real-world experience

Meet the Memphis educator leading the charge to take down her city’s Confederate monuments

PHOTO: Andrea Morales
Tami Sawyer and Earle Fisher lead a rally in response to a white supremacist march in Charlottesville last weekend.

UPDATE: On Dec. 20, the Memphis City Council voted to transfer ownership of the city’s two Confederate monuments to a nonprofit, which allowed for the removal of both the Nathan Bedford Forest and Jefferson Davis monuments from public parks. Read more here

Hours after white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Tami Sawyer’s phone was abuzz.

Some Memphis teachers wanted to talk over their plans to discuss the weekend’s violence with their students. She was also fielding questions from local news outlets about efforts to remove Memphis’ own Confederate statues — the issue that drew white supremacists to the Virginia college town.

The first messages were part of Sawyer’s role at Teach for America, where she serves as the local director of diversity and cultural competence. The others came out of her own activism — and her flurry of responses illustrate what life looks like for many educators stepping outside of the classroom to advocate for social justice.

“It’s a constant wheel,” she said. “I will go to bed probably about 1 a.m. because I stay up on social media and firing off emails and I wake up and I do it all over again tomorrow.”

Sawyer, a 35-year-old Memphis native, is the face of #takeemdown901, the newest campaign to remove two Confederate monuments from parks in downtown Memphis.

It’s a messy fight: The city owns the land, but can’t remove the statues on its own. State officials, angered by a 2015 Memphis city council vote to remove one, took control over what the city can do with its monuments.

And though the city has vowed to sue the state if it blocks the removal of the other monument, Sawyer and others aren’t satisfied with that pace.

“Jefferson Davis is known to have said that it is the duty of the white Christian man to own black people because they are unintelligent,” Sawyer said. “So, why is it important for me? It’s because a man that told me that I was dumb and needed to be picking his cotton can’t stand in my city. My nieces can’t come up under that shadow.”

But the fight against the Confederate monuments is just the latest facet of a longer, and personal, campaign for Sawyer.

She grew up in Memphis and went to St. Mary’s Episcopal, a private school. After graduating from the University of Memphis and spending about a year in law school at Howard University, Sawyer worked for U.S. Navy in Washington focusing on diversity hiring practices.

She returned to Memphis in 2013, as the uproar surrounding the merger and subsequent de-merger of its suburban and city schools was at its height. But local activism, she thought, seemed to be too much talk and too little action.

When 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, she decided to organize a local protest.

“Next thing I knew, I had a lot to say and people listened,” she said. “And I didn’t know what to do with that except to keep talking and keep organizing.”

PHOTO: Andrea Morales
Memphis reacts to the white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville and the violence against counter protestors by gathering at the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue.

In 2015, Sawyer organized a vigil for a black Memphis teen, Darrius Stewart, who was killed by a white police officer. About 200 people gathered, including a large contingent of Teach for America teachers.

TFA teachers “came of their own accord,” Sawyer recalled, “and that was just impressive to me.”

Earle Fisher, a Memphis pastor and activist who is always within arm’s length of Sawyer at rallies or press conferences, noted that day was when the two “met on the battlefield.”

“As has been the case ever since, she was directing me on how things were meant to go at the rally she had organized,” he said. “There’s a reason we call her Tami Lou Hamer.”

Soon after that vigil, Sawyer joined TFA, overhauling the local chapter’s curriculum to help teachers understand how racism and poverty affect their students and their community.

Teach For America is not affiliated with Sawyer’s activism, but her work to remove statues of Jefferson Davis and Nathan Bedford Forrest is in keeping with organization’s recent efforts to connect more with the black and Hispanic communities they serve in.

Athena Turner, the group’s executive director in Memphis, came to the city 11 years ago when 85 percent of the city’s public school students were black and 88 percent of the TFA teachers working in the city were white. Now, about half of TFA teachers are people of color.

