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Knowledge into action: Education Fellowship serves community-driven leadership

Fellows bring their experience, expand their familiarity with the local education system, and answer the call for effective advocacy.

Darron Edwards
Darren Lamonte Edwards, Senior/Lead Pastor, United Believers Community Church

Kauffman Education Fellows form a network of citizen-advocates dedicated to maximizing student potential, driving change in education, and building thriving communities. They are local leaders with the knowledge, skills, and commitment to improve education.

“The different genres of people that come into the space, into the room, the intelligent minds and the class of people who are a part of this process, really bring together this powder keg of knowledge, of inspiration and collaboration that sparks interest and sparks possibility,” says Darron Edwards, senior pastor of United Believers Community Church. “Some of the real challenges of education are quite simply the systemic challenges of it that is deeply rooted and looking at really the policies and the polity that needs to change for a noticeable, sustainable change to happen in Kansas City. It’s not the personalities, it’s the policies.”

Founded in 2018, the Kauffman Education Fellowship empowers community leaders to make a real difference in education. During the course of nine months, Fellows examine pressing issues in education, explore equity in schools, and learn the fundamentals of community organizing. At the conclusion of the 2019-2020 program, 97% of Fellows reported a better understanding of education in the Kansas City region, and 100% stated they are dedicated to advocating for quality education.

Further, they developed valuable relationships within the community that last well beyond the Fellowship.

“The other people that were involved in the Fellowship, I was able to talk to them and develop friendships with them and network with them, because a lot of them were either faith leaders or they were also involved in schools at different levels, and getting their up close and personal experience from them who had dedicated decades of their life into school, across the region,” says Megan Marshall, Lee’s Summit School Board Member and Education Fellow. “I still keep in contact with them to this day when I have things either I don’t understand, or I need someone else’s expertise in that area.”

Luke Norris, co-founder and chair of the board for Citizen of the World Charter School in Kansas City says the Fellowship helps inspire a core knowledge of the way the Kansas City system works.

“You’re really informed about the structural problems, as well as the historic problems that it’s created. And then it really gives you kind of tactical capabilities for how to solve that, how to understand systems of power, how to understand influence, how to understand how to help create programs around advocacy. It’s really blending kind of the knowledge with the skills and then really providing some guided processes to go through that helps turn that knowledge into action,” Norris says.

Here, we profile six Kauffman Education Fellows who have committed not only to the Fellowship, but to being an active part of community driven leadership in the education space in Kansas City: Darron Edwards, Cedric Deadmon, Angel McGee, Luke Norris, Megan Marshall, and Troy Snyder.

Darron Edwards

Darron Edwards

I think after attending Harvard Divinity School, it really gave me the leverage that I needed to move into a leadership role, into community revitalization transformation, and seek collaboration through the Kauffman Foundation.

A key moment for me, was really looking at what was happening within our city in terms of violence, in terms of the lack of education and the privilege that God has given me to do something about it, to step into that arena and to make a noticeable change.

The different genres of people that come into the space, into the room, the intelligent minds and the class of people who are a part of this process, really bring together this powder keg of knowledge, of inspiration and collaboration that sparks interest and sparks possibility.

Some of the real challenges of education are quite simply the systemic challenges of it that is deeply rooted, and looking at really the policies and the polity that needs to change for a noticeable, sustainable change to happen in Kansas City. It’s not the personalities, it’s the policies.

My role is a collaborator. My role is a bridge builder. My role is to bring entities together, even people of opposite sides, to bring them to a space and have great communication.

You have to see beyond what you see and you have to read between the lines and you have to really understand the real dynamics that it takes to effectuate change in the city.

I think that our primary leader, Jesus Christ, was a social justice advocate.  He came to bind the brokenhearted, to feed the poor, to clothe the naked. And so to do what our pillar person in our holy faith has done and has modeled for us, is exactly what I’m called to do. To do justly, to show mercy and to walk humbly with God.

