In this episode, we speak with Sharif El-Mekki, the founder and chief executive officer of the Center for Black Educator Development, which is working to revolutionize education by dramatically increasing the number of Black educators to better reflect the students they serve, ensuring teaching practices unleash the power of diverse cultural insights and anti-discriminatory mindsets, and liberating education policy from constraints both real and imagined.
Join this conversation as Sharif guides us through the journey of how his masjid and African Free School education served as the catalyst for his distinguished teaching career and activism for education justice.
Darren Isom (00:01):
Welcome to Dreaming in Color, a space for social change leaders of color to reflect on how their lived experiences, personal and professional, have prepared them to lead and drive the impact we all seek. I'm your host, Darren Isom, and I invite you to join me in these candid kitchen-table conversations where together we celebrate these leaders’ ingenuity, are inspired by their wisdom and wit, and learn how collectively we can all strive to do and be better. This is Dreaming in Color.
Sharif El-Mekki is the founder and chief executive officer of the Center for Black Educator Development, an activist, non-profit organization that exists to ensure there will be equity in the recruiting, hiring, and retention of quality educators that reflect the cultural background and share common socio-political interests of the students they serve. I'm excited to speak with him today.
Sharif, thank you so much for making time. Excited to chat with you today. As you know, I'd like to kick off our sessions with passing you the floor, for you to offer an invocation for us to talk through.
Sharif El-Mekki (00:57):
I would start off with Grammy-nominated poet Amir Sulaiman. Frequently he brings up this idea that we are all going to be ancestors one day, act accordingly. And he goes on to say that our grandchildren, if we raise them well, and I often think about this as “grandstudents” as well, as educators. Like, yes, the children in front of us, but what about our students' grandchildren?
Because if we do this well, their grandstudents should have a different trajectory if we're doing our jobs well. We said when those weapons are inevitably formed against them, your granddaughter can whisper through gritted teeth and say, "I am the granddaughter of so-and-so." You will be someone's ancestor. Act accordingly. And so if we replace granddaughter with grandstudent, will they be able to say, "I am the grandstudent of so-and-so educator" and know that they will be okay. We can say, "We'll be all right," but will they? Will they really be all right?
Darren Isom (01:54):
That's powerful. Thanks for sharing that, and it just makes me think a lot as well. So many of the things that you go through from a life perspective, from a professional perspective, you feel like we've been here before, this battle's been fought before, right?
Sharif El-Mekki (02:04):
Darren Isom (02:06):
And I think all the time from a work perspective, I was having a conversation earlier this morning, there's a wonderful Urvashi Vaid quote about how we're in a relay race. And I think about, I'm running a leg of that relay and am I sprinting enough that when I pass it to the next person to carry the baton, are they in a good standing so that they can continue to sprint or slow down for a little bit and rest? Literally just thinking about how much we're preparing that next generation.
Sharif El-Mekki (02:28):
The challenge is not only because we're Black in America and Black in the universe. Not only sprinting, we also have to pave and light the path simultaneously. And I think that's the difference, right? I think that's part of what white privilege may not have to necessarily do.
They can sprint and pass on because the roads are already paved for whiteness to support them, whether it's law, policy, economics, it's already paved in a particular way. Where we have to be conscious of, “All right, we're sprinting. Whoa, that's a big hole right there. We better address that. Pause, stop, fix this. Now pick up the sprint again.”
And so that relay, if you think about it, it's not an even road for people of color. There have been policies that are specifically written to undermine our progress, and there have been other policies specifically meant to smooth white people's progress.
Darren Isom (03:20):
One hundred percent. You're not just setting a pace, you're setting a path. And that's something to be said about that. Right?
Sharif El-Mekki (03:24):
There you go. There you go.
Darren Isom (03:25):
I know that you come from a family of activists and educators, and also had the experience of attending a predominantly white school while growing up. I was reminded of the fact that I'm a New Orleans boy. I'm a seventh-generation New Orleanian. Again, my family's been in New Orleans for nine generations now.
Sharif El-Mekki (03:38):
Darren Isom (03:38):
And at some point I realized that, Sharif, of those nine generations, I was the only generation that went to integrated schools. They were segregated de jure, legally segregated before me. My parents integrated their high school together. And they were de facto segregated after me, from a generational perspective because all the whites left. It was onl Black folks at schools, with the exception of the teachers.
So my parents went to all Black schools with Black teachers. My nieces and nephews' generation, they went to Black schools with white teachers if they went to public schools. Or they went back to the all-Black schools that existed in New Orleans before the parochial schools. I'm just reflecting on how that, in many ways has shaped my thinking around the role of education and the importance of education and the normalization of education. But I would love to hear you share a little bit more about how your upbringing shaped your motivation to impact and change the education system.
Sharif El-Mekki (04:30):
Yeah. You know what, and I'm so grateful for the elementary school experience that I had, even Pre-K. Like I remember my Pre-K teachers, they were Black men and women. It was in a masjid, a Muslim faith-based institution. And my mother was really adamant and pushing that a masjid should not just be for adults, you should be ensuring the intellectual development of children as well.
