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.”

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.”

moving on

Dismissed by KIPP over sexual harassment allegations, co-founder Mike Feinberg starts new organization

KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg, who was fired earlier this year over sexual harassment allegations, has started a new organization.

Called the Texas School Venture Fund, the group describes itself as helping individuals start and grow schools. It has already drawn a handful of prominent education reform advocates to its board.

This new group’s existence and Feinberg’s prominent role in it raise questions about how education leaders will deal with sexual abuse and harassment allegations. Its board indicates that some will continue to support Feinberg’s work despite the specific claims against him, which he has denied.

According to KIPP, which has grown to over 200 schools nationwide, Feinberg was dismissed due to allegations of child sexual abuse in the late 1990s and two separate sexual harassment allegations by adult KIPP alumni and employees from the early 2000s, one of which resulted in a financial settlement.

A 2009 photo of Mike Feinberg. (Via MerlinFTP Drop.)

That investigation found the allegation “credible” but did not “conclusively confirm” it, KIPP said. “I do not condone, nor have I ever condoned, or engaged in, misconduct of this kind,” Feinberg said in the statement at the time.

Feinberg’s dismissal sent shockwaves through the education reform community, where he was deeply connected.

Feinberg, who is listed as the president of the new group, declined to comment for this story through his attorney. He described his ambitions for the organization in a LinkedIn post, saying the Texas School Venture Fund would be “a catalyst to the creation of innovative and responsive schools” that would work with educators on “starting new schools, helping single-site schools start to grow, [and] helping networks of schools continue to grow.”

Howard Fuller — the former Milwaukee schools superintendent and prominent advocate of private school vouchers for low-income families — is on the Texas School Venture Fund’s board. He told Chalkbeat that the “core group” that Feinberg will work with are KIPP alumni who want to start their own schools, though he said it will not be limited to KIPP graduates.

“I felt like this was something Mike can do well, so I’m happy to help in any way I can,” he said.

Fuller said he does not believe the allegations against Feinberg and they did not give him pause in continuing to work with him.

“Mike is a very close friend of mine,” Fuller said. “Mike said he did not do it.”

Also on the board of directors of the new group are Leo Linbeck, III, a Texas businessman who is listed as the chair of the board, and Chris Barbic, who led Tennessee’s school turnaround district and now works at the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. Linbeck declined to speak on the record. Barbic did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Fuller said the group is in its early stages and is seeking funding, though he couldn’t say whether it has any funders presently. (Neerav Kingsland, head of the education giving at the Arnold Foundation, did not immediately respond to an email asking whether his group was funding Feinberg’s organization, which is not listed among Arnold’s current grantees.)

Few new details have emerged about Feinberg’s dismissal or the investigation that precipitated it.

A brief video of KIPP Houston’s board meeting the day before Feinberg’s firing was announced shows members immediately going into executive session, which is private, to consider a personnel matter. Feinberg did not appear to be present.

Three hours later, the board voted to delegate authority to the chair to negotiate and execute “employment arrangements” with Feinberg.

All but one of the board members present supported the move. The exception was Karol Musher, who abstained. Musher is now on the board of the Texas School Venture Fund. She did not respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, in March, Chalkbeat filed a public records request to KIPP Houston seeking information about Feinberg’s dismissal, including the investigation conducted by an external law firm.

In an April letter to the Texas attorney general requesting an advisory opinion, a lawyer for KIPP contended that the information is shielded from public disclosure due to attorney–client privilege. (The version of the letter provided to Chalkbeat is partially redacted.)

Chalkbeat has yet to receive word on an opinion by the attorney general.