The Rant

Black Learners in America - A Conversation with Zakiya Smith Ellis & Michael Sorrell

January 30, 2024 Eloy Oakley/Zakiya Ellis Smith & Michael Sorrell Season 2 Episode 12
The Rant
Black Learners in America - A Conversation with Zakiya Smith Ellis & Michael Sorrell
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

In this episode I dive into the state of black learners in America and the very troubling trends in their enrollment and completion that undermine our nations economic strength. I talk with two great leaders who are working to improve the how higher education leaders and policymakers value and support black learners and create greater economic value through a great post-secondary experience. Zakiya Ellis Smith is the Principal at EducationCounsel and Michael Sorrell is the President of Paul Quinn College, a private HBCU in Dallas, Texas. Both Zakiya and Michael are tireless advocates for students and their work to improve outcomes for Black Learners is well known. This is an important and engaging conversation with two great higher education thought leaders.

Speaker 1:

Hi, I'm Eloy Ortiz-Oakley and welcome back to the Rant, the podcast where we pull back the curtain and break down the people, the policies and the politics of our higher education system.

Speaker 1:

In this episode I take a critical look at Black learners in America, and I have two great guests today to help me break down the people and the politics of Black learners in this country, especially with the backdrop of the recent SCOTUS decision on race-conscious admissions and with all that has gone on over the last several years regarding completion rates and the summer of racial reckoning. The focus on Black learners has been increasing over the last few years and, unfortunately, as we pull back the curtain on Black learners, we find a lot of unsettling things. So with me today is Zakiya Ella Smith. She is the principal at the Education Council and previously was the Chief Policy Advisor to Governor Phil Murphy in the state of New Jersey, and before that she was the Chief Advisor on Higher Education to President Barack Obama. Also with me is Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College, great leader himself. Paul Quinn College is an HBCU, a private HBCU in Dallas, texas. So welcome, zakiya and Michael, to the Rant podcast.

Speaker 2:

It's good to be here.

Speaker 1:

Thank you. It's wonderful to be here. Well, it's great to have you both. It's great to see you both again and, before I kick this off, just thank you both for all the work that you've done over the last several years. You've really helped shine a spotlight, not just on the importance of students of color, but the work that you do specifically on highlighting the importance of Black learners to the future of America. So thank you both.

Speaker 1:

Before we get into the dynamics of what's going on in this country, let me pause and make sure that our learners and our viewers know who I'm talking to. So you've both been leaders in higher education for some time. You've spoken often and passionately about Black learners. But before we get into all that, I want to know a little bit more about the two of you. So let's start with you, zakiya. You were a Black learner yourself. You had your own journey to this position, to all the work that you've done. Tell us a little bit about your journey and what part of that experience do you carry forward in the work that you do?

Speaker 2:

Well, thank you, I appreciate that question. Sometimes you kind of start your career story with oh, I graduated from college and I did this and that, and yeah, I am still a Black learner. Right, we're all learning every day continuously in different ways.

Speaker 2:

Hopefully I'm done with any kind of formal education. Michael and I both went the same. What I think we hope is our terminal degree done no more formally, but always continuing to learn. But I'm actually back in Atlanta, my hometown. I did a stent in New Jersey some time in DC, as you mentioned, but I'm from the Atlanta area and we moved back here about a year ago and this is where I grew up. This is where I went to high school. It's very unique because if you haven't been to Atlanta and the Atlanta suburbs before, it's very Black, it's very. There's a lot of Black people and I noticed it every time I go somewhere else. And it was not as large of a city when I was growing up. It was prior to the hip hop and whatever reality boom that we're having now.

Speaker 2:

So, it was just a busy Southern city, the largest city in the South, but had a very thriving Black middle class and that was kind of where I grew up and how I was shaped and that instilled in me something as strong. I went to all Black schools throughout my entire life. So when people say I never had a Black teacher or those kind of things, I think that's really unfortunate, but that wasn't my experience. But because of that I also know how powerful it was. So I went to a predominantly White college but that was really, I could say, the first time that I saw the full front of what many Black people experience in terms of being kind of seen as less than, and I can say that experience that I had, which was not that coming all the way up to that point, gave me a sense of empowerment.

