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Adrinda Kelly | Executive Director of BE NOLA (Black Education for New Orleans)

Adrinda “Drin” Kelly is the Executive Director of BE NOLA. A native New Orleanian and proud New Orleans Public Schools graduate, Adrinda “Drin” Kelly credits her incredible Black teachers for her resilience, drive, and unrelenting belief in the assets of Black education. Drin is passionate about building the capacity of exceptional Black educators to provide a high-quality education to our children while challenging structural relationships of inequity through narrative and systems-change strategies.


Here is a wonderful Q & A with Adrinda Kelly.


What is one thing that inspires you?

My way of seeing and moving in the world has been profoundly shaped by New Orleans Black educators. This is a story that I like to tell:


I was 12 years old and I had a crush on a boy. We happened to be paired up on a clay sculpturing project. The public school I attended at the time was among the most racially diverse in the city. My teacher, who was white, annoyed by our giggling and excitement of over touching each others’ hands said: "you people should have never been allowed in this school."


Because I had no tools to address the racial macro-aggression, I did what I knew how to do and I called her a bitch. She sent me to the principal’s office. Right then and there I made the decision to leave McMain and go to the all-Black blue-ribbon high school, McDonogh 35.


Now I know all the terms for what McDonogh 35 gave me – a culture of high expectations; culturally relevant pedagogy, social justice education etc - but my favorite is one I made up – spirit capital. The belief that being Black is not a risk factor; the ability to see role models who looked like me and expected me to go even further than they did; and a clear message that the point of all this striving was not just a college degree and a comfortable middle class life but to get tools to come back and build up my community.


It's important for me to share this story because my singular most important qualification for serving as Executive Director of BENOLA is that I am living proof of what happens for Black children when Black educators are supported to do their very best work.


But I often talk about my K-12 experience in New Orleans as an example of what Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche calls “the danger of a single story.” At the same time my classmates and I were receiving an excellent education at #35, there were students all around me (i.e. at Fortier, at Douglass, at John Mac) who were not. I think Katrina was a huge watershed for our city but in many ways it has distorted our horizon. Instead of comparing schools pre- and post-Katrina, the question I try to elevate is why over the last 140 years of public schools in New Orleans, haven’t we been able to give all children the education they deserve?

What is an urgent issue facing education?

I think we all need to be obsessed with the fact that we have fewer than a third of our Black children in New Orleans reading on grade level, a proxy for basic literacy skills. <To put this in context 60% Post-Civil War not literate. Today 60% of Black children in NOLA not reading on grade level. > We all know what literacy (or lack thereof means for the possibility of a thriving life). But we need to be more curious about the secret weapons we have in our backyard to address this issue: Black educators. Black people - specifically African-Americans - are the only people who were legally forbidden to learn how to read in this country. Historically, Black institutions and educators have been integral to counteracting that. At their best, to quote education scholar Dr. Jarvis Givens, they are “centers of refuge, sites for alternative education and political advocacy, and more generally a web of networks forming a counterpublic to address the needs of a civically estranged [and symbolically degraded] people.” Therefore we should be concerned with the residual effect of disparity of access to resources for Black-led, Black-governed schools and the worrisome attrition we see among Black educators, particularly Black women.


How did you end up where you are today?

After I graduated from McDonough #35, I attended Harvard University where I have the dubious distinction of being the only Black student accepted from Louisiana that year. It was a rich experience – challenging, rewarding, eye-opening – and it made me appreciate just how much I relied on the “spirit capital” I gained from my Black teachers in hard moments when it was easy to second guess myself or feel like I didn’t belong. I’ve always been deeply interested in inclusive narratives and storytelling, so after college I moved to New York to pursue a career in publishing, eventually working as a book and digital content editor for Time Warner, McGraw-Hill and Princeton Review. The projects I acquired and developed were focused on serving the needs of diverse student populations, specifically first-generation college students, LGBTQ students, and underrepresented minorities. Then Katrina happened and sent me spinning. It was very painful to watch that unfold although I was grateful that my family was ok. In retrospect I can see the pattern of neglect we saw during Katrina repeated in the neglect of certain communities we’re seeing during COVID-19, Hurricane Ida, Roe v Wade and beyond. Getting to the root of why that pattern of neglect exists, who is made most vulnerable because of it, and what we can do about it has become my life’s work.


I’ve worked in the education sector for many years and in every one of my roles I’ve been on the front end of birthing something new into the world that amplifies the voice and agency of marginalized communities.


I came to BE NOLA for two reasons 1) I wanted to do education work in my hometown 2) I wanted to change the story around Black education in the aftermath of Katrina. The challenge as I saw it - shift this narrative and the material conditions that undergirded it. I believed that if we challenged the narrative around "Black teachers failing Black children" that post-Katrina education reform was built on then we would have no other choice but to confront the systemic white supremacy at the root of our challenges.


What drives you to give back?

One of the worst things about being a minoritized person in this country moving in an atmosphere of chronic racial stress is that trauma steals your imagination. So one of my biggest personal hopes for the work that BE NOLA does is that it will help us all dream again - enter that space of radical possibility for our children, our communities and ourselves.


We urgently need a new imagination about how to do school and what a quality education actually is for New Orleans Black children. The free market paradigm that has permeated all of our public institutions, including schools, has no place in public education if we truly believe that every child deserves a quality education. That's not about competition and creating a system of winners and losers - that's about making sure every school is great.


