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.”

meet and greet

Tennessee seeks reset in Memphis with next leader of its school turnaround district

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Stephen Osborn (right), a finalist for superintendent of Tennessee's Achievement Schools District, speaks with Mendell Grinter, leader of the Campaign for School Equity, during a meeting at Martin Luther King College Preparatory School in Memphis.

Pastor Ricky Floyd says he was an “early cheerleader” when the state began taking over low-performing schools in Memphis in 2012 and assigning them to charter operators to improve.

But no more.

Disappointed with those schools’ academic progress and even more disappointed with how Tennessee’s Achievement School District engages with Memphians, he now feels “hoodwinked” by the state.

“What is your plan to cultivate relationships with the community again?” Floyd asked Stephen Osborn, a finalist to become the next superintendent of the state-run district.

Osborn, who is chief of innovation for Rhode Island’s Department of Education, met with Floyd and other community members Wednesday as Tennessee seeks to whittle down its list of four superintendent candidates revealed last week.

Their brief exchange — in which Osborn pledged to earn community trust by creating better schools — captures the challenge that the district’s next leader will face.

Local trust in the Achievement School District is low, taxed by years of painful state takeovers of neighborhood schools with promises of fast turnarounds but lackluster results. In recent years, several national charter networks have left the district, mostly because of low enrollment but also due to the high cost of turnaround work. And several schools have closed or changed hands.

“I’m sorry that’s been your experience,” Osborn ultimately told Floyd, pastor of the Pursuit of God congregation in the city’s Frayser neighborhood. “I don’t expect to get folks’ faith on day one. I’m going to need to earn it.”

All four candidates have met with Memphis leaders, but Osborn was the first to be brought back for a second round, said Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, who will make the hire along with Gov. Bill Haslam.

McQueen called the leadership change “a restart moment” and said community input is part of the transition. She emphasized that the superintendent search is still in progress.

“We certainly have an expectation that we’ll bring in others,” she told reporters. “At this point, we wanted to move one forward while we’re continuing to solicit additional information from the search firm on current candidates as well as other candidates who have presented themselves over last couple of weeks.”

The other top candidates include Keith Sanders, a Memphis-based education consultant and former Memphis school principal who most recently was chief officer of school turnaround at the Delaware Department of Education; Brett Barley, deputy superintendent for student achievement with the Nevada Department of Education, and Adam Miller, executive director of the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice at the Florida Department of Education.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen joins Osborn during meetings with community stakeholders.

McQueen accompanied Osborn Wednesday as he met with Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin, along with funders, parents and community leaders. A day earlier, he was in Nashville speaking with the governor’s staff and members of the State Board of Education, as well as staff with LEAD Public Schools, which operates two ASD schools in the state’s capital city.

The new superintendent will succeed Malika Anderson, who stepped down last fall after almost two years at the helm. Kathleen Airhart, a longtime deputy at the State Department of Education, has served as interim leader.

The job will require overseeing 30 low-performing schools — the majority of which are run by charter organizations in Memphis — at a time when the Achievement School District has much less authority than when it launched during the Race to the Top era.

Osborn said he has been watching the ASD’s work from afar and said he is ready to get into the mix.

“This role is one where there’s no bigger impact make in terms of making better outcomes for families and this children,” he told reporters. “Tennessee has a bright, strong and vibrant future.”

Superintendent search

Rhode Island school improvement leader among finalists to head Tennessee’s turnaround district

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Memphis is the home of most of the Achievement School District's turnaround work.

A Rhode Island education leader who is a finalist to lead Tennessee’s school turnaround district was in Memphis Wednesday to meet with community members.

Stephen Osborn is the chief for innovation and accelerating school performance at the Rhode Island Department of Education. He is among finalists to lead Tennessee’s Achievement School District.

A second finalist has not been chosen from among the four candidates revealed last week, according to Sara Gast, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Education.

She denied a report earlier Wednesday from Bobby White, chief of external affairs for the Achievement School District, that Osborn and Memphis education consultant Keith Sanders were the two finalists.

“I truly think we’re still having conversations about the other candidates,” Gast said.

White later walked back his comments. “She’s right. I was making an assumption. I apologize,” he told Chalkbeat in an email.

Before joining Rhode Island education leadership, Osborn was an assistant superintendent with the Louisiana Department of Education and a chief operating officer with New Beginnings Charter School Network in New Orleans.

He was visiting with Memphis community groups Wednesday with Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, including a meet-and-greet in the city’s Frayser neighborhood, which is a hub of state-run district’s work. 

Earlier this month, Gast said the state would narrow down the candidates list from four to two based on input from key district and community members in Memphis. “The final decision on who to hire will be jointly determined by the commissioner and the governor,” she told Chalkbeat.

Sanders is the CEO of his own consulting group in Memphis and is the former chief officer of school turnaround at the Delaware Department of Education. He was a principal at Riverview Middle School in Memphis before leaving in 2007 to co-found the Miller-McCoy Academy in New Orleans, an all-boys charter school that shuttered in 2014.

The two other candidates are Brett Barley, deputy superintendent for student achievement with the Nevada Department of Education, and Adam Miller, executive director of the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice at the Florida Department of Education.

All four have visited Memphis and met with key leaders, according to Gast.

The new superintendent will succeed Malika Anderson, who stepped down last fall after almost two years at the helm. 

The job will require overseeing 30 low-performing schools — the majority of which are run by charter organizations in Memphis — at a time when the Achievement School District has much less authority than when it launched in 2012 during the Race to the Top era.