Celebrating Black History Month: In conversation with grantees

Blog Post

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation connected with leaders from a few of our U.S. grantees to discuss their missions in education and learn more about individuals and work that inspire them as they reflect on Black History Month.

Kathryn Procope
Executive Director
Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science

Since 2015, Kathryn Procope has been the executive director of Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science. The school’s mission is to provide a sound foundation in all academic subjects, with a concentration in mathematics and science. To prepare students for success in high school and beyond, the intellectual, social, and emotional growth of each student is nurtured, while an appreciation for diversity and sensitivity of all individuals is encouraged in an enriched educational environment.

What does Black History Month mean to you, and how do you reflect on and celebrate Black history and culture?

Black History Month highlights the continued pursuit of a self-determined life in the United States. It is a time when we specifically focus on the contributions of our ancestors to the fabric of our country. I also take this time to reflect on the educators upon whose shoulders I stand and the paths that they paved for us.

What is the single most impactful thing we need to do in the education field to empower Black students in school and beyond?

The education field needs to rethink assessment so that it actually measures student learning while taking into account the racial identity of every Black student. Education should reflect the specific experiences and culture of Black students.

Can you tell us about a role model or a Black leader who inspires you and your work?

My mother was a single parent who put herself through college while working seven days a week and raising two children. Later, when she retired, she was in charge of food services for the NYC Department of Education. She taught me the value of education through our history and reminding me that Black people must continue to lift each other up.

Bernadette Merikle
Executive Director
Community Center for Education Results

Since 2020, B Merikle has led the Community Center for Education Results (CCER) as executive director. CCER is the backbone organization for The Road Map Project. While their mission continues to evolve in new and exciting ways, what remains core from their original work charting a bolder road map toward education equity. Their students are ambitious about their futures, so they are committed to building systems that support their needs and dreams. CCER does this by leading with race and centering community in their work.

What does Black History Month mean to you, and how do you reflect on and celebrate Black history and culture?

As a Black femme, Black History Month is an opportunity to reflect and regroup on what it means to be Black, brilliant, and joyous.As a parent and education reformer, Black history—especially when centered before white oppression—is a glorious opportunity to reflect on the genius of this nation’s past, present, and future. While Black history is an everyday, lived experience for me, the presence of this intense time always conjures a new iteration on the question: “What if the offspring of King Cotton and Queen Sugar was a child named Pleasure?” Every year, the answer to that question gets sweeter and sweeter.

What is the single most impactful thing we need to do in the education field to empower Black students in school and beyond?

What I’ve seen time and time again in our work is that the single most empowering education experience is when someone turns to a Black student and not only asks for a solution, but richly resources that idea to success. Beyond trusting Black students’ assessments of what they need for success, the most radical shift to empowering Black students in the education system and beyond would be to love Black students more than you hate the systems that oppress them. Ever since a colleague of mine uttered similar words in a meeting as the world rushed to re-open differently after the pandemic, my energy has shifted away from raging at a system proven to replicate failure and moved towards seeking out and uplifting Black joy in our students’ experiences. The same energy we devote to social media posts about our favorite Black authors being banned in school libraries should be devoted to uplifting up-and-coming young Black authors who are brilliantly showing up in places you might not find inside a book.

Can you tell us about a role model or a Black leader who inspires you and your work?

As an artist, I always find this question so challenging because there is nothing in this world that doesn’t inspire me. Especially when we are talking about Blackness and specifically Black culture. That said, one of my favorite people to watch on Instagram and show up in a room with right now is Veronica Very (@veronicaverydavis). The grace and brilliance she exudes when she walks and works in her soft power is a sight to behold. The space she makes for those who are coming up after her is a model for how Black empowerment works, organically, in our community.

Hiewet Senghor
CEO and Founder
Black Teacher Collaborative

In 2017, Hiewet Senghor founded the Black Teacher Collaborative. Their mission is to engage, develop and support a collective of Black educators who will ensure that Black children achieve at high levels academically while simultaneously preparing them with the intellectual, social, emotional, and cultural capital to actively participate in the ongoing advancement of their communities.

