Blog | April 25, 2023

Correcting Inequity By Pursuing Education Justice

By Jeremy Smith, Senior Director of Corporate and Individual Giving

I grew up in an affluent, primarily white suburb of Indianapolis. Friday night football, Sunday church, and all that. Elementary school quickly became middle and high school. I had wonderful teachers and coaches that invested in me with purpose and pride. I never lacked resources or support to advance my education journey, and I believed that my experience must be how all students experience school. 

It wasn’t until my mom’s teaching career took her outside of our community that I first saw the reality of a deeply unequal education system. She started out teaching third grade, and, over time, moved into curriculum development positions. When she began leading a charter school on the southside of Indianapolis, my perspective was completely changed. 

The Purpose of Charter Schools is to Meet Community Needs

Until my mom led one, I had no idea that charter schools existed or even why they needed to exist. But it was obvious that her school was trying to fill a need and provide necessary wraparound services that the traditional public schools in that neighborhood were unable to offer families. This new understanding was hardly profound. Yet it would have been so easy for me to carry on in life and never recognize the deep inequities that define the American education system. 

That one career choice by my mother years in the past fundamentally changed how I viewed access to education. Even so, it didn’t necessarily transform my professional aspirations. At least not at first. I spent a few of my early career years working for a communications company in radio sales. Eventually, my work there shifted toward a focus on using media to advance social change. My team and I spent day and night figuring out how we could use hip-hop music and culture as a tool to engage youth and inspire them to take positive action.

From that experience, I came to understand that the messenger was just as important as the message. I had my eyes opened to the different ways that culture influences how people respond to different modes of engagement. I didn’t have a lot of firsthand experiences with other cultures, races, or ethnicities up to that point. White American culture has created a path-of-least-resistance in both mental and physical ways where it is possible to live for decades and be entirely insulated from the vast diversity that makes up our country.   

I’m grateful for the experiences I had working for the communications company. The job provided opportunities for me to travel all over the country. I met and learned from people from many different backgrounds. The world was vast, far bigger than the homogenized white experience my Midwestern upbringing pointed to. I carried that mentality into my next major career step at an organization called Our Turn, which is a student-led movement for education justice. 

Witnessing the Power of Student Advocacy Firsthand

For much of my life, it was so easy to let our country’s inequities stay out-of-sight, out-of-mind. During my time at Our Turn, my work engaging directly with students whose lives were transformed or whose dreams were dashed simply due to the education experiences they had access to was a wake up call. At Our Turn, we supported advocacy efforts of youth of color and other marginalized groups, which re-elevated to me the idea that not all education environments are equal. I saw it and I heard it directly from students. 

Interacting with diverse students across the country at Our Turn pulled back the curtain even more for me on what some youth were receiving and what some were not.

Jeremy Smith

The students I worked with at Our Turn were advocating for culturally-relevant curriculum, mental health supports, access to quality resources, and so much more. Their requests and advocacy were not political as much as adults might try to frame them that way. Their demands were human. They were about survival. They were asking for what they felt was necessary to be allowed to live and have the kind of opportunities that every kid deserves.  

Interacting with diverse students across the country at Our Turn pulled back the curtain even more for me on what some youth were receiving and what some were not. The students I talked to knew what would make a difference and what resources could help propel them forward. Unfortunately, most school districts are not set up to prioritize responding nimbly to student needs. 

Lived Experience Should Inform How Dollars are Spent

My time at Our Turn segued into my current role at The Mind Trust. I joined this organization because our work and our staff are centered on one thing: educational justice. As our Senior Director of Corporate & Individual Giving, I’m not on the frontlines of education equity in the same way anymore. But I do not think it is hyperbole to say that in the nonprofit world, fundraising is the lifeblood of our programming. It’s about much more than just a dollar amount raised. It’s about who gets input into the way those dollars are spent. 

Edgar Villanueva’s book Decolonizing Wealth has been a great learning tool for me. His book denounces the hierarchical structures that continue to be perpetuated within the philanthropic community and calls for foundations to cede control in decision-making to the people most affected by those decisions. If there’s anything that I’ve learned in my career, it’s that lived experience is a necessary input for informing how dollars should be directed to solve problems. 

A big theme of Villaneuva’s book is that people of color ought to have an equitable role in how philanthropy is distributed in our country and around the world. Too often, solutions are dreamed up and carried out with zero input from the people those solutions were designed to support. Why not directly ask those most impacted by an issue how they want things to be solved? I believe that’s a recipe for transformational change and it’s the default mode of operation for The Mind Trust. 

Pursuing Education Justice

I’m now a father to two boys and am fortunate to be in a position where my wife and I can offer them all the support they need as they grow up. At the same time, I am driven by the stories of the many children in our city who don’t yet have the resources or support they need to succeed because society or education or any number of unfair systems is holding them back. 

Where you are born or the color of your skin should not be the deciding factor for the education you receive. Education justice is about recognizing and undoing past harms while advancing our society toward a day where education is viewed as a fundamental right.

Where you are born or the color of your skin should not be the deciding factor for the education you receive.

Jeremy Smith

That’s part of why I am so passionate about the work we do at The Mind Trust. We are doing everything possible to ensure the educational inequities of the present do not continue into the future. That’s what equity is all about. But for me, it’s not just equity. It’s justice. It is making right what for so long has been wrong.