And so she pushed and challenged them to start a Pre-K and in this masjid, Masjid Mujahideen, up on Columbia Avenue in North Philadelphia. And so when I think about that, and then eventually going to ... She was always in search of “What's the best option for my child?” And so when Pre-K was over, I think we went to the African Institute for a very short amount of time because she heard about this school called Nidhamu Sasa.
That was an African free school started by activists. And so we went there for first grade through sixth grade. And unfortunately, it is no longer in existence. That school, when I think about the pivotal role it played, and even up to my mother's death in 2020, one of the things that she remarked, I remember her talking to the founding principal, Mama Fasaha Trailer. I heard her say on the phone is, "That was one of the most important decisions I ever made was to partner with this school, enroll my three oldest children in the Nidhamu Sasa."
And so when I think about that, and even as an educator now of 30 years, in the back of my head, I still think I'm chasing some of those experiences and I want to be able to provide that to my community and to the children that exist. Having a, not only anti-racist, but a pro-Black school. Having this just a strong sense of positive racial identity development. Never feeling unloved no matter what. Even a safe place to make mistakes and not feeling unloved. But then also being highly literate, numerate, et cetera.
Most of the students who graduated there were able to skip multiple grades because it was K-6. So then we ended up, many of us in the public school sector, traditional schools. Most of my classmates were able to skip multiple grades.
It reminds me of Dr. Alfred Tatum where he says, "Look, I don't want students to be proficient in reading. They should be advanced in reading. Why are we talking about proficient? That's the bottom of the expectation barrel." He said, "No, the idea's advanced. And they didn't talk it about that way, but they talked about leading and serving in your community. Loving your community, being responsive to your community, and all of that takes a level of problem solving and literacy. Community focus, all of that was what they were pouring into the school and modeling for us as elementary school students.
My aunt sent me a letter that I mailed to her in 1977. So I was either six or seven years old. The letter was about going to a protest for the Wilmington Ten. And so being aware of Ben Chavis, being aware of the Wilmington Ten as a first-grader. But then also writing a letter and inviting my aunt to go to a protest that we were going to attend. That was my elementary school experience. And so even though I wasn't thinking about education, I was certainly thinking about activism.
And I would say the other piece of that, so it's like the home and school connection. I remember when I was vowed to be part of the fight against injustice. I remember consciously saying like, "Oh no, I'm going to be in this." That's when I first saw a picture of my father and some of his other Black Panther party members lined up on the street, photo taken while they had been stripped to their boxers.
I did a Moth talk on this and named it like "Afros Boxers and Handcuffs and Guns." And as elementary school students seeing a picture, and this had happened years before, but that's I think when I first saw this picture of my father and other members of the West Philly branch of the Black Panthers. Even as a seven-year-old, I was like, "Oh, I'm going to wear boxers when I grew up because that's what revolutionaries wear." It kind of gave me this added thing of defiance against racism, against brutality.
Darren Isom (08:35):
There is something to be said about when you have a working narrative from an activism perspective, the stuff that folks, that are meant to deconstruct that narrative, actually only reinforce it. Right?
Sharif El-Mekki (08:45):
Darren Isom (08:45):
And so same for me. I'm from New Orleans. I grew up in a Black home, Black neighborhood. I joke all the time about the first time I realized that white people even existed. I mean, people talk about the first time they realized they were Black.
Sharif El-Mekki (08:57):
Yeah, I was about to bring that up. You remember they were doing that on CNN? It was like, "Huh?" When I was born, so when I gained consciousness, that's when I, you know.
Darren Isom (09:04):
There's a normalization of Blackness, but also the normalization of Blackness as a thing of beauty and a thing of power and a thing of strength. And when you've had that normalized for you, when others come with false narratives, it doesn't stick.
You've already talked a lot about how Black educators have played a role in shaping you from a young age. I would love to hear how it shaped your experiences around your expectations of yourself and your community and your providing for others as well.
Sharif El-Mekki (09:30):
One of the things I'd think that when we talk about the short and longitudinal impact of Black teachers, a lot of people focus on the role modeling. What I like to point out is role modeling, yes. But I had one white teacher at the Islamic school that I attended for kindergarten. And then I didn't have my next white teacher until high school, tenth-grade high school.
Darren Isom (09:50):
Sharif El-Mekki (09:52):
And so the modeling, yes, I was surrounded by Black and brown teachers, but I think the other part was just the high expectations that they had. They literally looked at us as, you are the next generation of freedom fighters. You are the next generation who will, again, we talked about this path and this relay.
And I can't help but to think about how many educators who have no relationship with the Black community don't understand the history, the context, the sociopolitical conditions that we grow up in, and yet they're parachuting into our neighborhoods. Their only relationship with the Black community is what they see on the media, social media, and then our children. That's the only relationship. How do you even form a working relationship if it's only with our children?