What does Black History Month mean to you, and how do you reflect on and celebrate Black history and culture?

Black History Month represents the resistance, fortitude, and heroic perseverance that people of African descent have continuously displayed in the face of inhuman and terroristic forces of white supremacy. During Black History Month, and every month, I center my commitment to the work of liberation and continued upliftment of Black people on the model set by the noble and heroic life of Black men and women like Carter G. Woodson. Woodson spent his life in service to Black people by asserting Black genius, humanity, collective power, and advancement. His journey from being the son of enslaved Africans in America to earning his PhD is symbolic of a history of a mighty people that should be celebrated and held in esteem every day.

What is the single most impactful thing we need to do in the education field to empower Black students in school and beyond?

We must invest in Black educators and provide them with the resources and power they need to design and staff educational experiences for Black students that reflect the complexity of their full humanity and tap into their limitless potential. When we develop a corps of Black educators who can equip Black children with intellectual, emotional, and psychological skills, we empower Black students to critically examine our world, reimagine, and construct a new existence for themselves, their families, their communities, and Black people. In turn, they create a better country and world.

Can you tell us about a role model or a Black leader who inspires you and your work?

Civil rights activist and education reform advocate, Dr. Howard Fuller is steadfast in his commitment to empowering Black children and their families. His vast experience in the field of education, civil rights activism, and advocacy for education reform inspired many of the foundational elements of the Black Teacher Collaborative. Dr. Fuller is not afraid to live his authentic truth in any space which motivates anyone he encounters to do the same.

T'wina Nobles
CEO and co-architect
Black Future Co-op Fund

T’wina, CEO and co-architect leads the Black Future Co-op Fund, Washington state’s first philanthropy created by and for Black people to ignite Black generational wealth, health, and well-being. Black Future Co-op Fund envisions a Washington state, working cooperatively, where all Black people are liberated, prosperous, and self-determined to fully live our lives.

What does Black History Month mean to you, and how do you reflect on and celebrate Black history and culture?

The work to make liberation real will take all of us. Black History Month brings the opportunity to recognize and celebrate the triumphs inherent in our stories. It is a time to elevate Black voices and perspectives; to see the humanity of all Black people; and to honor the beauty, strength, and soulfulness of Blackness.

A core tenet of the Black Future Co-op Fund is promoting a truthful Black narrative. We seek to excavate and uplift the myriad ways Black people have shaped and contributed to the vitality of this place we call home.

To do this, Black history cannot be just an annual February event, Black history must be seen every day, all year long.

What is the single most impactful thing we need to do in the education field to empower Black students in school and beyond?

The Black Future Co-op Fund recently released a report, Black Well-being: Moving Toward Solutions Together, that is grounded in the wisdom of Black Washingtonians from beginning to end. In it, we offer community-identified approaches that all of us can take to make necessary changes in education, civic engagement, economic mobility, public safety, and health.

The Black Well-being report highlights there is not one vision for education in which every detail is the same for every student. We want different approaches because we have a diversity of brilliance and creativity. We value rich, integrated education spaces that teach students how to grow into themselves and shape a better society. We desire education that is interactive, hands-on, and culturally relevant.

First and foremost, we need to listen to and invest in the Black communities’ identified approaches, including funding us to design how we want our education systems to function. We see utilizing master- or competency-based learning to support each students’ path to self-actualization and redefining academic standards to cultivate Black brilliance.

It’s also imperative we diversify the workforce. Only 1.5% of Washington’s teachers were Black in the 2020-21 school year. Yet, research shows Black students who have at least one Black teacher in grades K-3 are 13% more likely to graduate from high school and 19% more likely to enroll in college than their same-school, same-race peers.

In addition, we need to create practices of accountability and transparency at all levels of decision making. In 2018, wealthier school districts received 7.6% more funding than high-poverty districts. A recent study showed students exposed to at least 10% more annual school funding from kindergarten through third-grade experienced a 2% reduction in the likelihood of being arrested as an adult. Furthermore, across Washington’s public schools, 10% of homeless students, 9% of students with disabilities, and 8% of Black students were suspended in 2019, compared to an average of 4% of all students. Discipline starts with teachers.

