For Teacher Appreciation Week, I interviewed Chris Chatmon, Executive Director of Kingmakers of Oakland. I wanted him to share what makes his program, his Kings and, especially, Black educators special.
Kingmakers’ innovative strategies are improving academic outcomes for Black boys and helping them build a sense of belonging in school and community, and an essential part of what makes Kingmakers work is its unwavering commitment to recruit, train and retain a new generation of Black male teachers.
My interview, lightly edited, is below.
Gisele C. Shorter: Tell me about the origins of the African American Male Achievement Initiative. How did that work eventually evolve into Kingmakers of Oakland?
Chris Chatmon: On September 22nd, 2010, I was hired as the first executive director of African American Male Achievement within a school district, and our goal was to really look at the entire system versus a program or strategy to work with Black boys. We posited that there was nothing wrong with Black boys, but that the challenge was the systems, structures and the conditions that were created and nested in systemic oppression, white supremacy, Euro-centricity, and capitalistic values. We had to evolve out of that system to a system that lifted up the collective genius of people of color, the stories of the people of color, and most specifically rewrite a new narrative around the contributions of African Americans in this public school system.
We started with the Manhood Development Program, which was shaped by more than 1,000 interviews with Black boys from kindergarten through 12th grade. They shared with us that their experience in school was one where adults only engaged with them when they were perceived to have done something wrong or something bad. The other overwhelming response that our Kings shared was that they wanted more Black teachers. We used the information to create our Manhood Development Program, which was about the inoculation of Black boys [against systemic racism].
The first kind of inoculation for our Kings was offering our “Mastering Our Cultural Identity” courses where Kings could actually learn who they are and whose they are through African-centered courses that are aligned with Common Core (State Standards), and are academically rigorous. These courses not only improved our Kings' self-efficacy and cultural identity, but we also saw a significant impact in their grade point average. We ended up, out of that Manhood Development Program, creating a pipeline for Black male teacher recruitment, which informed the Oakland Unified School District on a very innovative ways to recruit, train, and retain Black male teachers.
The courses became the foundation for the program while we worked with the district to sunset policies that were perpetuating the school to prison pipeline and adopt our first equity policy to protect the work of the African American Male Achievement Initiative and the Office of Equity. Then we built out a systemic framework that began to differentiate, what are those sets of supports, from resources to curriculum to pedagogical practice, that are needed to engage communities in supporting, in particular, Black boys, and Black children.
That work over the last 10 years has led to a 38 percent cohort graduation increase for Black males in Oakland, which is pretty extraordinary. Over 40 percent reduction in suspension rates, an increase in the Black male teacher population by 25 percent, with a retention rate of those Black male teachers of 92 percent. We now have seven accredited African-centered courses that all students can take as an elective class or an alternative class to the general Eurocentric classes. Students not only benefit from the academic rigor, but also learn the impact that Africans throughout the diaspora have had in language arts, in math, in history and science.
About two years ago, districts across the country started coming out to Oakland because they were interested in our work. As an in-district department, we didn't have the capacity to provide all the technical support for districts to adopt our strategy. Through the Raikes Foundation, we were able to begin build the capacity to support districts to implement this work, which is now Kingmakers of Oakland. In Kingmakers we had in organization that could take all of what we learned in Oakland, but and work with districts across the country around those drivers of change that lead to improved educational outcomes for our Kings.
Kingmakers works with districts not only in the Bay area, but all over the state and the list keeps growing. We're working with Seattle public schools and are in talks to expand to other parts of Washington State.
Gisele C. Shorter: One of the most important pieces of Kingmakers' work is the identification, hiring and development of Black male educators. What have you learned about the power of Black male leadership and the benefits of Black educators on student outcomes and experiences?
Chris Chatmon: This is an audacious question. I don't speak for all Black men, but generally speaking, with the African American experience in this country, we approach even education a little bit differently than folks whose entry point into this country may be a little bit different. We approach education as process for liberation versus education as process of kind of compliance.