My role is a collaborator. My role is a bridge builder. My role is to bring entities together, even people of opposite sides, to bring them to a space and have great communication. And hopefully, through negotiation, we can move the needle just a little bit.  Moving by the yard is hard, but by the inch is a cinch. So let’s put together some inches so we can get some yards and move down the road.

Cedric Deadmon

Cedric Deadmon
Cedric Deadmon, Senior Advising Project Manager, KC Degrees, Mid-America Regional Council

In order for seeds to grow, they first of all have to be planted and then they have to be nurtured and cared for and that can’t happen just by osmosis. It takes real intentional action on behalf of not just people who are in the profession or people who are always actively engaged, but it will take a grassroots effort for those seeds to truly grow. And when grassroots efforts really take hold, you can then garner the energy and the synergy of an entire community across races, across socioeconomic statuses, across zip codes, to really make an impactful way of helping people to move beyond aspiration to actualization.

It’s really difficult to make systemic changes in a system that is embedded and ingrained in years upon years, decades upon decades, and in fact, centuries upon centuries of institutionalized racism in this country. And so we have to begin to earnestly and honestly address those things in a common dialogue that moves towards the common good for everyone that lives in our community.

We knew that there are things that are relevant and prevalent in our education system in the pre-K through 12 pipeline that are both overt and covert as they relate to systemic issues of race, systemic issues of inequities across socioeconomic statuses. And so what I hope to do is to take an asymmetrical view of all of those issues and apply the skills and the knowledge that I’ve learned and the talents that I have and the connections that I have to help solving those issues as they arise.

Change is hard. It’s really difficult to make systemic changes in a system that is embedded and ingrained in years upon years, decades upon decades, and in fact, centuries upon centuries of institutionalized racism in this country. And so we have to begin to earnestly and honestly address those things in a common dialogue that moves towards the common good for everyone that lives in our community.

I think that if this pandemic did nothing else for the pre-K through 12 pipeline, it forced us to talk with each other. It forced systems to talk to each other that didn’t normally talk. It forced parents and advocates to talk to each other. And I even believe in my heart of hearts that it really spurred a deep conversation amongst young people, amongst students themselves, where they began to see the world in a very, very different way, in a very different light.

The future gives me hope and the amount of passion I think that individuals in this community bring to the table when it comes to issues of equity and education will go a long way to solidifying the future for not just my son, but for my son’s sons and for his son’s sons’ sons going forward. And, so, that future really does give me hope.

Angel McGee

Angel McGee
Angel McGee, Manager of Communications and Outreach, Kansas City MLB Urban Youth Academy

I think with my job working with youth all around, it’s become my priority to not only ensure their wellbeing on the field, which is primarily what we do here at the Academy, but off the field. We can’t make sure that they are well taken care of inside our facility and then allow them to go out into the world and they have no resources, no anything. So my job alone, that has been a great impact in being with our kids every single day, as well as being a parent and involved in my own child’s education and wellbeing.

I feel as though I am where I am today because I had a village, not only personal but from a professional, from an educational standpoint…. If kids have that same village, they are unstoppable.

The essential part of the Fellowship is that we have individuals from all backgrounds, so we’re able to plant those seeds in all different communities, and so in working together we can accomplish bigger tasks, have a more impactful effect on communities that work with children, specifically within education.

I feel as though I am where I am today because I had a village, not only personal but from a professional, from an educational standpoint. It took all those individuals in my life to steer me to where I am today. And truthfully, if kids have that same village, they are unstoppable.

Seeing the current generation, the fight for social justice, the up-and-coming leaders that are going to be phenomenal for years to come, all of that gravitating towards all the same causes is what gives me hope. I think that’s just amazing.

Luke Norris

Luke Norris
Luke Norris, Board Chairman, Citizens of the World Charter School. Citizens of the World has been a charter school in Kansas City since 2016, and Norris was a member of the founding board.

