Racial Equity Leadership Council

A little over 6 months ago, the nation and the world watched as Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds.

Those 8 minutes and 46 seconds were enough to add George Floyd to the ever-growing list of Black people murdered by the police.

Those 8 minutes and 46 seconds were enough to shake us from our slumber of complacency and inaction.

As video of this gruesome act circulated, many began to reckon with their role in allowing this type of brutality to exist. At Higher Achievement, we saw a direct correlation between this brutality and the communities we serve. We decided that in order to build a better world for our scholars and the communities we serve, we needed to act.

The late author Toni Morrison taught us to ask the question, “What can I do from where I am?” As an organization, we began to grapple with this question. We started to scrutinize the seat we sit in and use it as a catalyst for further action. We began to reckon with how our leadership, board, staff, mentors, and scholars could create a world where equity exists in every corner.

We renewed our commitment to racial justice and equity by forming a Racial Equity Leadership Council (RELC) made up of leadership and staff members of varying age, gender, race, tenure, location, and role. Each department nominated a member of their team to serve on the council, which was officially announced in August 2020.

The RELC comprises Garima Bhatt Handley (Executive Director – Baltimore), Julie Koh (Senior Director of Finance), Derrick Sydnor (Center Director – Mount Royal Baltimore), Bri Wallington Ferguson (Center Director – Brookland DC Metro), Breylon Smith (Director of High School Placement and Alumni Programs), SJ Janjua (Development Associate – Raiser’s Edge), and Ronee Davis (Center Director – Binford Richmond). The RELC hit the ground running in late August 2020 with an implicit bias test and discussion, plans for our first all-staff racial equity workshop in partnership with Urban Teachers, and—our biggest task—reviewing proposals for an external racial equity consultant.

It took a few months of reading through proposals, discussions, and interviews to select someone the council felt would provide the organization with a comprehensive racial equity plan that fit Higher Achievement’s mission and recommitment to racial justice.

In November 2020, the council was eager and excited to make their recommendation for our external consultant. The RELC and Higher Achievement’s leadership team extended an offer to Mo Thomas, whose commitment to racial justice and equity is unmatched.

Mo wears many hats. She is a lecturer at John’s Hopkins University School of Education where she develops curriculum, teaches, presents, and does research on race, culture, diversity and equity in urban education. In addition to her equity work, she is also an instructional coach for Urban Teachers DC and a former middle school teacher. Mo expressed excitement at working closely with the leadership team and the RELC, and was eager to get to work in December 2020.

Mo presented her multi-year phased plan and framework for equity specific to Higher Achievement’s needs and mission to the leadership team and the RELC in December 2020 and was met with praise. She began scheduling one-on-one listening sessions with each staff member, which were completed by the end of January 2021. In these listening sessions, Mo got to know the staff on a personal level and listened to the staff’s experiences and ideas for a more equitable Higher Achievement. In January, Mo also brought Higher Achievement’s board into this conversation, exploring how racial equity can be advanced at Higher Achievement. Next, we will administer a survey to scholars, families, mentors, and board members. She will bring these raw data to the staff in March to co-create the first draft of a racial equity plan.

We couldn’t be happier to be working closely with Mo and are looking forward to the work ahead.

We each have a responsibility to wake up every day and create a more equitable society for those who come after us. Not only do we want a better world for our scholars and the communities we serve, but we want a world where equity in all its forms is paramount.

The formation of the RELC and our work with Mo Thomas is just the beginning of a more equitable Higher Achievement, and we are eager and excited to be starting this work together.

— SJ Janjua, RELC member