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.

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.”

Movers & shakers

Former Tennessee Teacher of the Year will lead citywide reading program

PHOTO: Courtesy of Karen Vogelsang
Karen Vogelsang, the 2015 Tennessee Teacher of the Year, will become the executive director of ARISE2Read.

Three years after winning the state’s top award for teaching, Karen Vogelsang is leaving the classroom to lead a citywide early literacy program.

Vogelsang, a fourth grade teacher at Winridge Elementary School, will become the executive director of ARISE2Read, a Christian volunteer organization that matches reading tutors and mentors with struggling second grade readers.

“When we’re presented as teachers with the opportunity to broaden our impact beyond our school, we need to take that seriously,” Vogelsang told Chalkbeat, adding she initially turned the job down a few months ago. “It’s not just the 80 second graders here at Winridge, but the thousands of second graders in Shelby County Schools.”


Tennessee’s 2015 Teacher of the Year on teaching economically disadvantaged students in Memphis


Vogelsang spent 15 years as a banker before switching careers to education in 2003. She became Tennessee’s Teacher of the Year in 2015. And earlier this year, she stepped into a hybrid role on Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s team to interject a teacher’s voice in policy decisions for Shelby County Schools. Since then, the teacher advisory council has grown to 17 teachers across the district, she said.

Though she won’t be with the district anymore, Vogelsang will still be working toward goals set out by Shelby County Schools in her new position. ARISE2Read, which has mentors in 30 Memphis schools, aims to catch up struggling second grade readers by taking them out of the classroom for 30 minutes once a week with a mentor.

Shelby County Schools has a goal of having 90 percent of third graders reading on grade level by 2025. In 2014, it was only 30 percent with a goal of reaching 60 percent by 2020. According to early 2017 results from a nationally standardized test (MAP), about 50 percent of third grade students were proficient.

“We have a lot of work to do and we can’t do it on the manpower of Shelby County Schools alone,” Vogelsang said. “The fact that this was so focused was part of the attraction (to ARISE2Read) and addresses a need we have in the district.”

The organization also has mentors and students in Fayette, Jackson/Madison, Tipton and Gibson counties and has done training in Knoxville and Houston.

Vogelsang’s class will be turned over to a co-teacher who has been in her classroom since taking on the hybrid role, and she will begin at ARISE2Read on Jan. 4.

reporter's notebook

How does New York set education policy? An inside look at the mad dash to make sense of a major diploma change

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

An hour before officials made sweeping changes to New York’s high-school graduation requirements Monday, only a select few knew the game-changing policy was coming.

That morning, I was standing with a group of fellow reporters outside the room where the state Board of Regents had just concluded the first portion of their monthly meeting. As we finished questioning State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia about the budget and were about to break for lunch, the department’s press secretary mentioned offhand that the afternoon session would cover new graduation requirements.

Graduation requirements? We looked at each other, puzzled. The only item on the agenda for the relevant session was a minor update on education-technology funding.

An hour later, the board would vote to ease graduation requirements for students with disabilities — a significant policy shift that will allow some students to earn a diploma without passing any of the state’s exit exams. But if members of the public (or reporters, for that matter) wanted to review the changes more than a few minutes before the board voted on them — they were out of luck.

Monday’s vote is an extreme example of the way New York’s education decision-makers often craft potentially controversial policies behind the scenes, then reveal them to the public shortly before they’re approved — leaving little time for debate. In this case, as I would later learn, officials intentionally withheld the policy document until the last minute so they could manage how the public made sense of it.

As soon as the press secretary tipped us off that morning, I scurried off to get food — including a large M&M cookie that I shared with another reporter — and settled in for the news.

Then, just a few minutes before the afternoon meeting, the state published notice of the graduation proposal. I fired off a tweet and joined a group of confused onlookers scrambling to figure out what it said.

The day’s other proposals had been published online the previous Friday  giving the public at least three days notice before they were discussed, as required by state law. Now, we would have to dig through the 11-page document as the Regents were discussing it. Before I’d figured out what it all meant, they voted unanimously to approve it.

The change, which the state called an “emergency measure,” went into effect the next day. The public-comment period begins Dec. 27.

As soon as the measure was approved, a group of about 30 parents who had spent months pushing for the change erupted in applause. They were thrilled — but, as it turns out, not entirely surprised.

“An agenda has been published that does not show diplomas as a topic,” one of the parents, Bonnie Buckley, wrote Friday evening on a Facebook page called “Multiple Pathways for a Diploma for All.” “We have absolute confirmation that pathways to a diploma will be on the agenda for the Board of Regents meeting in Albany on Monday in the 1:25-3:30 time slot.”

The page, which has almost 6,000 members, is a virtual meeting space for parents and other advocates who supported the policy shift. Members of the group had met with Commissioner Elia and other officials in November, and left with the strong impression that the rule change would be discussed at the next month’s Regents meeting, Buckley said. Then, last week, a state official emailed a group member in response to her inquiry to say they should show up to Monday’s meeting, Buckley added.

Still, while the group had been tipped off about the proposal, they — like the rest of the public — didn’t get to see the actual document until it was posted at the start of the afternoon meeting.

It was posted at 1 [p.m.], literally,” Buckley said. “We were all sitting together and I think somebody elbowed me and said, ‘There it is.’”

At 2 p.m., after the Regents had voted, the state education department sent out a press release describing the policy that had just been approved. Thirty minutes later, High Achievement New York, an advocacy group that promotes rigorous learning standards, sent reporters a statement under the heading: “Rule Change for Students with Disabilities Lacks Transparency, Step in Wrong Direction.”

The Regents shouldn’t make significant policy changes with an 11th hour and 59th minute addition to the agenda,” the statement read.

But if the public was scrambling to make sense of the change, the Regents had already had plenty of time to digest it.

Elia had floated the basics of the policy during a Regents meeting in July, but offered no specifics at that time. When it was finalized earlier this month, state education officials and Board of Regents members were given a copy — about a week before it was posted online, Chancellor Betty Rosa told Chalkbeat in an interview Thursday. In fact, the document — which bears Elia’s signature — is dated Dec. 5, six days before the vote.

“I talked about it with the commissioner and I personally felt that it was better to have an internal document that we were all going to look at prior to the meeting,” Rosa said.

She and Elia had decided that the policy was so important they would not post the document ahead of Monday’s meeting because she wanted the public to hear the board discuss it before trying to make sense of it on their own, Rosa added.

“There are times that you want to walk people through something and then let them react,” she said.

This is not the first time the Regents have passed policy as an “emergency” rule, which allows them to implement the policy before soliciting public comment.

But failing to disclose documents that were readily available before Monday’s meeting violates the state’s Open Meetings Law, said Bob Freeman, executive director of the Committee on Open Government. If top officials had access to the document several days before the meeting, the law “clearly would be applicable,” he said.

In a statement, state education department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis said officials consult with stakeholders as they develop policy proposals and that, in this instance, they had received input on the issue over the past two years. However, she added that the department had failed to post a notice of the proposal ahead of the Regents’ meeting “in error.”

“We are reviewing our processes and procedures to ensure this does not happen again,” she said.

After the meeting, I dashed off a first draft of the story and hurried to the Amtrak station to catch a train back to New York City. On the train, I was still making changes to the story — and making sense of a whirlwind day.