And you're equipped with biases that they may not have the language to push back on? They may not understand exactly. They know they're not being treated as human beings, but they don't know what the exact language. They're not going to say as kindergarteners, like, "Hey, that's a microaggression."
But I would say that the high expectations, the context that they understand that will be going into. The history that played out, that positioned us where we are today. All of that ties into the Black educators that I had. And as a principal, I'll often tell my staff, "You know what, every lesson plan you write is a political document."
"And every time you teach, it's actually a political act and it's going to betray. Your mouth may say one thing, how you teach is actually going to really demonstrate and highlight what your mindset about Black children, their families, and community, and their history is. Your awareness." Right?
And so that political piece and the Black Panther Party, everybody tells about the guns and the leather. My mother said the most important part was the feeding children, the community work that they did. And then the political education that everyone had to participate in. She said that was the most important thing. And as a Black educator, I think that's what people are bringing.
Darren Isom (11:50):
Let's unpack that for a little bit, because this one of the areas where I recognize Black home, Black family, Black community, how there was a normalization of politics. I remember in this white school that I went to for elementary school, and for the record, it was totally a hippie dippy. It was best practices integrated school. It was like 20 percent this, 30 percent that. We had all these hippie dippy teachers.
We used to sing morning meeting every morning with Miss Ziegel, this Black woman with an afro. We used to play the piano. We used to all be singing Beatles songs. I mean, you couldn't have designed something more stellar from an integration perspective. There was really an experiment of some sort and produced some good folks.
But I also remember second or third grade, we had a mock election. It was Reagan and Mondale. And my teacher, Miss Haska, this wonderful teacher from somewhere in northeast. One of these white women that came to New Orleans, fell in love with the city and stayed. And she was like, "Okay, kids, we're going to have a mock election this afternoon. Let's talk about the candidates. What do we know about the candidates?"
And my classmates didn't know anything. I mean, Black home, we talk about the candidates every day, right? And so she's like, "Okay, let's talk about Reagan. What do we know about Ronald Reagan?" and I raised my hand. Sharif, I was ready. She's like, "Darren?" I was like, "Ronald Reagan's the devil and he's trying to kill us."
This was literally, that's how every Black home talked about Ronald Reagan, right? This was not ...
Sharif El-Mekki (13:03):
Darren Isom (13:03):
This was conversation ...
Sharif El-Mekki (13:04):
One hundred percent.
Darren Isom (13:06):
My teacher looks up. She's like, "Oh, well, this is true. What else do we know?" So this ....
Sharif El-Mekki (13:13):
I'm surprised she didn't send you on an errand. "Oh, why don't you go ..."
Darren Isom (13:15):
No, no, no. She called my mom after. She was like, "I agree with your son's politics, but just so you know, he's out here. He's out here speaking his mind in the classroom." Right?
Sharif El-Mekki (13:24):
Darren Isom (13:25):
But I think there is something to be said about how there's this, I use the word normalization a lot because I think there's something powerful about an expectation that you have a sense of belonging in these places and these spaces, and how that plays out.
Set in Philly, this show, Abbot Elementary has had a huge cultural impact on this past year. And one of the many reasons people love this show is that it showcases Black educators that truly care for Black students. This is something that I talk with Liz about often, and she brings up as well, Liz Thompson.
There's something to be said about how when you're working with a group of folks, there's a difference between working with them, being invested in them, and actually loving them. And what does it look like when you love the folks that you're working with and that you're supporting? And how love shows up? And you get at it already in some ways. You're talking about the level of expectations. That is love.
Just “No, you're not just going to push through this class. You're going to excel. You're going to soar. You know how many people sacrificed for you to be here? You’re about take to the next level. That's the expectation of you and what that love looks like.” And with that in mind, I would love for you to just talk about what inspires you to continue working as an educator within Philly?
Sharif El-Mekki (14:35):
People throw around this four-letter word so much without really understanding what it means. On the amount of people that I've seen in across the country who talk about, "I love my students." And you're like, but this is the assignment that you're giving them, or this is the amount of disciplinary referrals that you wrote for them. Or this is what you ...
Darren Isom (14:55):
Love don't look like that.
Sharif El-Mekki (14:56):
Yeah, it's action. It's mindset. It's skill development. Because I think the other thing about having high expectations, often when we're talking about expectation, we're talking about gaze of the adult to the child. The most important expectation is what adults have for themselves. And I think that's what really fuels authentic, real, unabashed, sustained, powerful love.
It's like, what expectations do you have for yourself? Because I think often people have, plenty of people have low expectations for Black students. They have even lower expectations for themselves about what they can do with, for, and by Black students.
And it also reminds me of my educators that we had at Nidhamu Sasa. I remember one of them, Bobby Changa, who's still my favorite teacher ever, taught multiple subjects. One of the things he used to talk about was like, "Listen, the work that we do is so important." And again, we are elementary school students. Talking about normalization of these type of conversations.
But also where we were going in the world. Being able to say, "Hey, here's what you're going to encounter when you leave this safe space of Nidhamu Sasa, and your homes and in your community." He said, "You know what? Students are known by their teachers. But more importantly, teachers are known by their students."