“From when I was a corps member to now, the organization has gotten a lot more explicit about the ways in which our commitments and values of diversity and equity and inclusion play out in all aspects of our work,” Turner said. Sawyer’s work, she said, “demonstrates those values pretty explicitly.”

TFA, like many other education organizations, has also grappled with how to help teachers address racism in the classroom in the years following the death of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teenager killed in 2012. The organization has deep ties to the Black Lives Matter movement that has emerged since: Prominent activists, including DeRay Mckesson and Brittany Packnett, were TFA teachers and later worked for the teacher training organization.

Sawyer herself sees helping teachers understand students’ culture and the broader fight for equity in Memphis as deeply connected. That desire fueled her decision to run, unsuccessfully, for state representative last year.

More recently, just after Sawyer launched an online petition to remove the Confederate statue — a petition that came out of a goal-setting exercise at a TFA summer staff retreat — Sawyer spoke to a group of students at GRAD Academy, a local charter school.

The conversation quickly turned from issues in the classroom to problems in their city.

“I told them you have to self-advocate,” Sawyer recalled. “And then someone said, ‘Is that what you’re doing with these statues?’ And I said yes. We have to advocate for ourselves. No one is going to take these statues down for us, right?”

The next week, several teens from that program showed up at a community meeting she organized.

“I don’t understand why we still have statues of people who didn’t want us to be anything,” 15-year-old Beyonce Cox said. “They didn’t want us African-Americans to have power, they wanted us to stay down.”

Helping students gain that sense of citizenship and agency — for Sawyer, that’s the point of her work.

“You raise an engineer in South Memphis who can figure out how to run a metro through Memphis because he’s going to remember how his mom and grandma couldn’t get around and carrying groceries in the rain,” she said.

“In the grand scheme of things, taking down the statues won’t change transportation. It won’t change access to fresh foods or economic justice. But it will teach us how to advocate for ourselves.”

candidate forum

Here are seven takeaways from Chalkbeat’s forum for Shelby County Schools board candidates

PHOTO: Xzavier Bonds
Chalkbeat hosted its first school board candidate forum Thursday, which was split into two panels. The first panel, moderated by reporter Laura Faith Kebede and Central High School graduate Hali Smith, was between candidates from Districts 1 and 8.

With a high-stakes election just two weeks away, Chalkbeat Tennessee hosted its first-ever school board candidate forum on Thursday.

Fifteen candidates are vying for seats from four of Shelby County Schools’ nine districts: 1, 6, 8, and 9. The most contested race is in District 9, where four new candidates are challenging incumbent Mike Kernell. That’s a major difference from two years ago, when four of five open board seats went uncontested.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Audience members were able to locate their district on a map. Seats are open for Districts 1, 6, 8, and 9.

About 250 Memphis students, parents, grandparents and educators, attended the candidate forum. The audience could use a texting software to weigh in on brief, “rapid fire” questions posed to the candidates, as well as write in their own questions for the candidates to answer.

“I’m ready for a change,” said retired police officer and public education advocate Claudette Boyd, who used to patrol the Orange Mound area and noticed a “revolving door” of faculty turnovers at its schools.

“I’m here to hear first-hand information and ask questions,” she added. “Why are we still busing kids out of their neighborhoods? Shouldn’t all schools be the same? Why do we have inferior schools and superior schools?”

The event was split into two panels. The first was between Districts 1 and 8, and the second was between Districts 6 and 9. Here are some takeaways from those discussions.

PANEL 1

Parents were seen as having the biggest impact on a child’s education.

Out of five choices — parents, teachers, district leadership, county government, and state government — 53 percent of the audience chose parents as playing the most important role in a child’s education.

“Our parents should be the most important people regardless of what’s going on in the schools,” Michael Scruggs said, explaining that they spend the most time with their children.

Chris Caldwell said parents are most important because they pay taxes to teachers, who have the expertise to sway state government on funding matters and reform efforts. Michelle Robinson McKissack said she favored more teacher-parent interaction, and Jerry Cunningham said the board should prioritize getting parents more engaged.