Speaker 2:

I knew what it was to have people believe that you were brilliant, to have teachers that didn't think of you as any less than because there was all Like students it was. I saw Black achievement. I saw my parents went to college. It was normal in my community for you know, to go to college to have those opportunities. And yet I realized when I went to college just how much of a difference there was in many of my, both White and Black, and other students from all around. You know it was a very diverse environment.

Speaker 2:

That experience was very different and most people don't come always with a firm sense of what it means to be, whatever your background or ethnicity is, but a firm sense of Black people as being resilient, strong, intelligent.

Speaker 2:

And that was sad to me.

Speaker 2:

Right, it was discouraging, but because I knew that wasn't a true narrative, because of my own background and upbringing, I just kind of always throughout my life held my head high and felt like it was part of my personal mission and my work to make sure that other Black learners and people all around had a sense of appreciation for what diversity and different backgrounds can bring and what strengths we all have.

Speaker 2:

So I'm thankful for that and I think that definitely shapes my perspective also the fact that the intelligence is and brilliance is equally distributed, but opportunity is not when I feel like the people that I grew up with. I had some brilliant, brilliant classmates, but just because of life circumstances, even though we had a pretty thriving environment that we were part of, that was affirming people just didn't have a lot of the same financial resources. Economic resources were more tied to family members who may be in poverty or in need in ways that required them to sacrifice more than maybe other people have to, and so changing that fundamental economic disparity has also been a through line of my career.

Speaker 1:

What has drawn you into higher education? Why do you keep hanging out here?

Speaker 2:

Why do I keep hanging out here? The honest answer is I wanted to do K-12 policy. If I'm being very honest, they wanted to hire it. I didn't know the higher education policy was the thing. I wanted to change high school or do high school reform and teach. I was going to college to be a teacher and that was what I was on the path to do.

Speaker 2:

And as I wanted to be a teacher but I wanted to do education policy, and so I graduated from my first grad school experience, getting my master's and K-12 was just hot, it was hard to get into K-12 policy, so I got a job doing college access policy, which I thought was cool, like, oh, I want people to go to college, this is great. And then each successive job just pulled me more and more into higher ed, and then I realized, throughout my career I've tried to think about what do I want? Most is to provide opportunity for, particularly for populations that have historically been marginalized, counted out and not provided the resources that they need, and so that applies not just to people that may be African-American or identify as black, but a variety of different populations, and I realized that the black experience is not unique in that way and if I could provide help in any kind of way. So not just higher ed.

Speaker 2:

The last job I had before this one was working for the governor on a number of policy issues and I found that whether it's economic mobility more broadly, job training, covid policy which was big at the time and trying to get people better health outcomes. There's a lot of ways to make a difference and I've always tried to say, wherever I can make a difference, where I actually have some expertise and talent that may be useful, where those things align and intersect is where I want to be and I don't want to be crowding out someone else that could do a great job. So if there's wonderful people in K-12 and there's a need in higher ed and the policy space, that's what I want to do. So that's how I actually ended up in higher ed and I've just found it to be so wonderful, but also intersecting with a lot of other policy issues. That keeps it interesting.

Speaker 1:

Wow, that's great. Michael, let's hear about your journey. How did you wind yourself around and how did you wind up in higher education?

Speaker 3:

You know it was interesting listening to Zakiya's story. I thought about my experiences, and I only spent two and a half years in a predominantly black environment educational environment. In fact, the very first school I attended was in a Jewish synagogue. My mother was one of these people who just believed that you seize opportunities for rigor and preparation. We lived in Chicago, where my parents were very, very successful entrepreneurs. We own a really successful and popular barbecue restaurant, and we saw black wealth everywhere.