The things that stick with you, and as you're an adult, you understand it, even on a deeper level. For a teacher to be known by their students means that they've equipped their students in such a way that they're making such an impact that that teacher 50 years ago is still having an impact on the outcomes that Dr. Greg Carr talks about a lot.
It's not just who leads the classroom, who prepared them to lead a classroom? Who prepared you to lead this district? Who prepared you to lead this school? And we as a community should be able to trace the intellectual genealogy that's manifested in your thoughts and your actions, your mindset and your work. And we should be able to trace that back and say, "Oh."
And we push educators to do that. Who helped you understand how you think about the Black community? And if people aren't reflecting on that, then it's very easy to continue to perpetrate narratives and false tropes and low expectations because they haven't thought about, "Wait a minute, where did I learn to have low expectations about Black children? Wait a minute. Why am I reacting to this young Black girl in this manner? Who taught me that?"
Is it the media that I'm ingesting? Is it just the racist smog that Dr. Beverly Tatum talks about? Or was it at my dining room table and then my car rides home? Was it from my teacher and the curricula and the things that she had on her wall? Someone taught you that. But if you're not pausing and thinking.
I can trace my intellectual genealogy of this is why I love the Black community. This is why I understand and what Ella Baker's style leadership, why that's so important and why that resonates so deeply. This is why I can understand why youth, Black youth were joining SNCC and the Black Panther Party. I can trace that to groups of people who inform my thinking.
Darren Isom (18:07):
I love this intellectual genealogy piece for a number of different reasons. One is it's brilliant. Two, you're tracing it back to the source and you're wondering if that source is a trusted one. There's some things that you've learned that it wasn't a trusted source that you need to let go. And being able to own that and attribute to that as well.
And that said, it also speaks to a very Black perspective on success and growth. I think that this is where I see very often in my work and in my life, the traditional American narrative is one of success being in one generation. You're really responsible for your own success. You did it all yourself. Self-made man. I'm self-made.
Sharif El-Mekki (18:45):
Ain't that the biggest crock of crap?
Darren Isom (18:47):
One hundred percent. Whereas in Black America, you know that everything that you have is built on multiple generations, many of whom had nothing but offered you so much. And I think all the time, I talk about normalizing. My grandmother, long gone, my Grandma Lois used to always remind me as a very young child, through adulthood, ”You can do absolutely anything you put your mind to.”
And I was like, how did my grandma just sit up there and lie to me? Sharif, I had it ingrained. Right? Listen, you can do anything you put your mind to. I do want to use this idea of the source of all this greatness and this thinking. I know at some point in your life you recognize the important role of education from an activism perspective and your role as an educator, as an activist.
And I would love for you just talk a little bit more about how you thought about activism traditionally or historically? And how you saw your role as an educator, as an activist, and the best form of activism you could be engaged in?
Sharif El-Mekki (19:42):
Yeah. Particularly for someone like me who was not thinking about being an educator. I was on my way to law school. When I think about my mother's experience with the police, my father's experience with the police, my cousins’, my neighbors’, my own. I thought my activism, it was always about what are you going to do for your community? How are you going to advance the cause?
I remember we would sing about the Blood-stained Banner and what we were going to do for righteousness, and for humanity, and the righteousness of our struggle. There's certain phrases that were just embedded in my youth that just became part of my orientation. Like the righteousness of our struggle. And the idea that, you don't have to prove your humanity, but you damn sure better defend it, yours and others. You know what I mean? Don't go about proving, "Oh, no, I'm a human being." Like, "Nah."
And so it wasn't until later that I looked at education. And I can tell you, if it wasn't for, I wasn't using this term back then, but a traumatic experience like “Well that was pretty traumatic,” being shot by a young man. I was starting to look at it from an educational perspective.
So I was playing football, got into a fight. The young man who lost the fight had friends in the stands with guns. And so they ended up coming on the football field and shooting me. And my initial, and I think again, back to having love for your people. As I'm in the hospital bed for a month, 12 surgeries. They thought they were going to have to amputate my leg because of the severed artery. I was thinking about, "Okay, what can I do?"
And I’d just graduated from college, so I graduated in May. This happened in October. So literally just mere months as I'm thinking like, "Oh, I got to save up money to get to law school." Then at some point, I was like, "Well, maybe I'll pause on law school for right now. Maybe I'll work with youth that have access to guns, maybe anger management." But not that I didn't have anger management issues myself as a young child, but I had a right to be hostile. “My people have been persecuted,” type of thing. You know what I mean?
My first inkling that I was going to grasp onto to was at the Youth Study Center, which is basically the juvenile justice center for the youth that are waiting to be adjudicated. That was my initial thing. Hey, I wanted to lean in even more in support in this very particular way as I'm heading to law school.
But because before, in between May and June, I was just doing odd stuff. Odd jobs. I was a courier, did a little social work here, just random stuff. Because I was like, "Hey, my goal is law school." I didn't make it through orientation. And they need great people, but I was literally like, "Wait a minute, where are the youth before they get here?"
