Get inspired by these black educational visionaries who have made teaching and learning better for all of us.
February is Black Futures Month, celebrated by many alongside Black History Month, but any month is a good one to share these Black educational influencers with your students. Inspire your students by showing them that education has been a cornerstone of Black communities for centuries. Your class might even engage in rich discussions about education being a tool of empowerment and a calibrator of the work left to do.
1. Edmund Gordon
Psychologist and Creator of Head Start Program
Edmund Gordon (1921) is the federal Head Start program architect and founding director of research. Trained as a psychologist, Gordon is a leading scholar on divergent learning styles, whose research has encouraged educational institutions worldwide to diversify their methods to meet the needs of a wide variety of students.
Gordon was also one of the first educators to focus on closing the opportunity gap. He worked tirelessly on this initiative while chairing the College Board's National Task Force on Minority High Achievement. Gordon has devoted his long career to improving educational opportunities for all students, especially students of color.
Bonus: Gordon is going to celebrate his 101st birthday this year!
2. Tequilla Brownie
Director of The New Teacher Project
In 2022, Dr. Tequilla Brownie became the director of The New Teacher Project, a nonprofit organization that works to improve local and national student outcomes and disrupt educational inequities. Brownie speaks passionately and from personal experience about how education can act as an interrupter of generational poverty.
“Education is what allows students to shift the very trajectory of their lives,” says Brownie. “We’ll know we’re successful when every student has good choices for their future.”
About her work training teachers, Brownie says,” You know that magical moment when a teacher steps in front of their students? That’s what we want to impact.”
3. Charles H. Houston
Lawyer, Professor, and Civil Rights Activist
Charles H. Houston (1895-1950) was a lawyer and professor who argued cases at the U.S. Supreme Court that created a legal foundation for the Brown v. Board decision, which outlawed racial segregation in public schools.
A dean of Howard University Law School in the 1930s, Houston is credited with shaping the institution that trained about 25 percent of the nation’s Black lawyers during that era.
Houston’s most famous student, Thurgood Marshall, went on to found and direct the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and became the first Black U.S. Supreme Court Justice in history.
4. bell hooks
Professor, Author, and Cultural Critic
bell hooks (1952-2021) was an author, professor, feminist, and social activist. She published around 40 books, ranging from memoirs to scholarly essays, poetry to children's books.
Of particular interest to educators is hooks’ book Teaching to Transgress, where she encourages educators to create the kind of learning spaces where students can show up as their whole selves. “The classroom remains the most radical space of possibility,” writes hooks, because “education is about the practice of freedom.”
Hooks’ insights on committed and compassionate pedagogy have shaped generations of educators, many of whom can cite their “bell hooks moment,” that instant when they underwent a shift in their understanding of the work they do.
5. Greg Carr
Professor and Curriculum Designer
Greg Carr teaches at Howard University and co-founded the Philadelphia Freedom Schools, an independent community education initiative emphasizing social activism and intergenerational leadership.
Carr also led a team that designed the curricular framework for the Philadelphia school district’s mandatory high school African American History course, which was established in 2007, 40 years after it was first requested. The student-centered curriculum encourages students to learn their family history as a way of better understanding themselves. From there, it focuses on past and present Black contributions to the arts, science and technology, and philosophy.
Carr also hosts several successful video series, including In Class with Carr and The Black Table.
6. Kimberlé Crenshaw
Civil Rights Advocate and Legal Scholar
Remember when you first learned about intersectionality? You can thank Kimberlé Crenshaw (1959) for that.
Crenshaw is a civil rights advocate and professor of law at UCLA and Columbia but is best known outside the legal world for developing intersectional theory, the study of how overlapping or intersecting identities interact with each other and shape how a person experiences oppression. Crenshaw notes that we are never merely a race or a gender or a class or a religion (to name just a few identity categories). Rather, we are simultaneously all of our identities at once.
Crenshaw’s theories are helpful to introduce to students when encouraging them to embrace every part of who they are and celebrate their complexity.
7. Sharif El-Mekki
Founder of the Center for Black Educator Development
Sharif El-Mekki is a former teacher, principal, and the founder and current director of the Center for Black Educators. This Center, which he launched in 2019, works to ensure equity in the recruiting, training, hiring, and retention of educators that reflect the cultural backgrounds of the students they serve.
He is also the founder of The Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice, an organization dedicated to developing and supporting Black male teachers.
When asked how individual educators can support equity efforts, El-Mekki said, "What is revolutionary is for every educator of Black children to hold themselves accountable for their student's learning, and…to fight the systemic racism that challenges their every step. While there are many ways to fight racism, a thorough education is a must."
8. Marva Collins
Teacher and Educational Reformer
Marva Collins (1936-2015) was a Chicago public school teacher for 14 years before cashing out her pension and starting a school in her home in 1975. Collins felt that the schools she taught in were mislabeling black children as mentally disabled and encouraging them to act out in harmful ways.
Through Collins’ innovative approach to teaching and learning, her Westside Preparatory School flourished and won accolades for turning children considered “unteachable” into successful students
By the 1990s, she was teaching 1,000 teachers annually her methods of instilling pupils with a love of learning and an ability to think critically through classic literature. During that time, the school received about 6,000 visitors every year, who, in Collins’ words, wanted to know "how we make scholars of children at a time when people lament that nothing can be done."
How Are You Shaping Education?
What other Black educational visionaries are you celebrating this Black History Month and Black Futures Month?
Although their philosophies and methods may differ, all of the above people are united by their commitment to changing the educational system to better serve all students. We share their vision and invite you to check out our webinars on topics ranging from an asset-based approach to learning called discourse communities to shifting your mindset about testing.
The next webinar in our Science of Learning series is about making literacy success an equitable achievement for all struggling readers. Megan Jensen will present "Connecting the Sciences of Reading and Learning: Building Language, Literacy, and Cognition for All" on March 15, 2022 at 4:00 ET/1:00 PT. Explore our webinars today!
Carnegie Learning is helping students learn why, not just what. Born from more than 30 years of learning science research at Carnegie Mellon University, the company has become a recognized leader in the ed tech space, using artificial intelligence, formative assessment, and adaptive learning to deliver groundbreaking solutions to education’s toughest challenges. With the highest quality offerings for K-12 math, ELA, literacy, world languages, professional learning and more, Carnegie Learning is changing the way we think about education, fostering learning that lasts.Explore more related to this author