Speaker 3:

What was interesting about my parents, though, was that my dad didn't go to college. He grew up in a student parent home in New Orleans, a fact that I did not even know was a thing until I came to Paul Quinn. Literally the first time anyone showed any interest, and maybe one of the first times I ever even shared, it was at Paul Quinn. Even then, it was only because a student asked me well, where's your dad going to college? I bet your parents went to really fancy college. I was like my dad didn't even go to college. The room shut down. One of our senior staff members came up. She's like you have to tell that story. Why would anyone care? She's like, trust me, they care. You have to tell that story.

Speaker 3:

But my mother went to college and went to graduate school. Her story was interesting in that she went to Dillard for undergrad, where my grandmother went to school, where my godfather went to school, where the family school. Dillard and my mother went to graduate school to study public health and she attended University of North Carolina, chapel Hill. But University of North Carolina Chapel Hill didn't allow black students back then, so everything she did was at Carolina but she lived and had to be registered through North Carolina Central University. So it was just a very different time, very different experience. And then my grandmother went to Dillard and she went to Grambling for Graduate School, but the men on that family didn't go to school.

Speaker 3:

And so my story was interesting in that I grew up in environments where my intellectual gifts were pretty apparent and allowed me to attend the very best schools.

Speaker 3:

I grew in physical stature and as my athleticism developed and my athletic gifts became prominent, people began to discount my intellectual abilities and began to treat me as I were in these places simply because I could shoot a jump shot and because I could run and jump. And it impacted me because it diminishes you. I remember being a freshman in my Latin class in high school at the best high school in the city, and the Latin teacher says to me I hope you can run fast. Or he said I hope you're as good at basketball as everyone says you are, because you're not going to be a Latin scholar. Now let me be very clear. I was not going to be a Latin scholar. My mother would get up every morning at 5.30 and go over Latin homework with me and at the end of three years she knew far more Latin than I ever did, but it was really hurtful to be 13 years old and to be single that way in front of your peers.

Speaker 3:

And as I went on, when I got time to go to college, I made a decision, one that I wanted to play for a black coach and not wanted to go to a school where it would be obvious to people that I'm not there because I'm an athlete. So I picked Oberlin, and what I discovered was that it doesn't matter where you go, there are going to be those expectations, and you can either. And I'll tell you what was very informative to me when I went to graduate school law school at Duke I became really good friends with the people who play basketball there. I'd play with them in the off-season and things like that, and I watched the power that basketball gave them in every other aspect of their life, how they owned it. But because I was reticent to own it, I was more apologetic about it, and so it kept me from fully embracing that which I truly love, and so what it taught me was that do not ever give anyone that much power. I just don't do it, and one of the reasons why I remain at Paul Quinn is because it feels like the warmest blanket I've ever experienced, to be in an environment where no one questions whether or not you are good enough, and we tell our students all the time if you get a bag right here, it had nothing to do with the fact that you're black, right, that's because you didn't sweat enough, right? You got to own that.

Speaker 3:

But where it really shows up is how I raised my children, and so both my kids have attended the very best, most elite schools in Dallas. And my son, who comes. His experience is a little bit different because he spends all his off time with me in a black world, at Paul Quinn, and so this year we pulled him out of school. We're homeschooling him, but we're spending the year traveling the world and studying race democracy and the global economy through the lens of the transatlantic slave trade. And so he's having this experience so that he can learn and, by the way, he's an extraordinarily gifted athlete. His world is going to be very different because he's going to be taught the power of embracing that which you love and are gifted at.

Speaker 3:

And so we spent our first journey. We went to DC and Charleston, where we visited the African American museums in both those places and visited how, and my wife's mother went to Cloughlin and her father's parents went to Cloughlin, so we visited Cloughlin and it's a way of connecting differently to your experience, and after each trip, he and I do video interviews so that he can reflect upon what it is that he's learned and he talks about how it was completely different to see the things that he hadn't been taught right and that you know they have been taught about conquistadors but not colonizers, and we're staying.

Speaker 3:

That you don't have conquistadors without colonizers, that you're just learning the story different version here.