Being trained to suicide watch, locking doors, patting down, restraints for kids as young as 12. I was just like, "Oh my gosh."
Darren Isom (22:32):
Triaging at that point.
Sharif El-Mekki (22:36):
I was just like, "Where are they before then?" and it was there that, it was after that, right when that was happening. And I was just like, "I can't, this isn't me." And mind you, I want to lay out what a big decision this was for a 21-year-old. Because at the same time as I'm going through orientation, the people who were the veterans who were working, veteran employees who were working there, one of the things they would say, "Hey young man, you know what? You can make $100,000 through overtime working here. Because people are always calling out and we're always a little short-staffed."
But there's a kid in jail, but you can make $100,000. And so just to share, and I get this, in some ways this would be looked at as super radical. And “Oh, you know what you could have done?” This is in the early '90s, so I don't know how much that would be worth today. But I'm talking about a 21-, 22-year-old.
Darren Isom (23:24):
That's a lot of money now.
Sharif El-Mekki (23:25):
Yeah, for a 21-year-old, right, exactly.
Darren Isom (23:25):
Sharif El-Mekki (23:26):
One hundred thousand dollars with overtime and stuff. Of course not to base out, but we're over there. This is what I've made the past couple years. And me deciding to take a job as a teacher because where my heart was, what I wanted to do, the impact I wanted to have, that started off, I think I was making $24,000. You know what I mean?
And again, I'm not saying that people should do that. Everybody's in their own thing. And I haven't even thought about that until recently. I was just like, "Oh, I remember this conversation of making the decision, but where did I think I could make the biggest impact? What did I think was most important for my community?" And I think also I'm just getting older and I hear people like, "Oh, we need to make this amount, this amount." I'm just like, "You know what?" You know what I mean? That kind of thing.
And no, we should be making more. So as an organization, we believe in the Teacher Salary Project and all of those kind of initiatives.
Darren Isom (24:20):
All the things.
Sharif El-Mekki (24:21):
And I just remember where I was as a 22-year-old and just how hell-bent I was in trying to support the community. And again, that would be very radical in a lot of people's orientation and framework. And I'm not saying it's for everybody, but I'm just sharing a little bit about where I was as far as the activism piece.
Darren Isom (24:42):
I think it speaks to in many ways as well, had this paper in SSIR about what distinguishes Black and brown leaders, leaders of color. And one of the things was this idea of a calling, having a calling to the work.
I mean jokingly enough, between you and me, a lot of folks are like, "I'd definitely be finding other things to do with my time, but this is where I need to be. This is where I was called to do the work itself." I think it also speaks to, I remember very candidly, when I was heading off to college. I went from a very white high school to Howard for undergrad. And my grandmother's, I was getting ready ...
Sharif El-Mekki (25:11):
Darren Isom (25:12):
HU, you know. As I was getting ready to go, my grandmother reminded me of what's the point of an education? And I remember my uncle peeked his head in the room and he said, "To make money." And my grandmother looked back and is like, "That is not the point of an education. Education gives you choices."
That's the point of an education. It allows you to have choices and allows you to flex and be able to decide what you want to do. And what a gift that was to have a choice. How are you going to spend your life and spend your time and actually have the ability to choose something that brings you some degree of comfort? That brings you some degree of purpose?
Sharif El-Mekki (25:43):
That reminds me of Dr. Aisha Imani, who's just a legend around the world. She takes kids to Africa and so everywhere between here and there. She was a neighbor of mine when we were little. She called my mother mentor, now she's my mentor. So all of that intergenerational modeling, intellectual genealogy.
I remember a couple times hearing her talk to new educators. And one of the things that she posited was this idea, if you think that education or college or a job, if it's only for social mobility, you're missing the point. Think about that so much when you hear about that because the economics is real. When we're talking about the economic oppression and all that.
She said, "Yeah, I'm not saying not that." But she said, "If that's your only goal, that's your only barometer, you're missing the point. Because that in itself doesn't lead to Black liberation." And I, again, here's an educator, here's a lifelong educator. I've been in it 30 years, so she's been in it 40, 50 years. And just having those type of educators and mentors who are constantly reminding us and pointing the direction. And using the sand code for the look back so that we know where we're going, is just for me powerful. And I get that every educator doesn't have this type of orientation, upbringing, but I'm standing by it.
Darren Isom (27:10):
I do want to spend a little bit of time, I hear you talk about both your early experiences, your community. For me, I was lucky enough to grow up in, I grew up in Black liberation theology. They had a random period in Black America. Literally there was nothing more political than Sunday morning. I mean, that was the role of the church and this is radical.
I didn't realize how unique that was until I got to college. And there I'm at Howard and folks had really rough relationships with religion, which I get. I hear it loudly and clearly. Jesus was a Black rebel. Out here turning tables. You can imagine the narratives. “Y'all out here literally, you believe Jonah was really in a whale for three days?” That's just parables. Well, what did we learn from that? Why are you not drinking? The Jesus's first miracle was turning water to wine. I think he's fine with a glass of wine. And so New Orleans. Blame New Orleans on that one.
