My name is LaShundra Richmond. I am a native Memphian and still live here. I have an advance degree in education. I have always been an activist – trying to right the wrongs that I witnessed in my community, in our school system, and in our city. Initially my work was through the lens of someone with a college education – trying to understand how we could focus on changing policies and thus, affecting change in the community. It wasn’t until I became a mother that I realized sometimes it’s not about policy; it’s about rolling up your sleeves, putting on your big girl pants, and doing what you need to do to ensure your child receives the best education you can find for her.
It was through that fuel for activism that prompted me to work for the Shelby County school system, to work as a community organizer and then become the Deputy Director for the only Black educational advocacy organization in the country (at that time), to now becoming a blogger and influencer around activism and choice in Memphis to now on the path of opening my own charter school.
I have moved the trajectory of activism in my life over the years to create opportunities in education for my child and others and I’m not anywhere near being finished.
How can one ever think of finishing a journey when there are still low-performing schools, kids that can’t read, impoverished neighborhoods, and a system that needs to be disrupted, redesigned and restructured? I stand by this one truth. My time in education has been an assignment that I didn’t choose. Education chose me. I didn’t realize it then but here’s the significance of being an activist especially during a week like National School Choice Week: having the ability to recognize disconnections when you see and/or experience them. For me, it was during my Political Science class at Tennessee State University, where I was assigned a five-page report on Foreign Policy. My peers and I looked at each other dumbfounded. I thought they were just as clueless as I was on the subject-matter, but they weren’t. They were just irritated that we have a paper to do so early in the semester. I, on the other hand, had no clue what foreign policy was, what it should have been, and how I was going to write a paper on something I just simply did not know.
Instead of wallowing in the realization that my high school social studies classes did absolutely nothing to prepare for assignments on foreign policy, I dug deep and used the knowledge that I learned at home from my parents. I went to the library, researched, studied, and learned copious amounts of lessons that I think I should have learned in school when I was there. Perhaps it was the worksheets in place of classroom discussions, and the open-book tests in place of study guides that didn’t prepare me for college? Or perhaps it was the fact that my teachers weren’t completely engaged with ensuring that we learned. I honestly don’t know if they even expected us to go to college if we weren’t involved in sports.
Perhaps the most humbling lesson of that experience was that I realized that I could not compete with the other students who looked nothing like me. They were simply better prepared from their K-12 experience.
However, because I had activism in my soul and I was in my senior year in college, I marched across Tennessee State University’s campus and made my way into an education class. It was there that God dropped the brightest idea (at that time) in my spirit. How about I teach? What would I teach though? Boom. Social Studies/History. The one area that intrigued me the most and my peers hated. Thankfully, those required History electives were helping me to fill in some gaps and I felt compelled to go back and teach what hadn’t been taught to me, the classes I knew students hated to enter, and the one that would ultimately begin my course of truly understanding activism.
We talk advocacy, activism, organizing, mobilizing and even movements. I learned that if you don’t have an understanding and appreciation of these that events that are embedded in our history, then you will be lost. I was lost. I wanted to fill in the gaps, and what I didn’t learn after 8th grade.
From that point on, I held onto everything I learned and when I did make it to a classroom, I poured my knowledge into each student that entered into my class. I was back in the same place, the same broken school system that didn’t prepare me some eight years earlier. Some people say it’s passion. Maybe so, but it’s coupled with a determination to see students better, more prepared than I was and really helping them to understand the foundation of our country and world so that when their turned came, they would embrace their role and responsibility as a citizen and a continual learner.
I shielded them from what I was really feeling as an educator – trapped, frustrated, confused, lost all over again. Hands tied. Only left with just enough fortitude to crawl into work and try to give students what seemed like the opposite of what a system wanted students to have—a way out. I believe education is and will always be the way out.
Eventually, I stepped away from the classroom and began working with our state’s school district. To my surprise, unlike my local school district, I was greeted with more freedom, flexibility, and autonomy-but no structure. And ultimately no idea what our students, communities and schools needed. Again deadlocked.
I felt like Miss Sophia in The Color Purple, “all my life I had to fight.” Sheesh. The Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) rescued me. I was finally truly liberated. Beyond the walls of any and all schools, but close enough to the students and families as both an Organizer and Deputy Director. I considered myself the voice. I had no idea as a teacher and then working for the state district, that there was a bigger movement happening across the country that I would later become a part of during my time with BAEO. They taught me why knowing your history was so important. Knowing the laws of the land, being able to articulate the Civil Rights Movement, its efforts, the purpose of marches, civil unrest, protests, sit-ins, organizer meetings, front-line soldiers, etc. It was making sense. And my heart really bled for those who hadn’t had the trajectory I’ve had. Whose exposure to history is limited to that of a vocabulary test and maybe a Dr. King documentary during Black History month.
During my time at the Achievement School District and with BAEO, I remember canvassing and going door to door. That was my life daily-with a team of other soldiers. We went and sat in the living rooms of families in some of the most impoverished neighborhoods in this city. Never was I afraid. I was no different than them. One wrong move and I too could have ended up living “in the hood.” Another failed class at TSU, maybe I wouldn’t have ended up with that degree and having to work an average-paying job, even though we know that could still be my lot with my advanced degree. (inserts shout). I couldn’t turn my nose up. I wanted better for these families even if they didn’t. I demanded better for students even when they didn’t know how. I became a voice. I channeled my inner “Sojourner (Truth), Harriet (Tubman), Frederick (Douglass), Thurgood (Marshall), Diane (Nash) and Martin (King, Jr.) that warped me into a Dreamer, Visionary, Change Agent and Leader. Later, I would channel my inner Mary (McCloud-Bethune).
With over 50 years past the passing of Civil Rights legislation and just a few weeks shy of the 28 days of February we salute and celebrate OUR history; we are less than a few months away of celebrating the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s death where thousands from all over the world are expected to come to our city, and yet some of the same atrocities still exist for Black people, not just in Memphis but everywhere. I drive past the Lorraine Motel and I remember my time working there. I’ve taken my daughter there for visits just to remind myself, just to refuel, to reflect and to know I have a personal obligation to not let the dream die. It’s a dream that should be a part of everyone’s life vision board.
In a perfect world, I would teach History and Social Studies all day to any and every one. To me, it’s the missing piece. To me, its where our many student casualties lie. And its why I’m now on this journey of opening an alternate option for families in Memphis – an all-girl charter school with a focus on Civics with academic strands in the areas of: Advocacy, Policy, Business.
Oh, how I wish Mary McCloud-Bethune would divinely share her blueprint to me with this new venture. And although people call it passion, I have to call it fight. If I don’t have the fight in me to evoke passion, to work passion, to push passion, then I’m just left as a purposeless, passionate vessel unwilling to see it flourish, manifest, thrive and replicated.
I know this blog is long, but so is my hunger for truth and equality and choice. Nope, I am not done. How can I be? The dream must live. Its my personal responsibility and obligation to not ever let it die. Here in Memphis, I’m still fighting. Still marching. Maybe not in streets, but definitely in the hallways of a school board to advocate for my own dream, my own change, an option for families. Equity? Even I have to ask sometimes what is that? I pray these eyes someday can see it and be able to define it for another child who may have a similar story. I pray that child someday sits in my classroom so I can take the time to enlighten that young mind and help her to know that yes, I’m passionate about seeing her thrive, but more than that, my life is dedicated to fighting to ensure she at least has an opportunity and place to thrive. May my fight not be in vain.