Jewish people send their kids to Hebrew school or to Jewish camp, right? And Greeks send their kids to Greek school, and Koreans send their kids to Korean school. All these ethnic groups actually are quite intentional about the cultural development of their young people. And I thought, what would that look like for Black kids?
And as I talked to my friends who went to Hebrew school — they hated it, it was boring, whatever — but they're very clear about who they are in the world. It doesn't matter what the world says about Jews. It doesn't matter what the world says about any of these other ethnicities or cultures. They teach their kids who they are in the world. And so I thought: How could I change [African American children's] sense of who they are in school and in the world? How could I help to continue some of the cultural traditions? What are all of the books that I would want African American kids to have read before they graduated high school? Is there a way to reset their thinking about math, for example? Instead of running around saying, you know, "I'm not good at math," what if they learned that math was started on the continent of Africa, if they were connected to their legacy of being a mathematician. Would you read more if all the books looked like you, reflected you? You could change the entire calculus.
Is that something that you were exposed to as a kid?
My mother was incredibly intentional about the development of my culture. She was a teacher, and it was the ’70s, so it was Black Power all over the place. There were Kwanzaa ceremonies and rites of passage things. I think there was more content available as I was coming up. Also, I lived near extended family and learned lots of cultural traditions that way. I learned to cook traditional meals from my grandmother and all my aunties, learned how to play spades and pitty pat and tonk and bid whist. Even in church we did lots of stuff that was culturally relevant. And now I just don’t see our community connecting to those civic and cultural institutions as deeply as when I was younger. And so the question is: How do we deliver this in ways that make sense for this generation?
Have you felt an added urgency with your work now, as the country grapples with a racial reckoning?
Yes. And it wasn't even the racial reckoning; it was really watching distance learning happen over the spring — and recognizing that kids were only getting two or three hours of instruction, in some cases. I said to my business partner: Listen, we got to be ready in September because parents are going to be scrambling for more content. We need to be ready when parents say, "I only have four hours of school. I need some more."
What do you worry most about in terms of education for children in this extraordinarily difficult moment?
I’m worried most about poor kids of color being left behind even more. In absence of leadership, people figure out solutions that work for them and their families. And I think the people who are best situated to do that are the wealthiest people who have access. You look at how this whole pod thing is shaping up, right? And, oh, by the way, the school districts where every single kid has a laptop and a wireless hotspot, or Internet access at home are wealthier and whiter than our families that don’t. I’m worried about all kids, right? All of our kids are losing out intellectually. They are losing out socially. They are losing out culturally. These young people are traumatized. And I’m traumatized. But I’m especially worried about poor kids and kids of color.
So much of your prior work — DCPS, New Teacher Project, Teach for America, Chan Zuckerberg [Initiative] — focused on improving schools, education systems. This is so much more micro. Does a moment like this tug at you to go back into the system to try to create systemic solutions?
Well, I think this is a systemic play I'm making now. Could I go be another superintendent? Sure. And do what I did for 100,000 kids instead of the 50,000 I had at D.C. Public Schools? Or 800,000. Sure, maybe. But at any place, there's a finite number of kids. If we build this the right way, we could hit way more kids than I have ever been able to hit in any of the roles that I've had. My goal is to reach every single African American kid in the United States. And not just every single African American kid, but any other kid — the content we're developing is as important for non-African Americans to learn as it is for African Americans. I have tons of white or Asian friends who are saying, "Hey, I want my kids to be exposed to this, too."
What’s your dream, then? What’s the endgame?
A super generation of Black children who are confident, who are academically prepared, who are empowered and have the agency to make change for themselves, for their community and for this nation. A generation of leaders in the African American community.
I have one set of friends — the dad is a stay-at-home dad. His kids go to a predominantly White private school in the D.C. area, and he felt like his kids weren’t learning anything about themselves and took it on himself to play that role and to pull together content. And those kids, they are different than their Black [peers] who also go to that school, right? They walk in the world differently. They are confident. They are not defined by what other people say. They see themselves as leaders. They feel empowered. And I know that that’s how I became who I am. Many of my friends who grew up under some of the same circumstances, we’re all in leadership — in different fields and whatnot. And we sit around, and we talk about our responsibility to the community. “To whom much is given, much is required” is what we were all taught. I mean, we can mimic what each other’s parents are saying to each of us, right? [Laughs.] Because this is the ethic we grew up under. And so figuring out how to codify that and ensure that all of our kids get that is paramount for me.
KK Ottesen is a regular contributor to the magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @kkOttesen. This interview has been edited and condensed.