But I think there is something to be said about faith as a liberatory practice. And one of the quotes that I love is, "It's funny how people's gods often behave a lot like them." I think about this all the time. How much my faith has shaped my thinking, has shaped my outlook has shaped my orientation, my sense of community in such a positive way that I very often don't feel comfortable talking about because it's honestly, it's just embarrassing. But it's such a triggering subject for others.
I just want to give you some space to talk about how that's been the case for you? How that's shaped your outlook and your thinking in the world?
Sharif El-Mekki (28:34):
Yeah, listen, everything. We were raised as a Muslim, spent in some pretty formidable years. My middle school years after graduating Nidhamu Sasa, we moved to Golma, Iran, which is one of the most religious cities in Iran. And you'll find some Muslims that disagree.
But how we were raised, Islam didn't separate itself from politics because creating poverty is a political decision. Denying people education is a political decision. Deciding who gets to eat, who has access, equity, all of that are political decisions. And so how can you be led by faith and say, "I'm going to do good work, but I'm going to ignore all the conditions that created the conditions for me to have to do this good work." It was combined.
And then we also, in Islam, our holy book, the Quran, the first word that was revealed to our prophet Mohamed, was yaqra, which means "read." That's the first word that was revealed was "read," and the emphasis of education and what that means. And even after some wars and you had a prisoner of war, a way to free yourself was to teach 10 people how to read. And that was your freedom.
And so even if you were a prisoner of war. You were trying to kill us, and we captured you, but if you teach 10 of our folks how to read, you're free to go. Just understanding that and just a depth of just this awareness and people. I talk to people about even things like math and the sciences. When you look at Islamic civilization, there was a reason while in Europe when they were burning scholars at the stake for saying, "This is where the Earth is positioned." And Muslim theologists are like, "No, understand and study." And this is why so many constellations have Arabic names and things of that. This is why algebra is actually an Arabic term. It's al-jabr.
Darren Isom (30:26):
Our whole numeric system.
Sharif El-Mekki (30:27):
Exactly. So all those things are just a big part of it. And being in Iran and getting to see even education, how they approach education. And even seeing, I understand why you look today and pound for pound and per capita, Iran produces more engineers and doctors, scientists, than many other countries. To be that small, but there's such an emphasis on education and understanding.
Being in a country where a lot of youth have a decision to make. I would say there are other options, but main three options, join the military, go to college, or be a teacher. It's looked at at that level of service to the country to go to a village where they may not even have running water. They may be farmers in these super rural areas, but going there, and this is your kind of Iran Corps instead of AmeriCorps. You go and you're teaching a villager.
So for me, just the faith, not only is it embedded in our work, one of our imams, Imam Ja, first saw that. Used to talk about you can talk about your religion without using your tongue.
Darren Isom (31:35):
Faith in action. That's what faith is, right? Faith in action. Yeah.
Sharif El-Mekki (31:38):
And they would say, "You don't look at people by how much they pray, how much they fast, how much they give charity. Look at how trustworthy they are to their people." That's a true orientation. So I think it just ties into how we view ourselves' position to having a level of humility, reflection, service.
Orientation and faith that I may not see some of these changes myself, but that Chinese proverb of the best of people are going to plant trees that they'll never benefit from its shade. But that's the faith of somebody will benefit from this. And my job is to make sure that it is ready, worthy, sustainable to provide someone shade in the future.
Darren Isom (32:23):
The theme here, and I love it, is this idea of what are we producing for the future? For those that come after us, and what's our goal in producing that? It's really powerful.
I do want to make sure we have some space, given just the current political climate in terms of education. We got Florida wilding because that's what Florida does. Banning AP African American studies. Florida's gon’ Florida. Debates around critical race theory, a lot people don't even know what critical race theory is half the time.
Sharif El-Mekki (32:44):
I don't know what it is, but it's everything I don't like.
Darren Isom (32:48):
Can you just speak a little bit to the importance of Black educators in the role of CBED in this moment and moving forward?
Sharif El-Mekki (32:54):
I think we're always, it reminds me of Fanon that quote that he has. I'm going to butcher it, but the idea that every generation has a decision to make in what they do and how they position themselves. Everyone has a decision.
I think us as Black educators, we have a decision. We can pooh-pooh what's happening. We can say, "Well, that's that state. I'm in this state and it doesn't matter." That's what Mamie Till initially thought. And I think very similarly, Jarvis Gibbons in his book Fugitive Pedagogy quotes Dr. Carter G. Woodson, who many people know as the father of Black History Month, formerly known as Negro History Week.
But two things that really stand out to me about Dr. Carter G. Woodson is one, he was an educator. He was training people on how to teach, how to create schools that were worthy of the honor of having Black students. He was fired from Howard University because he was looked at as too radical because well, hey, we have our HBCUs. Many of them were created by white folks.
