Aimee Eubanks Davis,Teach for America’s Chief Public Affairs Officer and Chief People Officer,discusses her mission to enhance opportunities for children from under-resourced communities.
Riding bikes around the block was out of the question for Aimée Eubanks Davis and her siblings, growing up on the sometimes-violent south side of Chicago. College prep classes and premium after-school offerings were few and far between in their neighborhood schools. This environment prompted Eubanks Davis’ parents to leave friends and family behind and move to the suburbs in order to offer their children a broader array of opportunities—sometimes as simple as celebrating holidays like other kids.
“One of the things I really will never forget is how, for the first time, my sister and I went trick-or-treating,” said Eubanks Davis, long-time executive leader at Teach For America and Founder of Beyond Z. “We had never really been trick-or-treating before that, so we had these pillowcases for our candy.”
Eubanks Davis and her siblings found themselves unprepared for suburban life in other ways, too. While their classmates had spent years enrolled in challenging classes and involved in a variety of sports and other after-school activities, they had to play catch up in many respects, even though their parents had always searched for enrichment activities. One summer, that meant attending vacation Bible school. Another, a free space camp at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. One year, it included taking advantage of an unusual opportunity to travel to France as an elementary-age exchange student.
“And that opened my eyes to the world in a very different way,” Eubanks Davis said.
Discovering, Developing & Connecting
Today, Eubanks Davis hopes to offer those types of opportunities to young people through both her work with Teach For America and Beyond Z, a nonprofit that she founded. With Beyond Z, the former sixth grade teacher strives to create a counter-narrative to what has been called the school-to-prison pipeline.
Indeed, a recent report from the U.S. Department of Education and Justice Department showed that while black children represent only 18 percent of preschool enrollment nationally, they make up 42 percent of students suspended once and nearly half of students suspended more than once. It’s a pattern that experts say could make them dramatically more likely to drop out and become part of the prison population later in life, or face other negative outcomes. Eubanks Davis’ own parents helped her and her siblings avoid such outcomes by moving, but that option isn’t open to every family.
“And that’s where Beyond Z really started was my own personal background of growing up in an under-resourced neighborhood,” Eubanks Davis said. “And my parents doing a ‘Jeffersons’-style move in terms of moving on up, which was really hard—very hard for them financially and also personally.”
Although Beyond Z is in its earliest phases and still piloting its approach, it aims to connect high-potential young people who may not otherwise have access to enrichment programs with unique hands-on opportunities in school that prepare them to be leaders in 21st century careers. Program participants have learned how to be innovators by using 3D printers to bring their ideas to life; others have learned how to code their own websites; and college participants have been mastering their “hard” and “soft” career readiness skills through an intensive eight-month career acceleration project. All of the pilots have focused on ensuring participants view their own historical background as a source of pride and personal strength.
“At Beyond Z, we’re on a mission to discover, develop and connect extraordinary, diverse young people with career and leadership opportunities,” Eubanks Davis said. “We’re really following the lean start-up model which many for-profits have, which is to test our hypotheses as quickly as we can and use those understandings to refine our model and approach and assess where our work can have the most impact.”
Diversity Beyond Recruitment
Conducting real-time research is a process Eubanks Davis has perfected in her work with Teach For America, which recruits and trains a corps of high-achieving college graduates and professionals to work for a minimum of two years at under-resourced schools in 48 urban and rural regions nationwide. Many of those teachers continue in the line of work or move on to other positions in the education field, including joining Teach For America’s staff. And, while the organization always had a commitment to diversity for corps members and staff, Eubanks Davis—who started as a corps member herself—discovered that many African-American staff members didn’t feel as comfortable on the team as they had in the classroom.
“We were having an attrition rate of [African-American] people that was much, much higher than any other group—double digits—and also not seeing people, at that point in time, being promoted at the same rate as other people,” Eubanks Davis said. “And that really made me pause and reflect on what that was about. I was the head of our Human Assets team at the time, and this was happening on my watch!”
So, she invested a great deal of time over one year personally interviewing corps and staff members. In those interviews, she found that some weren’t comfortable being their “full selves” within the organization. Others who may have come from under-resourced communities themselves felt colleagues had advantages when it came to professional development and personal networks; they did not know where and how to ask for needed training to level the playing field.
“What I saw was not necessarily a recruitment problem, but retention, engagement, development challenges, and probably a broader cultural challenge,” Eubanks Davis said. “And we took that on head on, which I’m really proud we did.”
