Black History Month Reflections from a Founder
Elana Cole, Founding Board Member of Believe Memphis Academy Charter School and the Chair of the Academic Accountability Committee, shares her reflections as we enter Black History Month and how her past drives her investment in our school:
“Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?”’ (Martin Luther King, 1957)
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said these words to a Montgomery, Alabama audience in 1957. Sixty-one years later, I can’t help but to ask the same question of my own life, which always leads me to reflect on how I got here.
Louisiana 1994: I remember my dad calling me to the front porch to sit and talk one afternoon. Even at a young age, my dad knew he was poor and Black. He was also aware of all the hardships that came along with those identities that he didn’t choose. One of those was the drastic difference in his education compared to the privileged kids at other schools. Although he made it out alive and successful, he couldn’t say the same for many of his closest friends. I wonder if a better quality of education would’ve made a difference.
My dad shared his past with me so that I could understand the opportunities I was afforded through his determination for wanting something better for his children. I now look back on those conversations realizing that he sparked a cause within me: It was to advocate for those who are dealing with similar experiences in the education system that they’re supposed to trust.
Memphis 2005: I walked into the first day of school as a new English teacher. To say I was nervous was an understatement. My palms were sweating and my knees were knocking. I was so uncertain of my decision to be there.
I expected there would be tough moments. What I didn’t expect was to witness the systemic injustices that plagued my school and my students’ lives every single day. I was repeatedly torn between standing up for my students’ rights and just “doing my job.” The thought of being forced to choose kept me up at night.
But there was one student whom I’ll never forget. He was the typical “I refuse to do anything you say” type of student. He didn’t do homework. He barely participated in class. Getting him invested in my English class was like pulling teeth. Because I was determined to show him that his education could give him access to greater opportunities, I continued to push him. I focused on leading him in the right direction to change his future.
Four years after he graduated high school, I spotted him shopping at a local Wal-Mart. He was proud to tell me that he – the one who said he didn’t care about his education – was about to enter graduate school and take up journalism.
“I never forgot what you did for me, Ms. Cole,” he told me.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“You told me I was a good writer, and I believed you. So, I chose to pursue it.” What would’ve happened to him if I kept those words to myself?
January 2018: It’s our first town hall event for Believe Memphis Academy. I was there as a founding board member for the new charter school, and I was excited to help reveal a viable school choice for parents.
As our Head of School spoke, I watched an audience full of families hang on his every word. They believed him. They believed him when he said our school could help change the trajectory of their children’s lives. They believed him when he promised our school would prepare them for college. It was in that moment that I watched them exude hope about what was possible. Judging from the children’s faces, I could tell they believed him, too.
What we’re doing here has the potential to change generations, I thought to myself. It just felt right for me, and I knew this is what I was supposed to be doing for the rest of my life.
As I consider my journey of fighting education reform in Memphis, I’m reminded of the pivotal moments that impacted my pursuit of something greater. Until every child has access to a premium education regardless of their race, class, or zip code, I will continue to be an advocate for what they deserve.
Martin Luther King spoke those words in his speech in 1957, and in 2018, it is still the question that drives my work. What am I doing for others? I’m helping to change the quality of education now and for generations to come:
One child at a time. One school at a time. One choice at a time.