Fighting Injustice from the Classroom

Omari Todd
Senior Vice President for Regional Operations, Teach For America

As we enter Black History Month, I can’t help but think of my childhood growing up in Birmingham, Alabama. In
the city where Dr. King penned his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, I grew up deeply steeped in the legacy
of the Civil Rights Movement. At the dinner table, my grandfather would tell stories about the fight to integrate
public schools and my father would share on his and others’ efforts to organize blacks to vote. Taking a stand
against injustice was a community and family tradition.

As a senior at Xavier University of Louisiana in 1999, I was searching for a path to continue in my forefathers’
footsteps, creating opportunity for the next generation of African-Americans. When I learned about Teach For
America, the national non-profit that recruits and supports individuals to become leaders in the movement for
educational excellence, the organization struck a chord with my belief that classrooms, schools, and the broader
education system were a central frontier in the future of the fight for justice.

For the 16 million children living in poverty in our country, only 1 in 13 will attend college and for those lacking
a college degree, many doors are firmly shut. Black men make up only five percent of our nation’s college
students, while they represent 36 percent of our prison population. We must change this grim school to prison
pipeline — the futures of our children, our communities, and our nation depend on it.

For four years at Yorkwood Elementary in Northeast Baltimore, I was “Mr. Todd” and spent 14 hours a day with
my amazing classes of fourth-graders. All of my kids where black and about 95 percent lived in poverty. Despite
the constant obstacles they encountered beyond our four walls, I was inspired daily by my kids’ ability to excel
when we set the bar high, worked incredibly hard, and supported and cared for one another. My students saw
themselves in me and through that could begin to imagine their own unique potential.

Today, I work with teachers and educational leaders across the country as Teach For America’s Senior Vice
President of Regional Operations. I know I’ve found a lifelong calling because my work is fueled by the potential
of our students—students who look just like me—and the potential of our communities. As a parent of two
young children, I can’t walk away from this work because I know it is critical for the future of my son and
daughter, and for the future of all our black children.

Now, as we celebrate the rich heritage of the black community, I call on our next generation of African American
leaders to join me in this work. While our most effective educators come from all backgrounds, those who share
our students’ backgrounds can have a profound additional impact as mentors and role models. In our low-
income communities where a majority of students are African American and Latino, our students need to see
themselves in more of their teachers and leaders.

When our generation looks back, what will define us and our legacy? Will our collective story be one of
meaningful impact for our children and our country? More African Americans need to be at the forefront of this
fight if we hope that our kids will wake up to the day when, in Dr. King’s words “the radiant stars of love and
brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”

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