I think there’s a couple of things that helped me kind of become an active voice in the education landscape. First is obviously being a parent, education is among the most important things to my wife and I and for our daughter. And so really kind of being able to advocate from the lens of being a parent. The second is being someone that lived in a community where our neighborhood school closed. And that meant that for us and many of our friends, that our neighborhood school was six, seven, eight miles away.

Education had never been something that I ever thought that I would play a direct role in. I had always been involved in education at the middle school, high school level for more like out of school kind of extracurricular programs. But that moment that I became a dad and had to make a decision on whether we stay living in Midtown, Kansas City, or we ended up moving so that we could have another type of school, probably was the most kind of critical decision.

The Kauffman Education program helped me connect with a lot of other folks from around the community who all come at education from a different point of view, kind of helping challenge each other’s understanding of the system and the opportunities that we have as a community.

I think the thing that the Fellowship really kind of helps inspire is a core knowledge of the way that the Kansas City system works. So that you’re really informed about the structural problems, as well as the historic problems that it’s created. And then it really gives you kind of tactical capabilities for how to solve that, how to understand systems of power, how to understand influence, how to understand how to help create programs around advocacy. So it’s really blending kind of the knowledge with the skills and then really providing some guided processes to go through that helps turn that knowledge into action.

I think the problem I was trying to help solve is really creating a sustainable structure for a school that not only needed to grow and become financially viable, but rooted in the community, but also really setting it up for a foundation of success. Most of my career has been helping launch technology companies or working in startups. So really being able to know that the decisions you make from the very beginning have long-term consequences. And so both creating those systems, creating the culture and really creating a foundation for success was probably some of the things that I think were the most important to me.

The Kauffman Education program helped me connect with a lot of other folks from around the community who all come at education from a different point of view, kind of helping challenge each other’s understanding of the system and the opportunities that we have as a community.

I think there’s probably been so many revelations. For me as a middle 40s white guy, certainly that white privilege is a real true and clear thing. A number of revelations around the systemic racism and institutional racism in Kansas City’s history has played such a critical part in the way the system functions today, but also a revelation that all parents want the same, right? They all operate from the place of wanting the best for their kids. Some people it’s just a lot harder for them to access it. Some it’s harder for them to advocate for themselves. And the revelation has been really that as a board leader or someone in the community, we have to make really great strides and a lot of effort to make sure that we’re including as many viewpoints and voices in making decisions.

Megan Marshall

Megan Marshall
Megan Marshall, Board Member, Lee’s Summit School District

Confidence came with me, and I attribute that to being in the Marine Corps for 20 years. To specifically speak to education, it was just being observant of what was going on. Not only in the community that I chose to stay in, but in the communities that I had lived in all throughout my career, across the country and the world, and just seeing how different education was from location to location. And then, once I chose Lee’s Summit to live in after my career, I was looking for some way to contribute to my community locally, where I live at in specifically in education, because too, I have children also. So I have a up-close and personal experience with the education system.

Students give me the most hope because this is their world that they’re stepping into, and they make it what they want to make it…. So I’m just kind of marking time and holding my place so that it can get turned over to the young people because they’re the ones that… they matter in all of this.

The Fellowship was very instrumental for me because it… not only did it give me the up close and personal experiences with different schools when we would do the school visits throughout the KC area, but the other people that were involved in the Fellowship, I was able to talk to them and develop friendships with them and network with them because a lot of them were either faith leaders or they were also involved in schools at different levels and getting their up close and personal experience from them who had dedicated decades of their life into school, across the region. It just kept adding to my toolkit, so to speak. And it developed friendships that I still keep in contact with them to this day when I have things either I don’t understand, or I need someone else’s expertise in that area where it’s developed really lifelong relationships for me with others in that environment.