Speaker 3:

That's right, right, and so I say all that to say being a learner of color, being a black learner, you realize how important it is that you be surrounded by someone in your ecosystem that can ensure that you learn the whole story and that there it's okay to learn your history, right and there's wrong with that. And you know we're in Texas, so they are Absolutely committed to no one learning anything close to the truth right have you been to the Alamo.

Speaker 3:

Right, like listen, there is some disinformation going on. I mean, I guess they it's just, it's incredible.

Speaker 2:

And so what is trying to compete for disinformation capitalists?

Speaker 3:

They are. I mean, they're just like one governor calls the other one. Hey, right, I can be ridiculous than you today. Nope, nope, I got one for you. I mean it is, but what's what's really really clear is our institutions and I'm using the hour and institutions broadly. We have to maintain the ability to teach Mm-hmm and tell them, or else Forget about being black learners. They'll never learn anything about being black, right?

Speaker 1:

That's right. Well, that was a great couple of stories there, and appreciate you both sharing your experiences. Let's jump into some of the work that's in front of us and some of the work that you both are engaged in Scale. Let's start with you. You risked recently, partnered with HCM strategies and Pulled together a task force to bring focus on black learners. The title of the report that you all published is called level up leveraging explicit value for every black learner. Unapologetically, with an emphasis on the last word, tell us about the work, and what do you mean when you say leveraging value explicitly?

Speaker 2:

so this was a Fascinating endeavor because we realized the reason we started this work was because there's been a 20 year. We're at a 20 year low for black student enrollment in higher education and I don't think people realized that. They kind of say, oh, there's been a decline in enrollment for black learners, and particularly black learners at Community colleges, which is a different Right segment of black learners is not necessarily the same segment that you may be thinking of.

Speaker 2:

That, you know, is directly impacted by the Supreme Court rulings. Right, you're more likely to be caregivers, more likely to have dependence of their own, more likely to be extraordinarily low income. And In thinking about what the needs of those students are and hearing focus group interviews we often talk about and Michael and I have talked about this before and I love their model at Paul Quinn but affordability and needing to see how your credential is going to pay off in the near term, particularly if you're coming out of situation of poverty.

Speaker 2:

You are acutely aware of how much things cost. You are acutely aware of whether or not you have money right now and whether you can work right now to meet your needs right now. We talk about, you know, long-term payoff as if it's high-minded oh, you just need to have the ability to wait in the marshmallow test. Well, it's like if you're starving, the fact that you're gonna get three marshmallow, you know, eight years from now is like not helpful right, because you might die in between now and then. It's so. Your needs are part are more immediate, and so, when we talk about explicit value, one of the things that I really do struggle with in higher education Sometimes is our reticence to talk In very explicit terms about what it is you are going to pay and, being honest about that, it's almost like it's not, almost like.

Speaker 2:

Higher education is has traditionally been an elite kind of good right and what I have learned in elite goods or circles, you don't talk about money, it's it's. You know it's. It's a faux pas to talk about. You know explicitly like how much is that gonna cost? Like, oh, if you can't, if you need to ask, then you can't afford. It's like, no, I cannot afford it. That's why I do need to ask, because I don't have unlimited money to give you.

Speaker 1:

Like I can't you're not gonna make me feel bad about that.

Speaker 2:

You're not gonna make me feel bad about it and I think we guys make People feel bad about saying I need to know exactly how much this is gonna cost. I cannot take your word for it. That is going to pay off. Because actually for many Black learners it hasn't paid off and one of the starkest realities in the past 10 years the data point that like really haunts me is that black learners on average, oh, more on their student loans after 12 years of repayment than they get on average.

Speaker 2:

So you're you're trying to tell all these loans are gonna pay off, the Investment is gonna pay off, and it's like actually, if you look at the data, on average is not Paying off. And I'm not here to bash college, because obviously I'm in higher education, because I believe it can be Beautiful and wonderful and, in its best forms, has the potential to do that. But you have to be able to be explicit about the cost and benefits, and so a part of this work and the reason we say explicitly is to not is to kind of start say we're getting rid of some of the vague notions Of there are lots of goods and you're gonna be a better voter and you're gonna have better health and you're gonna have right.