Having a Black male teacher who brings passion and purpose and conviction to understanding our history and the importance of education as a liberatory, life-changing commitment to self and community is essential for Kings. It's a very different cadence and approach. It’s not just about graduating, or eligibility for AP courses. When you come at education from a liberatory standpoint, it’s a whole different vibration. It's a whole different power.
It means, as a teacher, not only am I wanting you to pass the class, I'm trying to align the content with your passion and your purpose so you can not only help yourself, but help community and understand your legacy and that you are who you are because of your history and herstory and how that's connected to where you want to go in the future.
And not only does that benefit Black boys and Black children, it benefits all children. The fact that you have somebody that sees education as an opportunity to make a tectonic shift in your life that isn't based on meritocracy, but in making this world a better place. Black male teachers possess just an amazing opportunity to accelerate educational outcomes for all children. And we should all be working harder and more creatively to increase the number of Black men in classrooms and learning environments because I feel like what we have to offer, obviously benefits Black boys, but it benefits all children. And it has a ripple effect to other teachers and other students as well.
And I do want to note the criminalization and dehumanization and normalizing failure in the Black body in this country. I think many of us as Americans in this country—based off television, based off the music, based off of Hollywood, based off the limited depth and breadth of information we have about the contributions of Africans in this country and throughout the diaspora—we have to work a lot harder to show the extraordinary brilliance, diversity, beauty, depth, complexity, that Black men and Black people model and mirror every day. And if you don't have authentic experiences with Black men or Black people, then many folks judge the Black experience based off this narrow, skewed view of the Black experience.
Another important reason why we want more Black men and women in this field is that it widens people’s narrow experiences of Black folks. It’s just another way to show people that we're not this monolith—just athletes, just entertainers. That we are equally brilliant, equally diverse in all shapes, sizes, kind of spirits and seasons and reasons. Ensuring that Black men have access not only to being teachers, but being teacher assistants, principals, teacher leaders, instructional coaches, in assessment or research and data analysis, or in operations and facilities—I think it's important for all of us, right? To see the rich diversity of our humanity. If there’s one Black man on a campus, people end up putting the entire Black experience on him. That can do more harm than good because it's just not realistic, let alone the burden that you can place on one person.
Gisele C. Shorter: “We Dare Say Love" outlines how you and a small group of Black male educators changed district policy and practice to create a learning experience for Black boys rooted in love, dignity and excellence. What does it mean to have learning experience "rooted in love"?
Chris Chatmon: It means to condition yourself to love unconditionally. It means when that King comes into the classroom with his head down, you are not triggered by that. It means you know that child is loved, and so you ask yourself, “what do I need to do?” It’s doing your own work in service of Black children.
What the data shows us is that we criminalize the behavior of Black children, and then we describe other children doing the exact same behavior as developmentally appropriate. And I think operating from this concept of agape love, of this transformational love means, "Hey, whatever it takes. I'm going to be there for you. I'm going to have high expectations. If you have a bad day, then I know a good day is coming, and I'm going to support you to get there. And if I can't do it, I'm going to find somebody else that they can."
I think if we were able to create learning spaces and places where we could see the humanity in each of us and understand that we're all on a journey and transformation, and learn how to be whole and create the conditions where children weren't competing with each other, but collectively were competing to attain these goals and acquire this content or this skillset, we would go farther, faster because we would see the brotherhood, the sisterhood, the universality of humanity in each of us—versus this capitalistic individual dog eat dog, only 10% are going to get this and only 20% are going to get that. We got it all wrong.
But the idea of “We Dare Say Love” is really conditioning yourself to love unconditionally and not accepting mediocrity. It means that you'll do whatever you need to do to get them connected to the support that they need to be whole, be happy and acquire the necessary learning objectives and outcomes that they so are deserving and are worthy of.
To learn more about the origins and work of Kingmakers of Oakland please visit https://kingmakersofoakland.org/. Kingmakers of Oakland is a member of the BELE Network, a coalition of organizations working to create more equitable learning environments for all students. You can learn more Kingmakers of Oakland on the BELE Network's Medium page.