Black Education For New Orleans (BE NOLA) is on a mission to ensure high-quality education for Black children in New Orleans by supporting Black educators and education leaders. 

[Photo credit: Black Education For New Orleans]

“New Orleans is a city which continues to have an outsized influence on education nationally,” said Adrinda Kelly, BE NOLA’s founding CEO and executive director. “New Orleans continues to be the poster child for school choice but the truth is that our 100% charter system is not working for most Black children and families. “Today, white and economically advantaged children disproportionately occupy the city’s highest quality schools and less than one-third of Black fourth graders are reading on grade level in a city reeling from rapid gentrification, lack of economic opportunity, high rates of juvenile crime, and cultural disruption and commodification.”

Kelly was recently recognized as a Luminary by The 1954 Project, a Black-led education philanthropy initiative to fund diverse leaders. In this Q&A, Kelly discusses BE NOLA’s essential work in the Crescent City and the role of donors in advancing equity through education. 

How is your organization helping to create a more equitable landscape for education in the U.S.? 

BE NOLA’s mission is to support Black educators and Black-governed, Black-led schools (BGBLS) in New Orleans to ensure an education that creates better outcomes and opportunities for Black children, a critical factor in building a thriving Black community. 

  • We provide capacity-building support to BGBLS to ensure that funding disparities do not inhibit quality Black-led schools from continuing to exist in New Orleans.
  • We provide immersive professional development experiences to New Orleans Black educators to help them grow as culturally competent practitioners.
  • We disseminate information to inform schools, policymakers, and the larger public about the urgent need to foster a positive climate for Black educators to lead and work in New Orleans schools in order to drive positive outcomes for students. 

We are building on a long legacy of Black-created, Black-governed, Black-led education in our city. Historically, New Orleans Black educators intuitively understood the importance of cultural competence. They established programs and services that extended education beyond traditional and vocational settings. They were pioneers of early childhood education. They established training programs for Black teachers. This legacy was totally disrupted during the rebuilding of the school system following Hurricane Katrina when thousands of Black educators – the majority of them Black women -- were dismissed by the Orleans Parish School Board. Our work is centering this legacy as an essential archive of strategy, theory, and practice we can learn from to help address our current challenges.

What do you see as the biggest challenges facing students of color in the United States today? What makes you optimistic? 

To quote one of our founding board members here: “There is nothing wrong with Black people that eliminating white supremacy wouldn’t solve.” The biggest challenge facing students of color in the United States is the persistent advantaging of whiteness in who gets access to quality schools; whose schools are adequately funded; whose voice is included in decision-making; and whose needs are prioritized in policy-making. 

I’m encouraged by the fact that nearly every school recognizes the importance of a diverse, stable workforce. Educators are eager to explore new ways of sharing resources and developing as culturally competent practitioners. And families who have been able to see students’ teaching and learning experiences up close are eager for meaningful opportunities to collaborate with decision-makers on policies to support a system capable of meeting their childrens’ holistic needs. 

What results do you hope to achieve with The 1954 Project's support and funding? 

We are going to be able to expand our organization’s capacity so we can continue to scale and grow. In particular, these resources are going to help us launch of our nascent Black is Brilliant Institute (BIBI), a cohort-based fellowship that will support the holistic development of New Orleans Black educators to be able to teach content in a way that centers the geographic, cultural, and sociopolitical contexts of their children’s lives. We will also be able to expand our advocacy efforts. This includes hiring a critical role to develop irresistible campaigns that center Black community members’ voices and experiences and leverage these grassroots conversations to influence education decision-making.

How can donors help reimagine our education landscape and better support Black education leaders in the United States? 

Funding Type: As a Black women-led organization, we have experienced the same barriers to access to funding. That’s why I’m heartened by the increased philanthropic focus on supporting Black leaders and the embrace of trust-based philanthropy. As a developing organization, multiyear, general operating support complemented by peer networking and capacity-building is the support I most need!

Leadership: I would encourage donors to be especially intentional about supporting organizations that have Black leadership AND Black governance and to specifically seek opportunities to support Black women-led and Black women-serving education work.  

Reparations: Roughly two-thirds of the Black education workforce in New Orleans is Black women. Pre-pandemic, New Orleans was losing 900 teachers a year (nearly a third of our workforce) and of those who left -- citing issues of erasure, racial microaggressions, burnout, and lack of development opportunities -- more than 300 were Black women. Dr. Nina Banks, has written about the “unpaid additional labor” Black women across the country do to address community needs as public investments in social welfare services decline. Reparatory investments in Black women educators is one of the most transformational undertakings philanthropy can take to support Black educational progress in the United States.

What are the unique challenges in pursuing your work in New Orleans? How does your work connect with national efforts, including the work conducted by the fellow members of your cohort? 

In New Orleans, 36 independently-run organizations operate 76 schools. This creates incredible challenges for collaboration and transparency. Teachers and school leaders lack professional community and support across institutions. Schools do not leverage economies of scale or share best practices. The competition for enrollment and personnel fosters an environment of distrust and disincentive to collaborate. Parents of children with unique needs are especially frustrated by the lack of access to quality support services across schools – a situation directly linked to the high cost of administrative redundancies in our fragmented system. Education decision-making happens without meaningful community engagement and is largely divorced from efforts to improve community conditions - in housing, healthcare, employment, transportation, etc. Nearly all stakeholders recognize these as critical issues but promising programmatic and policy solutions to help address these issues don’t get traction because various groups close ranks around a divisive “pro- vs. anti-charter” framing when in fact the challenges - and solutions - are far more nuanced.

We operate from the 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).  Creating the conditions for Black people to be in loving community with Black people is some of the most radical work we do.

One of the biggest benefits of being a Luminary is that I get to join an amazing group of leaders who are at the forefront of operationalizing a Black teaching tradition in our public schools. And we are eager to link our school partners to the intensive teacher coaching and professional development support provided by these organizations, especially as our program grows to serve more diverse schools in future years.