Darren Isom (33:51):
Howard was problematic. Yes, definitely.
Sharif El-Mekki (33:53):
Carter G. Woods was fired from Howard University by some white guy who was like, "You don't know what you're talking about teaching Black kids. I know better than you."
But one of the things that Dr. Carter G. Woodson would say is there would be no lynching if it weren't for the schoolhouse. There would be no lynching if it weren't for the schoolhouse because that's originally where people are attacked intellectually. We talk about schools being safe and thriving places for Black children. We're not just talking about safety physically. Yes, that and intellectual, cultural, emotional, spiritual safety for this Black child to be able to thrive.
And so when we think about that in this anti-CRT hysteria, which is really anti-intellectualism, which is synonymous for America anyway. This is America. We're anti-Black and anti-intellectual. We can't burn you at the stake, so we're going to burn your school down. We're going to burn your pedagogical frameworks down. We're going to burn your books. It's other ways to burn things.
Darren Isom (34:49):
Sorry, I'm like, I'm laughing because it's just all so ridiculous. It's just, yeah.
Sharif El-Mekki (34:53):
The amount of people who are committed to being on the wrong side of contemporary and history. I mean they are like, “What? That was the most racist thing you could think of? Hold my beer, watch this.” Right? You know what I mean? It's just ...
Darren Isom (35:04):
Sharif El-Mekki (35:06):
Yeah, committed. Full out. “What? You banned Dr. King, we're going to ban Ruby Bridges. You can't talk about Ruby riding.” I'm just like, "How idiotic can you be?" And if it wasn't, because it's not a sitcom. We got to be super serious. Like, no, that's not a Saturday Night Live skit. It could be, but it ain't.
And so we have to be not only super vigilant about it and finding ways to resist. And we can't rely on our oppressors to give a thumbs up and endorse what we know is liberatory pedagogical frameworks, liberatory teaching, liberatory content. Because every teacher, even Black and beyond, if they're worth their salt, they should constantly be interrogating the curricula and ...
Darren Isom (35:57):
One hundred percent.
Sharif El-Mekki (35:57):
Supplementing and supplanting. That should be constant. Educated programs should already be talking about that.
Darren Isom (36:06):
Sharif El-Mekki (36:06):
Basic. Hey, even if we're teaching this, you should constantly be thinking about like, "Okay, is this the right thing?" What's been added? What are new things you can unearth? What have you learned?
And so we used to talk about when I was a teacher, they would tell us, "If you come in a classroom and with new glasses, students notice. New shoes, students notice. New book bag, new eyelash, whatever it is, new hairdo, students notice. How many of you are going to PDs and book clubs and kids are with you all year and never notice?" They should notice that you've gone to the workshops. They should notice that you've gone to, you got your master's degree. It ain't just for their Plus 30 and your CBA.
Darren Isom (36:50):
Sharif El-Mekki (36:51):
Yeah, your salary. You're like, "Hey, I got my Plus 30." Your kids don't know you got plus one because they got the same garbage, same old hot garbage that you were teaching before. Same mindset, same disciplinary referral, same low expectation. They should know that.
And so when we put all of that in the context, like teaching is a form of activism and teaching Black children well is a form of resistance. So we should already have that type of not only the stripes and body work to show it, but that should be part of the fuel. That this is a form of resistance no matter where it comes from because they may not be as loud as Florida and Tennessee and Texas and even Pennsylvania politicians.
We should see it in the silent form of anti-Blackness in the curricula and the textbooks. We should already see that in the underfunding and underdevelopment of our, we talk about the underdevelopment of Africa. How about the underdevelopment of Black communities and Black schools?
Darren Isom (37:46):
Global South and American South.
Sharif El-Mekki (37:47):
Yeah. Listen, what did Malcolm say? Everywhere is the Deep South if it's south of the Canadian border. So act accordingly.
Darren Isom (37:54):
No, I think it goes back to the whole, like my grandmother used to always say, "Don't let these folks surprise you." But if you ...
Sharif El-Mekki (37:59):
They already shown you. You still ...
Darren Isom (38:02):
If you stay ready, you don't have to get ready.
Sharif El-Mekki (38:04):
Yo, they racist. Like, "Shut up. Where you been? Wake up."
Darren Isom (38:08):
Where you been?
Sharif El-Mekki (38:09):
Darren Isom (38:09):
Where you been? Sharif, we're over our time. But I've enjoyed this conversation so much. I do want to leave just a space for you to close us out and ask you how do you hold space for joy for yourself, for fellow educators, and for your students?
I mean conversations like this bring me joy, I admit. I don't know if they're supposed to, but they really do. But how do you think about holding joy?
Sharif El-Mekki (38:28):
I think that's such an important part of, particularly for Black people, any oppressed people's resistance is joy. Because that's the first thing. When you think about enslavement, they wanted you to sing while you weren't joyful, and it wasn't joyful songs. And so if our people could find even during that to have humor, to love one another, to find ways. They looked at that as a form of resistance. Being able to wear a mask. But with my people, I'm finding some type of joy. There's no humor like Black humor.
