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.”

Weighing in

As advocates seek to influence New York City’s chancellor search, Angélica Infante-Green gets another nod

The petition calling for Infante-Green to become New York City's next schools chief.

Massachusetts education leaders and New York City parents are waging a tug-of-war over a New York state education official.

Angélica Infante-Green, currently a deputy commissioner in New York’s state education department, is having a big week. On Monday, she presented a proposal to increase culturally responsive education to New York policy makers. On Thursday, she’ll be in Boston to interview to become Massachusetts’ state education chief. And at the same time, New York City advocates are mounting an online campaign to make her their city schools chief.

A Change.org petition launched over the weekend calling on New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to consider Infante-Green as he seeks to replace Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

“Ms. Infante-Green is a visionary in the field of education and has proven to be a leader capable of generating change and results for the most vulnerable population,” says the petition, which is bilingual in English and Spanish and so far has more than 200 signatures, out of a goal of 500.

Whether Infante-Green is actually getting a close look from the de Blasio administration is unclear. City Hall has been tight-lipped about the process, other than vowing to limit the search to educators — which would rule Infante-Green in.

But Politico reported last week that insiders – people who have spent substantial time working within the local education bureaucracy — are not the administration’s top priority. “That means … no Angelica Infante-Green,” Politico’s Eliza Shapiro reported.

What is clear is that local advocates are seeking to seeking to gain influence in an opaque hiring process.

Matt Gonzales of New York Appleseed, a group that is pushing New York City to diversify its schools, told Chalkbeat in December that advocates want to have a voice in the chancellor search. On Tuesday, groups representing school PTAs and elected parent leaders will hold a press conference outside education department headquarters calling for parent input in the search.

For now, supporters of Infante-Green are busily making their case. Here’s one comment from the petition:

“Best candidate for the job. Personal Knowledge of entire NYC Public School Student population, which includes Special Education students and English Language Learners,” someone identified as Wladimir Pierre wrote about Infante-Green. “Angelica is a Devoted Public Servant of NYC Public School Students and their families. Let us not lose her to Massachusetts.”

Signed and sealed

Federal officials deny New York testing waivers but sign off on its plan for judging schools

PHOTO: Monica Disare
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa

New York cannot create special testing rules for students with disabilities or those still learning English, the U.S. education department said Tuesday.

The decision to deny New York the testing waivers it had sought came on the same day that the department signed off on the state’s plan to evaluate and support schools under the new federal education law. The plan, required by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, was the product of more than a year of writing and revision by state officials and over a dozen public hearings.

The federal education department approved most of New York’s vision which aims to move beyond test scores when evaluating schools and places new emphasis on whether schools have the resources they need though they required some changes, which the department first proposed in feedback last month.

One of the revisions affects the way schools are rated when many students refuse to take the state exams. Meanwhile, the federal reviewers did not appear to require changes that could have lowered the state’s graduation rate, which some experts had said was possible under the new law.

Here’s what you need to know about the federal government’s feedback to New York’s plan:

1.) Two testing waivers were rejected

At the same time that New York submitted its ESSA plan, it also requested three testing-related waivers — two of which federal officials shot down on Tuesday.

One of the rejected waivers would have allowed students with significant cognitive disabilities to take tests below their grade level, which New York officials said would have resulted in more accurate measures of their progress. However, special-education advocates and the New York City education department had raised alarms about that request, saying it could lower standards for those students and potentially violate federal law. In denying the request, the U.S. education department appeared to validate those concerns.

The other denied waiver had asked that schools not be held accountable for the English test scores of newly arrived immigrants until after those students had been in the U.S. for three years. Without that exemption, school evaluations will factor in the English scores of students who are still learning that language after their second year in the country.

New York did, however, receive approval for one waiver to allow middle-school students to skip the state’s annual math or science exams if they instead sit for the Regents exams in those subjects, which are required to earn a typical high-school diploma.

2.) A change for schools with high opt-out rates

New York must treat students who boycott state tests as having failed them when evaluating schools’ performance though state officials don’t expect that to trigger interventions for high-performing schools with high opt-out rates.

In its ESSA plan, New York officials had wanted to make sure that schools were not penalized if a large number of students sit out the state exams — as 19 percent of students across the state did last year. To that end, they created two accountability measures — one that counted boycotted exams against a school’s passing rate and another that did not — and allowed schools to use the higher of the two ratings.

But the U.S. education department blocked that methodology, instead requiring the state to treat boycotted exams as the equivalent of failed tests when judging their academic performance. (They are still allowed to use the other metric to evaluate schools, just not under strict federal guidelines for what count as academic measures.)

State education department officials said Wednesday that the changes will like result in slightly lower ratings for schools with high opt-out rates. However, they said they do not expect those schools to face serious consequences as long as they perform well on other metrics.

Lisa Rudley, a founding member of New York State Allies for Public Education, which helped organize the opt-out movement in New York, said she expects the state to protect schools where many students boycott the exams.

Otherwise, she predicted, “There’s going to be outrage.”

3.) New York’s graduation rate is in the clear for now

Federal reviewers could have forced the state to lower its graduation rate, but they appear to have decided against that drastic step.

ESSA requires states to include only diplomas earned by a “preponderance” of students when calculating their graduation rates. Several experts thought New York’s “local diploma,” a less rigorous diploma awarded to only about four percent of students, did not meet that requirement.

If federal officials had agreed, the state could have been forced to recalculate its graduation rate and possibly eliminate some newly created options that allow more students to graduate with local diplomas. However, the officials appear to have let New York’s graduation rate stand with the local diploma in place.