund) welcomed everyone on Thursday to the Memphis Education Fund (MEF) which is inside of Crosstown Concourse — a former Sears, Roebuck & Co. distribution center that’s been revitalized as a hub for Memphians in the Crosstown neighborhood. Ali is managing the Memphis Education Fund’s Innovation Fun portfolio of investments and initiatives during his Fellowship while Benjamin is working closely with MEF CEO, Terence Patterson, and the full leadership team to implement the strategic priorities of the organization that aim to improve K-12 education opportunities for all children in Memphis. Both Ali and Benjamin moved to Memphis for their EP Impact Fellowships.

Fellows prepare for each convening by reading and/or watching resources related to the topics they engage with; in advance of their time in Memphis they watched The Memphis 13, the story of the Civil Rights Movement’s smallest pioneers. We were honored to have Professor Daniel Kiel who teaches Education & Civil Rights in addition to Property and Constitutional Law at The University of Memphis and wrote and directed The Memphis 13 which shares stories of the first students to desegregate public schools in Memphis. He was also involved in the merging and unmerging of Shelby County Schools and Memphis City Schools and thus was able to continue to layer on to what Reginald Porter shared on Wednesday evening and round out Fellows’ understanding of this complex issue. 


A visit to Memphis must include time at the immensely powerful National Civil Rights Museum

As they explored the vast history of local and national Civil Rights movements, Fellows considered how leadership shows up throughout the movement and what lessons can they apply to the present day — their work now during their Fellowship and beyond. 

Following what was a powerful albeit short visit to the museum, Fellows reconvened for a panel discussion with three Memphis education leaders: 

  • Miska Clay Bibbs (EP Alum), Chairperson at Shelby County Schools and Chief of Staff at Teach For America Memphis

  • Brittany Monda, Executive Director at Memphis College Preparatory Elementary Schools

  • Cardell Orrin, Memphis Director at Stand for Children 

They explored a key issue in education broadly, and one that is especially relevant to families and kids in Memphis: school choice. While these leaders brought different perspectives on what's working and not for kids, they all agreed on a shared goal of increasing equity and excellence for Memphis’ kids and shared their own advice with our Fellows. Miska Clay Bibbs encouraged Fellows to build context and understanding so they can lead authentically while Cardell Orrin reminded Fellows to check their egos, think about the greater good, and lead humbly. 


If Thursday was about Memphis education context and history, the focus turned inward on Friday as Fellows reflected on their own role in the work and how their identity and bias can affect their leadership. They heard from EP Alum, Sam O’Bryant who is the Senior Director of Equity and Partnerships at the SchoolSeed Foundation. He shared how his identity shapes his leadership and the collations he’s built and encouraged Fellows to do the work of exploring their own identities as they grow as leaders. 

After a packed convening full of intense history, thought-provoking speakers, and cohort camaraderie, Fellows gathered in small groups to apply lessons accumulated over the last two days to their own Fellowship projects. Their visit to the National Civil Rights museum prompted discussion of the concept of ‘leadership at all levels’ and how one can be a leader no matter where you are on the org chart just as the Civil Rights movement catalyzed leaders at all levels. The panel of Memphis education leaders reminded them how absolutely critical it is to engage a diverse set of stakeholders -- including the constituents their organizations serve -- on decisions and question who’s voice needs to be present that perhaps isn’t. Finally, their identity exploration with Sam O’Bryant reinforced how the work to become inclusive, equity-focused leaders begins within. 

Our Pioneers are now back at work in their own communities and making progress on their projects. There’s a saying that’s common at professional development workshops: “What’s said here stays here, what’s learned here leaves here.” It’s a reminder that while different topics were discussed and people stepped out of their comfort zones, learning requires that level of vulnerability and this work of building a more equitable education system requires constant learning and application of what we’ve learned. Desiree Shannon (Impact Fellow at College Possible) had this final reflection to share after leaving Memphis last week:

“I had the immense pleasure of attending my second Education Pioneers Impact Fellowship convening in Memphis, Tennessee.  I am continually humbled by the sheer talent I have the opportunity to interface with, as we look critically at the whole education system through an equity lens. Doing so enables us to change students lives and create equal opportunity in a system designed against them. In Memphis, the context and history is essential to tackle equity, especially as it pertains to race and income. One of the most memorable quotes from our panel of Memphis education leaders was ‘details make the difference.’

As we work to advance equity in education by challenging the status quo and immunity to change, we also must acknowledge and be experts of the details. Understanding and articulating the details of education equity work and change management enhances our relationships and allows us to enact systemic change. Without understanding the details, we lose credibility, momentum, and trust. I appreciate these reminders and hope that ALL leaders in this space pay closer attention to the nuances of our work.

Continually gracious for the opportunity to be grounded in mission and surrounded by a supportive group of peers.”

Brianne Stuard is the Director of Adult Learning and Community. She designs and facilitates programming for EP's cohorts of Fellows. Having worked in multiple urban and rural education contexts, she believes that human capital is the core resource that will expand educational opportunity for students nationwide.



Join the Conversation

Commenting Policy

Education Pioneers does not discriminate against any views but reserves the right to remove or not post comments that are off-topic or contain obscene language, threats, or defamatory statements.