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“It’s about culturally responsive instruction and pedagogy. … When they come into the classroom, each student has genius-level talent. Culturally, if you meet them and access things that are important to them, you’ll get something that you wouldn’t get otherwise. It’s understanding that each person has a genius and it’s up to us as teachers to help cultivate that genius.” — Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools training faculty Courtney Linsey

Every child deserves teachers who believe in their potential and are determined to use any methods needed to bring out their very best. Teacher training programs were some of the earliest opportunities for higher education available to African Americans, and the Black educators they produced were often leaders in their communities and inspirations in their students’ lives. Growing up in the segregated South, my teachers were among the caring Black adults in my hometown who served as buffers against the hostile outside world that told Black children we weren’t important. For many Black children today, the chance to have a teacher who looks like them and is committed to nurturing their excellence is an equally critical but often rarer gift.

Courtney Linsey is a Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) Freedom Schools Ella Baker Trainer, an experienced teacher and leader in CDF Freedom Schools’ culturally responsive summer enrichment programs, who is pursuing his teaching credential and master’s degree in Education. He is part of a partnership between CDF and Teach For America (TFA)’s Black Educators Promise Initiative in a new fellowship, the Ella Baker Child Policy Training Institute Professional Development Seminar, that seeks to inspire and support more Black teachers.

The fellowship is using the CDF Freedom Schools model to bring high-quality professional development to an inaugural group of 10 Black educators across the South, where many Black teachers are still concentrated. It will allow CDF to create a robust teacher training curriculum that will ultimately serve as a foundation for CDF Freedom Schools’ own Teacher Training Institute.

Teach For America describes the need this way: “For the Black community, learning has always been a gateway for liberation. Renowned educators like Septima Clark, Booker T. Washington, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Edmund Gordon leveraged education to create opportunities, cultivate pride, and transform the trajectory of Black futures for centuries to come. And sadly, as history has shown us, these valiant efforts were (and continue to be) met with intense, systemic opposition. Today, Black students still experience the greatest educational inequities. And while numerous studies have shown the immense impact Black teachers have on the lives of Black students and all students, only 7% of teachers in U.S. public schools are Black.”

CDF Freedom Schools National Director Dr. Kristal Moore Clemons puts it like this:

“Historian Daniel Perlstein reminds us the original Freedom Schools movement was to support Black people’s ‘capacity to make a demand.’ This notion of ‘capacity’ meant empowering people to demand an egalitarian society governed by justice and love. The original Freedom Schools movement included academic enrichment, cultural programs, and political and social studies. The new iteration of this work, encapsulated in our partnership with TFA, gives the CDF Freedom Schools program the ability to share new pedagogical possibilities that get teachers to articulate their own desires, demands, and questions. From there, we hope teachers will create spaces where students can link issues in their daily life to both practical skills and to issues of political power that will eventually equip them to participate in all phases of public life.”

At a moment when some people in public life are seeking to block what children can be taught in schools and turn that into a political advantage, this thoughtful work is more important than ever. All children deserve the opportunity to see adults who look like them in leadership roles in their classrooms, schools, and communities. All children also deserve to be exposed to books and other materials featuring a wide range of cultures, races, and experiences like the excellent, carefully-chosen books that have long made up the CDF Freedom Schools curriculum. And all children need teachers and school leaders who care about and are willing to respond to their communities, their culture, and their own lived experiences.

When TFA asked Courtney Linsey what it means to him to serve in the role CDF named for indomitable servant leader, mentor, and justice warrior Ella Baker, he answered: “When I think about her and the type of mindset and philosophy [she had], it was always serve first. I try to adapt that in my life. Serving as a seed that will always bear fruit. When I think about the heart behind Ella Baker, the question ‘Are the children well?’ comes to mind. And if the children aren’t well, then I can’t rest until that’s done.”

We need to encourage new Black teachers and teachers from all backgrounds who will have this mindset and be determined to help every child develop the capacity to demand the future they deserve.

Edelman is founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund.

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