Speaker 2:

I'd be able to pay my bills, including this bill that you're giving me, and how do I cobble together the resources To be able to move forward? And again, nothing is guaranteed. But I think giving people the benefit not the benefit of the doubt meeting people where they are, but also taking them very seriously when they say. I'm looking at these folks that are social media influencers and my friend told me that they dropped out of college and did this YouTube thing.

Speaker 2:

We are hearing that more and more and you know, if that becomes a short ticket, you know sign me up, but we're. We know that education, post-secondary education, does have value, especially when it's done in a high quality way, especially when you have caring individuals that are doing culturally relevant pedagogy, and so can we do more of that? And Picking out this is what learners need, this is what good higher education looks like for black learners and this is what would make it a Experience that had explicit value for them. We've tried to put that together in this work listen to the needs of black learners and say we want more kind of Evangelists doing that work across the nation.

Speaker 1:

It's such an interesting time. Everybody's talking about the value proposition and clearly the learners in this country are questioning the value proposition that we've put in front of them for decades and Certainly post pandemic, I think many of them are saying no.

Speaker 1:

I don't buy that anymore. You, you got to tell me exactly what I'm paying for, what I should expect. Michael, in your experience at Paul Quinn, you know you, you've really turned around that institution. There's been great increases in Not just participation rates but completion rates, and and you've talked a lot about explicit value. So tell us about Paul Quinn's story and how you're baking in explicit value for your learners before I do that.

Speaker 3:

So let me comment on something that I'm secure spoke about that I, I think we oftentimes don't fully appreciate, right? People tend to Become things that they've seen Mm-hmm. They aspire to the things that have that they've had in there in their world. Early on in my presidency, well, we adopted this thing called the quinite introduction, where you tell people the minute you meet them, you tell them your name, you tell them where you're from and you tell them a dream for your life. All right, and we believe in speaking dreams into existence.

Speaker 3:

And One of the things that we were fascinated by early on was the number of people whose dreams Included starting a nonprofit. Hmm, and I was fascinated by that, right, cuz never in my life did I think about starting a nonprofit. Okay, and so you know, we're listening to it, we're listening to it. And so, finally, I Asked most of it, like why they said well, you know, I just I saw them do a lot of good things in my community, but boy, and then I realized their lives have been the beneficiaries of social programs and nonprofits.

Speaker 3:

So for them, the highest compliment that they saw, those were the people who had the resources to help the most people. So that was the resource rich entity in their being and their mist. When I would say to them, why would you want to spend your life begging someone who has more resources to give you the resources you need to be able to do what you want to do, I was like do you understand that the person who funds your dream controls your dream, so you don't actually have your dream. You have the dream that the funder allows you to have. That's just not a long-running proposition, and I'm telling this story because part of the reason why folks don't have the resources that they should have coming out of colleges is because they are picking majors they've been exposed to which don't oftentimes lend themselves to the type of economic balance that they should have Now. This is particularly damaging when you talk about the under-resourced communities that a lot of people are coming from. The Pell Grant community, which, by the way, given the fact that the majority of students in K-12 education right now are coming from low-income backgrounds. Higher education in this country is now defined by poverty, so there's going to be far more Pell Grant students in college. Whether people want to realize it or not, then we are prepared to take care of that. So what we do at Paul Quinn is we have a very different conversation, one and I took some flack for this and it was never meant to be a long-term thing, but I felt very strongly about it. We cut a lot of majors where people don't make any money, right, because people can't afford those majors. And not only can they not afford them, the folks sitting on the couch at home watching their experience can't afford them. Because many first-generation classrooms are influencers in a way that people don't tend to think about it. They're setting the table and the expectations for their little brothers and sisters, their cousins, the people in the neighborhood watching to see. Will education pay off for me Right now?