Candidates favor student voices on the board.

When asked if students should be able to serve on the school board, all participating candidates noted that students should have some say in the decision-making process. McKissack said she supported students being in an advisory role, but that their “number one job is to be a student.” That means they shouldn’t be expected to serve in an “official capacity.”

PHOTO: Xzavier Bonds
Over 200 were in attendance at the forum Thursday night.

“They’re the ones most affected by what happens in the school buildings,” said Caldwell, who noted that there is already a policy for students to participate on the board. “We wouldn’t have school or school districts if it weren’t for the kids.”

“Our students are our audience,” Scruggs added.

Ninety percent of the voting audience favored student voices on the board, including recent graduates Emily Burkhead and Kira Tucker.

“Closer to our age, we’re becoming more aware of what’s going on,” said Burkhead, a Rhodes College student and White Station High graduate, citing the emergence of more recent movements like Black Lives Matter and Take ‘Em Down 901. (Take ‘Em Down 901 is an effort to remove two Confederate monuments from parks in downtown Memphis.)

“There just comes a time to say we’re about to get serious about the school system that we need to see in our community,” added Tucker, a junior at Emory University and a graduate of Central High School.

PANEL 2

Candidates backed expanding the community school model.

District 9 is home to Belle Forest Elementary, the system’s only “community school,” or a school that addresses a student’s social and family needs in addition to their educational needs.

Mike Kernell said he’s an advocate for community schools because from what he’s seen, they’ve done the best job of keeping parents involved.

Kori Hamner, Rhonnie Brewer, and Joyce Dorse-Coleman have visited the school and were pleased with what they saw: students and faculty who “love their school” and “love their community,” Hamner said.

“They bought into what was going on there,” Dorse-Coleman said. “That’s what we need in all of our schools.”

School closures have dramatic impacts on neighborhoods.

Many of the school closures in recent years have been in District 6, and some of the school building are still sitting empty. How should a district determine if a school should close, and what should happen with the empty buildings?

PHOTO: Jacob Steimer
More than 200 people attended the forum.

Minnie Hunter acknowledged she didn’t know a lot about why schools close, but felt like many should stay open, so students don’t have to travel across town to go to another school. Percy Hunter, meanwhile, said he was in favor of letting the community decide what happens to their schools, and how they should stop one from closing.

“An empty school building presents a pretty desolate description for our communities,” said Shante Avant, adding that local residents and community organizations like churches should decide how to fill that space.

The board must act to ensure grade-changing stops.

Shelby County Schools has had several investigations into improper grade changing to pass students along to the next grade even if they aren’t ready. Chalkbeat asked the candidates what they would do to make sure this practice stops.

Kernell said he was in favor of new software to monitor grades, and Dorse-Coleman said teachers shouldn’t have to “teach students to the test” anyway. Avant also acknowledged the board’s recent efforts to install a hotline for those who suspect such activities.

“We have to continue to be open and transparent,” she said.

BOTH PANELS

K-2 suspensions should be banned, candidates said.

Some cities, such as New York City, have banned suspensions among its youngest students, and a bill last year

PHOTO: Xzavier Bonds
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson (left) speaks with a fellow attendee at the forum.

sponsored by State Rep. Raumesh Akbari of Memphis would have stopped the practice in Tennessee unless the student is violent, but it failed. Chalkbeat asked candidates from Districts 6 and 9 about K-2 suspensions, and all favored ending early-childhood suspensions. Seventy-five percent of the audience polled also supported a ban.

“At the age of 5, 6, 7, 8, they’re just finding out who they are,” said Dorse-Coleman. “We need to address the underlying problem instead of waiting until they’re 15, 16, 17 and we want to lock them up.”  

“There is no reason that at that age, suspension is absolutely necessary,” Brewer said.