I would say more of a challenge or kind of a light shining moment was to really just bridge the gap between the community and leadership in the school system throughout the campaign and even before. There seemed to be a bit of a disconnect where a lot of the community members felt they weren’t heard. A lot of the students felt they weren’t heard. So I took on the responsibility to give voice to those who felt like no one else heard them. I noticed very quickly that Lee’s Summit is a town that’s growing. So there’s a lot more diversity in the age and occupation across the city. And as we continue to grow, it’s going to be that much more. So just being able to make sure that everybody’s voice is heard. Everybody feels they have a seat at the table and that somebody actually cares and wants to know how they feel, especially when it’s dealing with education for their children.

You often hear about how all children have different starting points, and then they all have different obstacles and things like that in their education. But to actually see it up close and personal when you have the data. You go into the schools. You see those children, and just really seeing in real-time how broad the spectrum is from each child to each child.  Lee’s Summit has a student population of about 18,000 students. So that’s 18,000 young people who all have different needs, different requirements to be their best self. Knowing that you now have the responsibility along with their colleagues to ensure that each child has that. That’s a huge responsibility. And it’s again, it’s overwhelming seeing it up close, but it’s a challenge that I accepted.

I’ve extended my ear to many of the students in the district. And they give me the most hope because this is their world that they’re stepping into, and they make it what they want to make it. There’s a lot of the older students who have begun organizing around issues that they find important. And they’re trying to do their civic duty and move the ball forward. So I’m just kind of marking time and holding my place so that it can get turned over to the young people because they’re the ones that… they matter in all of this.

Troy Snyder

Troy Snyder
Troy Snyder, Community Formation and Development Pastor, College Church

I think from the onset, as we began meeting and reading and interacting, I felt something stirring within. Not simply just for social justice, but to build bridges for others…

The Fellowship gave me tools in which to engage. I have always been very heavily involved in the communities where I have been privileged to live. However, I feel like I have more experience given the visits to the different schools in the area and the many books and education we’ve received. I feel pretty stirred in my spirit that if not me, then who?

It gave me a different lens and I heard with different ears and I would say even softer eyes, if that makes sense in which you kind of look beneath the surface a bit. And I seek more to understand now that I am to, to act so that when I do act, it is with a deeper understanding of what is taking place on the panoramic.

How do we build this bridge together? How do we move forward? How do we bring this pain forward? How do we address the pain, bring it forward to a place where there is healing and transforming in people’s lives?

For my part, I believe that it is not a matter of challenging a specific school district for what is taking place, but rather to come alongside school districts to help in the margins. I believe that as a faith community, we have the resources and the manpower in which to come alongside others and to help them to get a leg up, to have an equal opportunity that others have. I don’t think about the way I grew up. I had those opportunities. However, there are so many that don’t have the basics, and I think it’s really, really critical that we are our brothers’ keeper and that we stand in the gap for those individuals who can ultimately break the socio-economic gaps and to rise to their potential.

I don’t look at the world, not from a glass half empty piece, but as a world, ready to receive more. And we want to be the hands and feet of Christ, which we can hold up the arms of those who are in the trenches, whether it’s a social worker or an educator or a teaching assistant to a principal, to the police officer, who’s, who’s trying to bridge a almost impossible gap with what is taking place in our country. And I think we owe it to our children to say, “How can we build this bridge together?”

How do we move forward? How do we bring this pain forward? How do we address the pain, bring it forward to a place where there is healing and transforming in people’s lives?

For me, if I am a person of hope then I have a responsibility to share that hope with others. And that’s more than taking someone and kneeling them in a church at an altar somewhere. Rather, it is being the hands and feet of Christ by meeting them at their need, whether it’s  bags of food from our food pantry or different partnerships and collaborations in the area.  I think it’s coming alongside others to show people that we’re going to meet them at their need first and to help them where they’re living first to show and earn the right that we care and that we have… We’re practicing empathy in a way where there is an understanding that equity has to take place in so many different areas. And we have a lot of work to do. I’ve got to earn that right in order to talk to them about my faith. So this isn’t about proselytism as much as this is about engagement and life on life with my neighbor. Whoever that may be.

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