Speaker 3:

We took that aggressive step and look, my mother was a social worker. We owned a barbecue restaurant. That's how we had money, but she spent her life really putting her arms around people who were without and she would tell us the stories of what that was like. I view poverty as a migration story, right, and I think we have to address it as such. So in this country, the first generation of immigrants make enormous sacrifices to their own personal dreams to establish a foundation of economic stability. My father, we owned a barbecue restaurant. My dad came home every night smelling like ribs. It did exceptionally well. I have spent no day in my life coming home smelling like ribs. I don't even know how to cook ribs, but my father bought me out of having to make the same sets of sacrifices because that was our immigrant story. He immigrated from pop. That's what we did, and so what we said to our students is you're going to have to be the ones to establish the foundation for your families.

Speaker 3:

So we created the Urban Work College model, where you come to Paul Quinn, you're a residential student, you get a job and we have two tiers of jobs. We have the $18,000 for the school year jobs and the $13,000 for the school year. The $18,000 are with for-profit companies, the $13,000 are with non-profit companies. And what we're saying to the students is listen, if you make these choices, just do so understanding the difference. If you're working at an investment banking firm, you're going to make more money than if you work for Teach for America Both extraordinary organizations and maybe Clare, anyone's watching this that work for Teach for America and thinks I'm throwing shade. I was on the board for Teach for America for over a decade. I love America. My point is it's a thriving non-profit. You make less than you would as an investment banker and that's okay.

Speaker 3:

But we want to end poverty. That's our mission at Paul Quinn College. We are trying to end intergenerational poverty. The best way to do that higher education loves to talk about be a lifelong learner. Be a lifelong learner. How about we be lifelong earners? And that's why, if you look at us, we have these four pillars of a Paul Quinn education.

Speaker 3:

Pillar number one is what you major in. We call it subject matter expertise. Pillar number two is experiential learning. It's coming through the work program, so it's the job that you spend 15 to 18 hours a week doing for the entirety of time that you're at Paul Quinn. Pillar number three is PQCX, which is our adult education credentialing program.

Speaker 3:

Every student at Paul Quinn must get an industry recognized credential three of the years that they are here. First one is Microsoft Office, because we found out you can make 50 to $70,000 a year being Microsoft Office certified. The reason it's first is because if, for some reason, you don't finish, we at least have improved your life out of the gate. You can go back and do a better job caring for the people in your life. Pillar number four is every Quinnite is an entrepreneur, which next year, every single student has to create a business before they graduate. So we're giving you four ways to access economic stability.

Speaker 3:

We do it unapologetically, we do it in a way that allows you to develop as your interest develop, and as I was explaining, I was on a panel at GSV. You were there, you know what, and I talked about how in higher ed, people don't look at certificates and credentials the right way. They're graduate degrees, right, like that's. We went to graduate schools, we came out and I have doctorates that were really, really hard to get from New York to Pennsylvania. I lost a lot of sleep. I still am traumatized. I don't even like to write anymore. Right, I'm joking. I love it. I don't want to be mad at me either, right?

Speaker 2:

Everybody's mad at me right now.

Speaker 3:

They can't afford to be mad at me, right? So? But the reality of it is this I have a master's degree in public policy. I have a lot of great family Credentials are certificates that industry recognize that allow me to successfully navigate any economic change. But I had the luxury of being able to spend one of the two, five, seven years in graduate programs and I had the resources to do so. If you don't, you need to access your industry recognized credentials faster, more efficiently in terms of cost and be able to add to them when necessary. So I just think for education, we have to have very honest conversations with people about cost and the truth of the matter is half the time we don't know, right, we don't know how much by the time you get done adding everything. It moves and it's frustrating. But we have to be transparent, we have to be honest and I think everyone benefits from that.

Speaker 1:

Well, I love the way you described that, Michael, because it's that intentionality that we really need when we think about learners of color. We can want all the things in the world that a higher education provides them, but if they're starving, if they're working three jobs, if they're barely paying the rent, it's hard for them to experience all those other benefits. So the intentionality of making sure that they receive economic lift in their experience is so critical to them. Because you're right, I mean that first generation, they're opening the doors to generations coming forward and we need to do everything we can to make sure that they have that foundation. Zakiya, you've been in policy for a long time. How do you actualize what Michael just talked about, this intentionality around focusing on costs and economic mobility? How do you bake that into state and federal policy? Let's get our policy makers here in this conversation.