Scruggs said suspensions do not work at any age. He remembered a time when a student “cursed him out” and Scruggs was tempted to write him up. But then he found out the student was up for adoption.

“He wasn’t cursing me out,” he said. “He was cursing the situation out. … We need to put our money in the right places to help our kids.”

Most candidates were unprepared to have discussions about sexual harassment and protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer students.

Both panels were asked what they could do to better protect LGBTQ students from discrimination, as well as how they would protect all students from sexual harassment and assault.

Caldwell and Scruggs said the board takes bullying and harassment very seriously, and that there are measures in place to make sure violators are reprimanded. McKissack stumbled on the letters “LGBTQ” before noting that “we can always do things better.”

“There is no abuse that I’ve seen” of LGBTQ students, Cunningham said, comparing today to the 1960s.

Several audience members shouted, “Wrong!”

“Somebody says I’m wrong?” Cunningham said. “Well, I haven’t seen it.”

Percy Hunter said issues of bullying and abuse of LGBTQ students must be addressed on a school-by-school basis and that the school would have to know if the parent was in support of the “student’s decision” before taking action.

A recent high school graduate Celia Kaplan took issue with that response.

“What do you mean by choice?” she shouted.

After the event, Hunter clarified that he meant the student’s choice to come out.

“But what are you going to make schools safer so that students can be out in high school?” she asked him after the event. Hunter said that a decision like that would be up to the entire board.

Minnie Hunter said that LGBTQ students should be put in a separate classes, similar to sex education, to learn about the issues that affect them, to which Avant disagreed.

“I don’t believe that we should isolate or create opportunities for folks to criminalize or harass LGBT students,” Avant said. “We have to embrace diversity.”

Kernell advised students with issues to visit his website and file a complaint, and Dorse-Coleman said that discrimination is a “learned behavior.” Avant, Hamner, and Brewer said it was necessary for the board to do more to ensure schools are safe for students in traditionally marginalized groups.

Maude Bryeans, a counselor and Memphis native who has worked in Shelby County Schools for 20 years, said the candidates generally struggled to answer questions concerning concrete plans, and that they simply “gave opinions” instead.

“As an educator, I want to see a plan, I want to see your vision, and I want to know that you know your stuff,” she said, charging that some of the claims made by the candidates were incorrect, such as McKissack’s comment that uniforms went away after six municipal districts split from the Shelby County Schools district in 2014, and Cunningham’s comment that principals’ salaries were increased when the schools merged.

“I was glad to see someone put all the candidates out there though, and have people be able to listen to them,” she said. “I don’t remember this robust of a dialogue in the past. That is at least showing, it seems like, that people care.”

Event co-sponsors included BRIDGES, a student leadership program; the education advocacy organizations Stand for Children and Campaign for School Equity; and Awesome Without Borders.

Early voting runs through July 28. The election will take place on Aug. 2. Have you done your homework? Read more about the candidates and their stances on education issues here.

Future of Schools

CPS $1 billion capital budget hearings: Questions, demands, and mixed feelings

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Community members gave passionate testimonies at a public hearing at Malcolm X College for the proposed capital budget.

Chicago Public Schools surprised many when it dropped its biggest facility spending plan a few weeks ago with a big “B”—that stands for billion—in the headline.

Considering that the district had planned to spend less than $200 million on capital needs for the 2018-2019 school year, this plan represents a five-fold increase. It relies largely on bonds to pay for building improvements and introduces new schools amid steadily shrinking enrollment, mostly in areas around gentrifying neighborhoods.

Divergent opinions surrounding the capital budget emerged at three concurrent community meetings CPS held Thursday night at City Colleges sites around Chicago: Malcolm X, Harry S. Truman, and Kennedy-King. The Chicago Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the district’s $7.58 billion budget, including the capital plan, on July 25.

At the Malcolm X meeting, CPS Senior Policy Advisor Cameron Mock presented a map showing capital budget projects distributed evenly throughout the city, but, as CPS Chief Financial Officer Jennie Bennett acknowledged, “not all projects are equal.”