The organization’s leaders encouraged staff members to create and participate in support groups centered on commonalities including race, sexual orientation and socioeconomic background, among other factors. They conveyed the message that it was OK to say “I don’t know” and ask for help learning about everything from Excel spreadsheets to project planning. Finally, they encouraged conversations between staff members on workplace-taboo topics including race and class—subjects routinely addressed in the program’s teacher training and development programs, but rarely extended to staff members.
“I just think that was huge because it opened up a dialogue that I think felt absent to so many people,” Eubanks Davis said. “The fact is that so much of our work is about race, class and privilege.”
Providing Intangible Assets
In launching Beyond Z, Eubanks Davis has discovered that work doesn’t end when the final school bell rings. Research conducted through a project she was working on as a Pahara-Aspen Fellow eventually became Beyond Z; it showed that young people who started their lives and educational careers in low-income neighborhoods felt their personal networks couldn’t provide them with the same level of professional support—from sharing expertise on the latest virtual meeting software to referring them to their next job opportunity. She also saw data indicating that even with a college degree, recent African-American college graduates were unemployed at a rate more than double that of all college graduates.
“I couldn’t get over how powerful networks had become in careers,” Eubanks Davis said. “If you didn’t have a strong professional network, you were much more likely to be unemployed or underemployed.”
Many also felt a pronounced experience gap between themselves and their peers, even if they attended the same colleges. Knowledge their higher-income colleagues had gained through everything from tennis practice to overseas travel had given them intangible skills and access to networks that helped them well into their adult lives.
“Higher-income families spend triple the amount that lower-income families on supplemental activities do over time, and it’s becoming a way of propelling people further forward, especially when they hit careers. And that is what is really bothering me, to be honest, and what has led me to create Beyond Z,” Eubanks Davis said. “If we don’t pay attention to this other suite of opportunities, skills and experiences that other kids are getting that are propelling them over time—not only academically, but professionally—then we will continue to see kids who happened to grow up in low-income communities not be able to reach the same heights. This is in complete conflict with the promise of our country to ensure everyone has access to opportunity”
Find Something You’re Passionate About & Do It With Gusto
As a trained psychologist turned school principal, Anthony Recasner approached parents and students as whole people and encouraged his staff to do the same.
“He always impressed on us how important it was for us to meet our students where they were not only academically but emotionally, and also to meet their families where they were,” said Eubanks Davis, who worked as a sixth grade teacher in the New Orleans school led by Recasner, now Chief Executive Officer at Agenda for Children.
He also encouraged his staff to learn about and understand the almost insurmountable challenges some parents and students face simply to get through the school’s front doors every day. While a young teacher might be tempted to respond in one way initially to an uncooperative kid or a distant parent, that response could change if they knew their family had just been evicted or that the parent worked two jobs and rarely got more than a few consecutive hours of sleep.
“He always said, and I think it was so important to me as a young professional, to listen, listen and listen again before responding,” she said. “And he actually said you have to be listening with the third ear for what was not being said.”
But Eubanks Davis didn’t always take that advice into account when it came to listening to her own heart. She had been accepted into some top-tier law schools and planned to attend after fulfilling her two-year teaching commitment. But two years became three and three became four, and all the while she was continually putting down deposits to hold prestigious law school class placements that she couldn’t bring herself to accept. Finally, a volunteer at her school (also a graduate of Mount Holyoke College) took her out to lunch and offered some advice.
“She told me that when you do find something you’re passionate about and do it with gusto, that you really can figure out the other pieces of sustaining your life,” Eubanks Davis said. “She also said that her most fulfilled friends, who were in their early 40s, were those who taken the path least traveled. I am so glad I listened to her. She was right.”
Those pieces didn’t fall into place overnight, though. Eubanks Davis recalls her parents desperately wanting her to be a lawyer, and she, like so many other young professionals, struggled to pay student loans on a teacher’s salary.
“It was a scary move. It was a haul, and it was hard to get on my feet,” Eubanks Davis said of her early years as an educator. “I was definitely the teacher who was happy the cafeteria staff liked me because they would feed me.”
Charlene Oldham is a freelance writer based in Saint Louis, Missouri.
Aimee's Key Partners:CCA, Inc. (EAP Provider & Consultant) | The Plexus Groupe LLC (Benefits Consultants)
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