Speaker 2:

That's such a big question, but the one thing that I there's anyone listening that's interested in policy. It's not glamorous Like it sounds glamorous after you know.

Speaker 2:

Your resume is not glamorous but like the data you know, is, you know, reading regulations and looking for places where you can make the connection and make the case. It's like reading legislative language and making the changes from should this be an and or an or it is? You know, when I was at the state level, it was like, okay, do we have some of the foundational stuff, do we have our data in place to be able to make the case? Like, who is literally making the slideshow? Where can we go and present to a, you know, chamber of commerce in Northern New Jersey to talk about the connection between higher education and workforce? How can we, you know so, like some of the just foundational pieces?

Speaker 2:

I would say having great data is a key in terms of this to like actually be able to say what is or isn't happening Right now. There's not. Sometimes you just don't even know. Like, you ask the question oh, I would love to know. What is that major right? You could look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics for some things, but that doesn't tell me. Like, if I am, you know, a student in South Jersey going to this particular institution, like, do they have a good track worker? Do they have internships, apprenticeships? Like, am I going to be able to get something out of it. So that's one thing and I know a lot of people are working on it and that let me tell you the like, if policy making is unglamorous in its day to day, the data aspects of policy making are particularly unglamorous in its day to day, in their day to day application. But that's where there's so much potential. If you're actually interested in getting in and getting your hands dirty and doing that kind of stuff, we just need people who are willing to say I care about the big long-term dream and the ribbon cuttings and the legislative signing, but the work that has to go into getting all that stuff done is extraordinarily important and, again, you know, very, very unglamorous.

Speaker 2:

The second thing I want to say is policymakers people who go into policy, do it because they care, mostly tremendously. There are a lot of people who go into it because they like power and notoriety and that's like the wrong reason to get into it. But if you actually care about something, I think you can also have an inflated sense and I don't mean this in the wrong way, I spent my life in policy but an inflated sense of your own power of policy and you think, just because you passed a law, which is incredibly difficult, especially in this environment feet to get something all the way from idea to consensus to it's actually passed. It's a law. I think that's the end. Wow, we did it. You didn't do it.

Speaker 2:

It has to be implemented. It has to be implemented well. It has to have you know the unintended consequences, of which there are always unintended consequences. The good that it does has to outweigh the unintended consequences that it will undoubtedly create. I think we think we're so smart and we can work around and create the perfect policy that's going to be devoid of any unintended consequences, and that is that's your idea. You can try your best. You have to disabuse yourself of the notion that you are going to be able to be so perfectly intelligent that you create something in that way, and so the humility that you need to come to this with. Then, after all of those things happen, we were in New Jersey. I was so thankful that we were able to have the legislative support after a while and the gubernatorial support to create a college promise program and you can debate all the policies around it.

Speaker 2:

But I was really excited COVID hit. You know, it was just a completely different environment. It was like I'm glad that we had it, but that was like a whole new challenge. Our focus changed. We were trying to expand and do more and add, yada, yada, yada, but just realizing your own humility and like I can do the best that I could do. And yet there are things that are out of your control and you may need to pivot and you may be completely unconvinced that something is the right way to go. And then you talk to somebody in the field and you say, man, they're really doing something in a way that I hadn't realized was important. There's this whole debate that President Sorrell's talking around majors and how you help people and guide people.

Speaker 2:

There are a lot of those that feel very uncomfortable with that.

Speaker 2:

They feel like you know what. You're telling people that they shouldn't go into teaching or they shouldn't do these things, and it's not that. But you want people to go in with eyes wide open If you have a student that's never, ever been exposed. They don't even know what venture capital is, they don't know what investment banking is, they don't know what it means to be an entrepreneur other than you know, kind of the smaller and no shade to smaller, or street entrepreneurship, which no shade to street entrepreneurship, but not, you know, not having the connection to what. Could that mean in a broader sense, to have that exposure and to say do you, what do you want to do so that you have those options? Anyway, all of those things are part of the connection to policy making and our broaders. I think it's a tremendous opportunity and there are tremendous opportunities, but it's unglamorous and you still have to be humble about what the outcomes are going to be from that endeavor.