Bennett explained that “the allocation of these projects were really in large part due to feedback about need.”

Chalkbeat mapped out the costliest capital projects, and found that the West side, particularly the Southwest side, received the smallest concentration of large investments.

The map shows investments in facility needs over $5 million, all programmatic investments, all investments in overcrowding relief, investments in site improvements over $500,000, as well as sites of the two new classical schools. The map does not show the two new schools in Belmont Cragin and the Near West Side, because the district has not yet specified exact locations. The district also has not yet identified schools for many of its capital projects, such as technology and facility upgrades. See the full plan here.

At Thursday’s hearings, parents from schools that did receive significant funding, such as Christopher Elementary School in Gage Park and Hancock High School in West Elsdon, expressed thanks. But others asked for for more investment.

Residents questioned the plan to build a new $70 million high school on the Near West Side. Lori Edwards, a Local School Council member at Crane Medical Prep on the Near West Side, said that Crane desperately needed air conditioning and heating, doors with windows, and security cameras.

“I’m surprised that we can’t just get basic things instead of building a new high school,” she said.

Questions also surrounded the $44 million assigned for a new elementary school in Belmont Cragin on the Northwest Side to address overcrowding. A sophomore at Prosser High School in Belmont Cragin asked for investment in her school instead. At Prosser, she said, “there needs to be reconstruction in the classrooms, the paint on the walls is falling off.”

Leticia Neri, a mother of two students at Camras Elementary School in Belmont Cragin, was wary of adding a school to the neighborhood. Her children used to attend Burbank Elementary, which is also in Belmont Cragin. When Acero Roberto Clemente, a charter school, opened just two blocks down in 2013, she said that Burbank lost pupils.

However, Mock said the proposed new school was a response to demand in Belmont Cragin. And in fact, several miles north in Uptown, where CPS’s Chief Operating Officer Arnie Rivera and other officials led a meeting Thursday, a handful of Belmont Cragin residents argued in favor of the school.

Parent Mariela Estrada said Belmont Cragin Elementary, which her 9-year-old attends,  is overcrowded. While the district’s formula doesn’t label any Belmont Cragin school overcrowded, the numbers paint a different picture. Belmont Cragin Elementary’s 414 students share a building with Northwest Middle School’s 545 pupils.

“I am really, really grateful right now for what we are getting,” she said.

The North Side, as the map above shows, will receive the most capital funding. Several attendees expressed gratitude for investments in area schools, especially a new ADA compliant gym at McCutcheon Elementary in Uptown, and an expanded test-in Decatur Classical School program in West Ridge, that will add seventh and eighth grades. Students have to test into the city’s five highly competitive classical schools, and hundreds are turned away every year.

Even so, not all North Side residents felt their schools would receive what they need, and many questioned CPS’ process for planning improvements.

A mother of a student at Schurz High School, in Old Irving Park, thanked CPS for a plans to install a new athletic field, but mentioned the school’s leaky roof, faulty heating system, green and black mold under carpets, and peeling paint in the auditorium. “It’s gross,” she said.

Parent Dawne Moon, said Kilmer Elementary School in Rogers Park is “not currently a safe environment.” Moon, a Local School Council member,  complained of rusted lockers, “bathrooms that smell like urine, even after they are cleaned,” temporary covers over holes in the roof that keeps water from pouring into classrooms, and of bricks falling from the ceiling in the school’s gym.  

“We can hope that the next brick doesn’t fall on a kid,” she said.

Betsy Vandercook, co-chair of the education committee at Network 49, a progressive neighborhood group based in Rogers Park, said schools in her neighborhood would get less than what adjacent communities like Edgewater and West Rogers Park would receive.

“Rogers Park is not, for whatever reason getting the same resources that many other North Side communities are getting,” she said about the capital budget proposal. “Take this back, look at it again, look at what is and isn’t needed.”