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.”

Powerful Parents

‘Sharing their hearts’: Why these parents became advocates for Memphis students

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy organization, is training its ninth cohort of public advocate fellows.

While their children are out of school for the summer, a local parent group is using this time to hit the books.

Memphis Lift, a non-profit organization in North Memphis, aims to amplify the voices of those who, some say, have historically been excluded from conversations surrounding their schools. Many of those conversations, said organizer Dianechia Fields, have made out parents like her to be “scapegoats” for students’ struggles in the classroom.

“It’s easy to blame someone who’s not there in the room,” she said. “Instead of blaming parents as the problem, we’re inviting parents to the table to be part of the solution.”

Fields is the director of the program’s Public Advocate Fellowship, which was created three years ago by Natasha Kamrani and John Little, who came to Memphis from Nashville to train local parents to become advocates for school equity. Funded in part by the Memphis Education Fund, the program pays fellows $500 when they graduate the course. (Chalkbeat also receives support from local philanthropies connected to Memphis Education Fund. You can learn more about our funding here.)

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
The Public Advocate Fellowship was created three years ago. This year, the program will have trained 300 fellows.

On Tuesday, Lift held the first of ten sessions for its ninth cohort of fellows. This month, 19 parents and grandparents will learn about topics such as the history of education in Memphis and school funding. At each session, they’ll receive coaching from special guests and alumni fellows, and they’ll also make connections with local education leaders.

In order to better communicate with decision-makers, the group will complete public speaking exercises with the help of coach Darius Wallace. His focus this week: getting fellows to “share their hearts.”

In Wednesday’s class, Wallace asked the cohort to think hard about who they’re advocating for, what pain that person may feel, and what their dream is moving forward. Here’s what a few of them had to say:

Jerrineka Hampton, a Shelby County Schools teacher, is advocating for her students at Treadwell Elementary, who often lack access to the materials they need, like pens or paper. Her dream is to “close the economic and academic gap” in schools like hers, and to help train others to do the same.

Shanita Knox, a mother of two, is advocating for her 10- year- old son, who struggles with his speech and is often bullied because of it. Her dream for him is to “do whatever he wants in life without having to work a dead-end job.”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
The parents are asked to share with each other their hopes for their children.

Patricia Robinson is advocating for her granddaughter, whose father is incarcerated. Robinson’s dream is for her to take the pain and loneliness she feels and “learn how to talk about it.”

Violet Odom, a mother of two, is advocating for her daughter, a soon-to-be middle schooler who is dealing with mental health challenges. Odom’s dream is for her daughter to “be able to live a normal life and use her voice to explain how she feels.”

Aimee Justice, a mother of three, is advocating for her son, who comes from a multiracial family. Her dream is for Memphis schools to become places where students of all nationalities can learn from each other.

Trenika Bufford is advocating for other kids in the system who, like her college-aged son, have been belittled by school officials. Through tears, she said she wished she listened to her son when he was younger. Her dream is to have a relationship with him again.

As the women shared their stories, Wallace and the group gave feedback on their delivery. As they practiced more, the fellows began to make more eye contact, speak louder and more directly, and use body language.

“People make decisions when they’re emotional,” Wallace reminded them. “Facts tell. Stories sell.”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Ahada Elton smiles at her son. A mother of four, Elton said she wants to advocate for parents unaware of the opportunities schools offer, especially for children with special needs.

Effective communication will become even more important as the cohort prepares for their last session. That’s when they’ll work together to create a plan of action to tackle an issue in their community. This year, the group is already discussing taking steps toward unified enrollment, a centralized system that allows parents to easily compare schools in the same district.

And while that’s no small feat, it wouldn’t be the first time the group has tackled a project this large. Two years ago, graduating fellows knocked on about 1,200 doors throughout the city to inform other parents about local priority schools assigned to the state-run achievement school district.

That’s when alumna Kiara Jackson heard about the fellowship. Jackson, 24, was pregnant at the time with her third child, and she was living with her father in the North Memphis neighborhood when director Sarah Carpenter knocked on her window and told her about the program.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Kiara Jackson, an alumna fellow, shares her testimony with the new cohort.

“I was a concerned parent,” she said, “but I didn’t even know the types of questions to get answers to.”

Shortly after, Jackson started going to Lift’s weekly classes, where she learned about quality schools in the area. Since joining the fellowship’s fourth cohort last year, Jackson had the opportunity to travel to Cincinnati and advocate for charter schools such as the one she’s working to get her daughter into.

“I enjoy the power that I have as a parent,” she said. “… With us being from low-income communities, they try to deny us our rights as parents. But our kids can get better educations”

When the class graduates next month, the fellowship will have trained 300 members, mostly women, since it launched in 2015. This past year, the group offered training for Spanish-speaking parents led by alumna Carmelita Hernandez. Now, the program is working on creating its first all-male cohort for fathers and grandfathers.

Departure

Tennessee loses a behind-the-scenes education operative

PHOTO: Jennifer Pignolet/The Commercial Appeal
Kathleen Airhart, then the interim superintendent of the state-run Achievement School District, speaks in February to a community meeting sponsored by the Frayser Exchange in Memphis.

Kathleen Airhart, who recently served as interim leader of Tennessee’s Achievement School District during a major transition, has stepped down as the state’s deputy education commissioner and chief operating officer.

Kathleen Airhart

The career educator ended almost seven years with the Education Department last week in Nashville. She will start her new job with the Council of Chief State School Officers as the national nonprofit organization’s program director on special education.

Since 2012, Airhart has been a go-to lieutenant for two education commissioners as Tennessee rolled out major policy initiatives under its First to the Top overhaul of K-12 schools.

She oversaw the transition to the state’s academic intervention program for struggling students, the expansion of career and technical education opportunities, the development of a library of state and local education resources, and operational changes to make the Achievement School District financially sustainable after the end of a federal award supporting Tennessee’s turnaround program for low-performing schools.

Airhart worked mostly behind the scenes until Commissioner Candice McQueen tasked her last fall with leading the Achievement School District, also known as the ASD, as Tennessee looked for a replacement for departing Superintendent Malika Anderson. During that time, Airhart met frequently with school communities in Memphis, the hub of the ASD’s work, and oversaw the closure of two more under-enrolled schools before McQueen tapped turnaround leader Sharon Griffin to take the helm beginning in June.

Airhart previously was superintendent of Putnam County Schools, where she was named Tennessee’s Superintendent of the Year in 2011. She started her career as a high school special education teacher and also served as a special ed supervisor.

In her new job, she’ll return to her roots and advise other states on special education programs and services.

“Dr. Airhart has been an excellent manager and leader at the department, and no matter what challenges she was presented, she always stayed calm and kept students at the center of every decision,” McQueen wrote in an internal letter about the departure.

The Council of Chief State School Officers is comprised of education leaders from across the country.