The Mind Trust’s new CEO pledges to listen to critics and look to parents to lead changes

What’s next for Indianapolis’ most influential — and most controversial — education organization?

That was one of the big questions raised by both supporters and critics when The Mind Trust’s longtime leader, David Harris, announced earlier this year that he was leaving to start a new national education group.

The Mind Trust has been instrumental in transforming the city’s education landscape by promoting more school autonomy. The education nonprofit, which recruits and develops charter school leaders, has driven the adoption of “innovation schools” within Indianapolis Public Schools, where outside charter partners run schools under the district’s umbrella.

Harris’ successor, Brandon Brown, came up through the paths that The Mind Trust forged, first through Teach for America in Indianapolis, then by overseeing charter schools for the mayor’s office, and most recently working for The Mind Trust as senior vice president of education innovation.

Now, as the incoming CEO, Brown has said The Mind Trust will “stay the course” that Harris set. But in an interview with Chalkbeat last month, Brown also hinted at what we can expect from his leadership, and at lessons learned over the 12-year history of The Mind Trust.

“I told our board that if you are looking for a replacement for David Harris, you are probably not going to find that person — and you are not going to find that person in me,” Brown said. “But what you will find is someone who has committed his life to the work, who deeply believes in the ability of kids, who is a native of the city, who wants to spend his life fighting for more kids having access to great schools, and you’ll find someone who is committed over the long haul.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How have you seen education in Indianapolis change from when you first started working here, and what do you see ahead?

In 2010, when I joined Teach For America Indianapolis’ staff, there was a lot of hope, and there was a sense of possibility in terms of what we could collectively accomplish. Fast-forwarding eight years to 2018, I think that hope has turned into a real belief that we are going to transform our city’s education system. It’s no longer hoping for something; it is a firm conviction that we are the best positioned city in the country to transform our education system.

What’s interesting and unique about Indianapolis is, this is work that’s been going on for two decades — honestly, it’s been slow and methodical and thoughtful, and it’s been locally led. When you look at cities across the country that might get on the national radar every once in awhile, some of them tend to be kind of a flash in the pan, because the work isn’t necessarily locally led. It might be a state takeover, it might be something that a school district is responding to, but isn’t really driven by folks that live in that community.

So there are people who would disagree with that, who feel that the changes have been fast and done unto them by outsiders. Do you try to bridge that rift, and if so, how do you do it?

So there are definitely critics of this work, and we hear them.

I think one of the hallmarks of my leadership will be a deep belief of people regardless of their viewpoints, particularly those people who live in our city, who have a stake in the success of our education system. I am going to seek them out. I’m not going to wait for them to come to me. And we’re going to have conversations. They might be hard conversations. We are not always going to agree, but this work can’t be done in a silo. And if we’re not listening to our critics and viewing our critics as human beings, then we’re going to miss out on really valuable perspectives.

I would say relatively speaking, compared to cities that are moving down a similar path across the country, we have less pushback. And I think that’s because the work has been locally driven. I would also say while we haven’t been perfect, while the reform work in general hasn’t been perfect, what’s been really heartening to us over the past two or three years is that the innovation schools that have been restarted or converted have seen their enrollments skyrocket. So that tells us we’re on the right track. We should still listen to our critics, we should still seek out challenging conversations, but I feel very confident that the strategy we have in place is working.

Do you want to see all Indianapolis Public Schools become innovation schools?

We believe that there are three conditions that need to be in place at the school level for the school to have the maximum chance of succeeding. One is an incredibly talented school leader. Two is real contractual autonomy for that school leader to make school-based decisions. And three is rigorous accountability. We’re not shy about the fact that we think there needs to be more schools with those conditions, and we’re going to support any effort that is an attempt to have more schools in our city with the conditions for success.

How do you know the work that you’re doing here means children in Indianapolis are going to better schools and families are happy with their choices?

There is immense power, and there is immense credibility in the over 20,000 kids and families that have chosen schools that are completely autonomous. We as a sector, and The Mind Trust as an organization, need to be very intentional around finding ways to empower the families that we’re actually serving.

Long term, it’s important to us that this work is being driven by folks that are most closely affected to the reforms happening. There has never been a civil rights movement that hasn’t been led by the people most directly affected by the work. While it’s hard sometimes to relinquish control, it’s actually our moral responsibility to make sure the families we’re serving not just have a voice but have the power and the agency to lead this work over the long-term.

We are hearing more from families. We are hopefully giving them some tools at the school-based level to organize and to express their feedback to people who are in influence, but we have much more to do in this regard and need to have the humility to not be afraid to empower parents and to really do everything that we can to make sure that they have the tools and the runway to kind of chart the next chapter of reform work happening in our city.

Is this a change in strategy for The Mind Trust?

I don’t think it’s so much a change in strategy as it is an evolution that we’ve undergone over the past 12 years. When you think about the report that we put out in 2011, we’re really proud that that report changed the public conversation around school level autonomy in particular, and we think that was one factor out of many that led to the current conditions that we have in place.

We also learned a lot from that report. We learned that it’s critically important to involve a diversity of opinions on the front end so that we’re shaping our thinking as much as we can. We learned that it’s also very important to engage the community at the grasstops and the grassroots level when you are proposing massive changes to the system.

Since 2011, we’ve hired an amazing community engagement team that has really placed a focus on engaging the community in ways that we wouldn’t have in the first several years of the organization. Through the community conversations that we’ve led, through getting members of our community out to see high performing schools to see what’s possible, and through our emerging parent organizing work at the school level, we’ve really put a stake in the ground and said this work can’t exist in a vacuum, and it needs to be informed and eventually led by members of our community who are being most affected.

I heard you keep photos of your former students in your office. Who are they, and why do you do that?

I knew I was going to start crying. I have many photos of my kids in my office, and I try at least a couple of times a day to look at those pictures, because much of my work right now is inherently working with adults who have their own interests and have their own reasons for behaving in the ways that they do.

The reason why I committed my life to this work almost 10 years ago is because of my students, and because it was so immediately obvious that they had endless potential and that they were every bit as smart and creative as kids that I went to school with. But because we have systemic barriers in our society, they didn’t necessarily have the same opportunities as I had.

I friended most of my students on Facebook after I left the classroom and still keep in touch with many of them today. I have two reflections from that. One is I have a handful of students who have knocked it out of the park. They have gone on to graduate with honors from college, they have great jobs, they have growing families of their own, and they are just doing incredible things, really in spite of the system.

I have a handful of kids that have not had the same outcomes. There was one former student who was shot and killed a year ago, and I still have his picture in my office, because I think his story is every bit as motivating as the success stories. Because the outcome in his life was not due to anything of his own creating, it was due to a society that has built rules for some people that look very different from the rules that he had to live by.

Those stories are the reasons why I think doing work at a systems level is so important. The challenges in our education system are not because we don’t have hardworking teachers. They’re not because we don’t have people who don’t want the best for kids. They’re because of deep-rooted, generational, systematic barriers that prevent students of color from accessing the same opportunities that I had the privilege of accessing. So seeing their pictures in my office every day is a reminder that they are who we’re doing this work for and that their stories should fuel the work and should inform the work that we’re doing, even when it gets hard, and even when we get frustrated with adults.