Darren Isom (39:01):
I joke all the time, and this is probably not a appropriate joke, but you know there were jokes being cracked during the most oppressive times, right?
Sharif El-Mekki (39:07):
Darren Isom (39:07):
We found humor. I'm sure somewhere on that plantation there was some humor, there was some joy because we needed it. So it's powerful.
Sharif El-Mekki (39:14):
And even with the humor, there were so many messages. I remember as a youngster reading Roots. So yeah, we watched Roots as a family when it initially came out in the '70s. And I also remember reading the book. And I remember Fiddler making a joke, but it was also a political statement.
He said something to the effect of, "I know the Native Americans wish they turned their first boat into a porcupine." I don't know why as a kid, that just made me laugh to think, yeah, they were unified enough, understood enough what this represented for their children's grandchildren, and like just said, "Hell no." And just turned it into a porcupine.
And that just stuck with me for now forty-something years. God, just like what humor and what a profound political statement. And I think anytime you're around your people, one, humor is a great way to stay grounded. And listen, my daughters, they're funny. Because they're quick to say, "Yeah, I don't care what panel you just came off of, let me tell you the real deal about yourself." You know what I mean?
So I think that joy and humor is just an important part of, again, self-preservation, resistance, and healthiness. Even when you see the health benefits of smiling and having a positive outlook and all those kind of. Now there's scientific ways to think about it, but in the past there have been faith-based ways to look at it. There have been practical ways to look at it.
In some spaces science is just catching up too. And we're just like, "Oh, you know what? This has actually been part of our survival." We didn't necessarily have all the research and double-blind studies and blah, blah, blah. But we're just like, "We intuitively knew that this was a component of the resistance and preparation for the battles that are sure to come."
Darren Isom (40:57):
One hundred percent. And what is more humanizing than joy itself? It's been great chatting with you. This was wonderful.
Sharif El-Mekki (41:02):
Same. Always great catching up with you.
Darren Isom (41:05):
Of course. I look forward to chatting with you again soon. You take it easy now.
Tenth-grade English literature was almost 30 years ago, but I remember my teacher, Flora Simmons well. She had a flowery Southern accent, an anomaly in New Orleans. An anomaly that made perfect sense when we learned that she'd grown up in Alabama and settled in uptown New Orleans as an adult.
She loved English literature and would often pause after reading a paragraph or a line of poetry to exclaim to the class, "Well, isn't that just beautiful?" Miss Simmons introduced me to the Harlem Renaissance. And with that Langston Hughes, and for this I'm forever indebted.
Tenth grade was also when we mastered the five-paragraph essay. Miss Simmon's approach was draconian. It involved underlining certain sentences and pedantically numbering points in the thesis statement that would then go on to serve as a topic sentence for the underlying first lines of the three-paragraph essays that followed. There was a list of egregious errors, run-on sentences, fragments, comma splices, misplaced modifiers. And for each error from that list, your grade was lowered by a letter no matter how brilliant the content.
But after three consecutive A's, you didn't have to underline sentences, number thesis topics, or even worry with egregious errors. For after three perfect scores, you demonstrated that you internalized the rules and any errors were intentional and all part of your writer's voice.
Miss Simmons died in early 2020. She was in her eighties and had remarried some 15 years before to her ballroom dance partner, the father of a South Asian classmate. Always remain grateful for that critical life lesson she offered with the five-paragraph essay. You have to know the rules to break them. An important lesson indeed.
My conversations with Sharif reminded me of Miss Simmons, Miss Simon, Miss Hadley, Miss Siegler, and Miss Santaska, and many educators who instilled in me a beautiful appreciation of education as a path to liberation. I'm also reminded that many years ago before I headed off to college, my Grandma Lois set me down and gave me a going-away talk.
There were many gems in that conversation, but there are three points that I remember very well. One, God's greatest gift to man was that of free will. Our gift in return was embracing our freedom and living our lives as beautifully as possible. Two, always be kind. To those who deserve it, it's an act of love. To those who don't, it's a stinging rebuke.
And three, study hard and take your study seriously. A good education gives you options, and options are the greatest luxury a man could possess. Options for me, but more importantly, options for those who come after. For liberation work is always future looking, and that's our work and it's the most important work we could be engaged in.
Well, y'all, that's a wrap. And while the episode is finished, the work continues. Thank you for tuning in and listen generously to Dreaming in Color, a Bridgespan-supported StudioPod Media production. Special shoutouts to our wonderful show producers, Teresa Buchanan and Denise Savas; our video editors, Dave Clark McCoy, Deanna Radieli, Alejandra Ramirez; our graphic designer, Diana Jimenez; and our show coordinator, Nicole Genova.
And a huge shoutout to our ever-brilliant Bridgespan production team and family: Cora Daniels, Jasmine Reliford, Ami Diane, Christina Pistorius, and Ryan Wenzel. Be sure to subscribe and leave a rating and review wherever you listen to your favorite podcast. Talk soon.