Speaker 1:

Right. Well, that's great advice to all the graduate students who are thinking about getting into higher aid policy.

Speaker 2:

Which I think they should, I would, I would. We need more of it.

Speaker 1:

So, as we begin to wrap up here, michael, let me ask you one final question. What should our listeners know about black learners and why they so important to our future in this country?

Speaker 3:

Well, let me say it this way At some point in this country we have to understand that everyone matters, that we do not possess the ability to disparage, discount, disregard anyone. And, if we are honest with ourselves, this country has never done right by black learners. We have made it extraordinarily difficult for black children to learn. We have defined brilliance in a way to exclude them whenever possible. We have failed to provide adequate resources for their schools, and then, when a measure of progress was being made, we said that's enough. After a relatively very short period of time.

Speaker 3:

I spent my early years in scholarship on the civil rights movement and Brown versus the Board of Education, and I am convinced that we implemented Brown incorrectly. Instead of sending the children first, we should have sent the administrators and the teachers first to create an environment that was welcoming to black learns. Instead, we sent our babies into the belly of the beast, and the generational trauma that those experiences created continue to be revisited year after year after year after year. When I worked in the Clinton White House, we did an event with the Little Rock Nod and I sat in the room with them and listened to them talk about the hate that lurked around every corner, but it was like to be nine people attending a school where every second of your day was spent in the company of your enemy. Now, they didn't have to start out being their enemies, but they behaved in a way which made them the enemies.

Speaker 3:

And one of the things that we know about learning is that learning that takes place in the presence of trauma doesn't take hold as well as learning that is freely obtained in a welcoming environment. And so I wonder and, by the way, the example I used about sending children without sending the adults it's just like fighting a war. You would never send your ground troops without air support. Right, and that's what we did. And then we were shocked that things haven't worked out perhaps as well as we might have hoped. And so what? My wish is that black learners are given the opportunity to exist in spaces where all they have to do is learn the material Right.

Speaker 3:

They don't have to fight for credibility. They don't have to fight for legitimacy in terms of their intellectual abilities, where they are free to just learn and pursue that which their passions allow them to embrace. That's my wish for black learners and for this country.

Speaker 1:

That's great. Okay, Zakiya, I'm gonna give you the last word. What's the call to action to folks across this country, to educators, to policy makers, to business leaders? What should they be doing and how should they be thinking about supporting black learners?

Speaker 2:

Well, one. I think what Michael just said resonates entirely. And I think, if you truly recognize and believe that black learners are brilliant and that we just haven't figured out and found ways to fully capture that brilliance, and so, unless you believe that like learners are somehow inherently not brilliant, in which case this is probably not the message for you anyway, but if you do believe that that brilliance is not somehow missing, then what we're doing is a woefully inadequate job of bringing it out and nurturing it and finding ways to recognize it.

Speaker 2:

And we have to have that imperative with that in mind, like we need to approach everything with that in mind that we have untapped potential here and we're wasting it, and our society is worse off because we are wasting and not nurturing and not building that potential that exists within black learners across this nation, across the world.

Speaker 1:

Well, on that note, thank you both for joining me. Thank you both for your leadership, for your passion and for your commitment to learners across the country and, in particular, your commitment and support of black learners here in America. Thank you both for being with me.

Speaker 2:

Thank you for having me, Thank you all right.

Speaker 1:

All right. Thank you everybody for tuning in to the rant. I really appreciate everybody joining us. If you have comments on this episode, questions about black learners in America, please leave it in the comment section. Continue to subscribe to this YouTube channel and follow us on your favorite podcast platform. Thanks for joining me, everybody, and we'll see you all soon. Acoustic music.

Examining the Politics of Black Learners
Journey and Experiences of Black Learners
Challenges in Higher Education Enrollment
Supporting Black Learners and Policy Making