Can you tell us about a role model or a Black leader who inspires you and your work?

The other co-architects of the Black Future Co-op Fund — Andrea Caupain Sanderson, CEO of Byrd Barr Place; Michelle Merriweather, president and CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle; and Angela Jones, director of the Washington State Initiative at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — inspire me every day.

Their vision of a liberated future for Black Washingtonians and how all of us have come together and have been able to work collaboratively, learn from each other, and create this Fund has been amazing. They are committed to being good ancestors and that is the foundation on which we’ve built this Fund. I’m in awe of their brilliance, passion, and perseverance.

Maisha Moses
Executive Director
The Young People's Project

Since 2013, Maisha Moses has led the Young People’s Project (YPP) as executive director. YPP uses Math Literacy Work to develop the abilities of elementary through high school students to succeed in school and in life, and in doing so involves them in efforts to eliminate institutional obstacles to their success. YPP envisions a day when every young person—regardless of ethnicity, gender, or class—has access to high-quality education and the skills, attributes, and community support they need to successfully meet the challenges of their generation.

What does Black History Month mean to you, and how do you reflect on and celebrate Black history and culture?

Black History Month celebrates and honors the achievements and contributions of Black people — and individuals—throughout the roughly 400-year history of the African diaspora in the United States. It is a time to reflect on the sacrifices and triumphs of Black leaders, artists, activists, scientists, educators and others who have made significant contributions to our larger society. Black History Month is also a time to highlight the ongoing struggle for racial justice and equality in this country. While Black History month is a collective annual pause in the national consciousness to embrace this work, for myself and this organization, it’s a yearlong tenant and guiding light.

YPP and the Algebra project have sought to take this work well into the 21st century with the same ultimate goal of full citizenry for Black children, and by proxy, all of the children of this country.

What is the single most impactful thing we need to do in the education field to empower Black students in school and beyond?

We must take seriously the idea that investing in Black students to have agency (and other historically marginalized students including Latino/a, ELL, and students from low-income communities) as part of the solution, and not solely the recipients of solutions designed by others, is necessary for meaningful change to happen. We believe that the students at the center of the problem, and the teachers and adults who work most closely with them, are the most important resources to tap into to solve the problem. This investment must include the financial, structural, and capacity building resources and time necessary to enable them to meaningfully contribute to the problem solving and solution making.

Students at YPP know that to have a better life, earn a living ,and break the cycle of poverty, they need a good education. However, they also know that their school systems are failing them. They are not receiving the education they need to succeed in school or life, and they recognize that students in more affluent and white communities are.

Can you tell us about a role model or a Black leader who inspires you and your work?

For the past year, I’ve been very focused and inspired by Ella Baker. I’m currently in a PhD program studying Mathematics and Science Education and have been working on an analysis of the culture and larger movement for freedom that YPP) is part of. In 2017, our late founder Bob Moses requested me to watch the documentary, Fundi: The Story of Ella Baker. I remember Bob sharing how this documentary addresses why he believes YPP has grown to be an important element of a movement that seeks to raise the floor for the teaching and learning of mathematics in a way that intentionally organizes the people with the problem, mainly Black and students from low-income communities, to come up with solutions for the learning disparities they face in their schools. The word “Fundi,” is a Swahili word that means a person who passes skills from one generation to another. Since high school, Bob Moses has been my primary role model and mentor because he inspired me to do the work that I do. Ella Baker was Bob's mentor, and I would say she was one of his main inspirations and sources of guidance in his work. I think I grew to know Bob very well, and as I've been learning more about Ella Baker, I’ve come to realize how much Bob has absorbed the teaching and ways of Ella, In turn, YPP has absorbed those teachings from Bob, the Algebra Project, and SNCC. Black Fundi leaders like Ella Baker and Bob Moses, who are committed to the idea that power lives in opening spaces for ordinary people to find, value, and use their collective people power to make change should be honored this Black History Month and every day of the year.