More concretely:

  • I want all children in our city to be able to read

  • I want resources for Black children, their schools, and their teachers- to quote Gloria Ladson Billings at one of our events: "I'd rather have a strong Plessy than a weak Brown"

  • I want reparations for the harms Black educators have experienced in the rebuilding of our schools post-Katrina

  • I want Black educators working in our city to be effective, supported, well-paid, and connected to each other and the community they are working in

  • I want New Orleans Black children to be the entrepreneurs and architects of city where people make more than a living wage, work and are housed with dignity, can access fresh food and clean air and water, can make personal choices in how they love, worship and care for their bodies without government intervention

Our vision is towards a city and ultimately world that works for everyone and that is bigger than any one org but I am here to do my part.


My great-great aunt, Julia Marguerite Mills Shade, was a famous midwife in rural Louisiana, safely delivering hundreds of children during her lifetime. Over the span of my 19-year career in education I have operated as a metaphorical midwife, partnering with others to birth raw visions to life. So when I think about my contribution, I think about the gift of midwifery in leadership. There are several principles I embody as I operate in this gift:


  • I seek to empower and free others to lead from their expertise with an understanding that power and wisdom are shared;

  • I believe that nothing is more important than people. While I am urgent about impact, I insist on prioritizing the social, cultural and spiritual needs of my community;

  • I am emotionally attuned and believe that trust-filled relationships and loving mutuality are the foundation of a world that works for everyone;

  • I am responsive to emergent change and unfolding present reality rather than being prescriptive, and use what I am learning to adjust, trusting that the process is as important as the outcome.

At BE NOLA my midwifery-style leadership and its undergirding principles have allowed me to build relationships across lines of difference in a city that has been dramatically polarized by the post-Katrina education reforms. While I have firm conviction with respect to my views about the fundamental issues facing Black educators, schools, and students, I am able to create connections with others who do not share my beliefs, experiences, or ideological framing and who are in different stages of their own racial identity development and attendant social analysis. This quality has enabled me to lead BE NOLA in alignment with our core belief of communion > unity which suggests that our union is based on our ability to communicate with one another and not the flattening out of differences so we can appear to be aligned. (bell hooks). While the Black education community and our allies may share a common hope for educational transformation, our underlying values and vision for the future of Black education often differ. Rather than seeing those differences as a non-starter, I embrace the opportunity to build a shared imagination with a broad and diverse coalition prioritizing joyful, healing-focused experiences along the way. Building power by sharing stories, practicing deep listening, and watering the ground underneath our feet (Amilcar Cabral) is an ethos that drives my work.


What is the best way that students learn?

Anyone who knows me knows how much love and respect I have for Black educators. The first Black educator I remember is Oretha Castle Haley. Her afro-centric preschool was a beautiful learning environment – my mother says Mama Oretha gave us "the best of the best"- and while I don’t remember everything, I do remember the feeling of the place. I remember storytime with Adella Adella the Storytella (RIP) and the captivating tale of "When Africans Could Fly" ; I remember Kwaanza and Black Santa Clauses at Christmas; I remember beautiful images of Black people all over the walls.


Because of Mama Oretha, I understood early that to be a Black child was to be smart, excellent, beautiful, joyful, and beloved. And it didn’t stop with her - I was blessed to encounter many “Mama Orethas” at the public schools I attended in New Orleans. (Quick story: in the 9th grade I was cutting up in civics class trying to look “cool” for a boy I liked – #RIPCurtisRoss – and picked up a week of detention. The teacher covering detention that week was also the speech and debate coach who took one look at me and said – “you don’t belong here and instead of sitting in detention you’re going to go to speech and debate practice.” I ended up on the team. And as a student at McDonogh 35, I was in one of the first classes of Students at the Center (SAC), an independent New Orleans-based writing program that operated in New Orleans Public Schools since 1996. The program was created by union organizer Jim Randels and Black Arts poet and one of the founders of Free Southern Theater Kalamu ya Salaam - they are the educators who first taught me about the 1811 Slave Revolt in Louisiana which I never learned anything about in my Louisiana Studies class. These are just a few examples I have in my K-12 experience of Black educators holding up the mirror for me to see and be seen.


I often use the term “spirit capital” to describe what I got from teachers like Mr. Johnson, Mama Oretha, Kalamu and so many others. They created classrooms (and schools) that felt like safe little islands of Black joy, wisdom, culture, legacy, etc. A place where we didn’t have to hold our breath or translate ourselves, and where we acquired some of the tools we would need to engage the world around us with our spirits still intact. I draw on this spirit capital constantly. It’s on my mind heavily as I look around at everything that’s happening in the world. A few years ago in New Orleans a white teacher at a public school out here was captured on camera cavalierly using her foot to wake a napping Black child. She’s since been terminated but I just can’t shake the thought that it’s not a huge leap from that teacher's foot to the knee on #GeorgeFloyd’s neck.


We need our schools to be places where Black children can thrive and gain tools to critically engage (and transform) a world that badly needs fixing. Black educators and Black-led schools aren’t the only people and places where this can happen (and being Black surely doesn’t mean that it happens automatically!) but it’s where I choose to spend my time and energy, a blessing that I’m grateful for every single day. I’m proud to lead an organization that gets to focus on protecting and championing quality Black educators and the schools they lead – FULL STOP.

 

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