Not in grade school, nor in college, do the founders of the Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice remember anyone encouraging them to enter the education profession.
“(Through) informal surveys with white colleagues, many of them recall being asked to consider teaching in elementary school,” said Co-Chair and Founder of the Fellowship Sharif-El Mekki, also principal of the Mastery Charter School, Shoemaker Campus. “We were approached (about teaching) after we had graduated from college or finished college.”
The Fellowship, a professional organization founded three years ago by El-Mekki and Vincent Cobb, to bring awareness about teaching through social justice, is hosting “Stay Woke: The Inaugural National Black Male Educators Convening” Oct. 13 to 15 at the Sheraton Hotel, 201 N. 17th St. Registration is still open and the cost is $50 for members and $100 for non-members. Any one is welcome to attend.
“We talk a lot about the role of an educator,” El-Mekki said. “The conscious educator can do a lot to really change social injustices, institutionalized racism and oppression. Educators play a huge role.”
Nationally, Black male educators represent just two percent according to the U.S. Department of Education. Locally, in the School District of Philadelphia, the percentage is 4.5 percent.
“We definitely need to make sure the education space is more diverse,” said Cobb, Fellowship CEO and BMEC co-founder. “(Teaching) is rewarding work, hard work, tough work, but at these convenings they really feel refreshed. They leave knowing that there are folks who really care. Teaching diversity really does matter.”
Both the Fellowship and the school district have led efforts to recruit more African-American teachers.
The reasons for the lack of more diversity in the profession ranges from working conditions to recruitment, salary, and having Black men serve as disciplinarians as opposed to educators.
“Far too often Black men in teaching get placed into the toughest schools and classrooms and become known as disciplinarians as opposed to instructional leaders,” said Robert Simmons, the vice president of strategy and innovation for the Campaign for Black Male Achievement, in an emailed statement to the Tribune. “After consistently being dismissed as not having the intellectual chops to lead in the academic ecosystem, many Black male teachers check out and become disengaged from teaching as a profession.”
Simmons will share his experiences at the convening, as well as the research he has conducted on Black male teachers. The Campaign for Black Male Achievement is a national membership network that seeks growth and sustainability to help improve the lives of Black men and boys based in New York.
Marquette University Distinguished Professor of Education Howard L. Fuller has attended the convening in the past. This year he will be on a panel entitled, “The Movement Then and Now.”
“You need more Black teachers to get more Black people to go into teaching, but how do we get more Black teachers?” Fuller asked. “We know that we are facing, in some ways, insurmountable odds, but we have no choice but to find ways in order to make this happen.”
Fuller, also the director of Milwaukee’s Institute for the Transformation of Learning, which supports education options for students, particularly those from low-income families, also served as superintendent for Milwaukee Public Schools from 1991 to 1995. At that time, he said Black male teachers were scarce in the mid-western school district.
“When we were a segregated America, the only jobs that were really available to Black people who wanted to be professionals at some point was preaching and teaching,” said Fuller. The impact of the Civil Rights Movement was to expand the options to Black people, but in expanding those options, it also meant that people had more opportunities than just teaching and preaching.”
Furthermore, Fuller applauds the work of El-Mekki and Cobb and is in no way downplaying their work, but said, “We keep having these conversations. Each generation keeps having it. At what point do we move from a conversation to an action that is deep enough and large enough to change the conversation?”
“It has to become an issue for the entire country,” Fuller added. “(Forces) have to be marshaled in order to attack this problem.”
In addition to Fuller and Simmons, the event also includes John B. King Jr., the former U.S. Secretary of Education and CEO of the Education Trust, David Jones, the former executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans and Kaya Henderson, former chancellor of D.C. Public Schools, among others.
Approximately 300 people are expected to attend the convening, with educators coming from as far as California and Texas. For more information about the event, visit 1000x2025.org.