This Q&A is part of a series highlighting the work of Black education leaders in partnership with the 1954 Project.

The various benefits of having Black educators teach Black students are well-documented. However, the attrition rate for Black educators can be high because the schools they work in are often under-resourced and serve larger populations of students. This gap in educators ensures that Black students’ needs will continue to go unmet in the classroom. 

Enter Hiewet Senghor, founder and CEO of Black Teacher Collaborative (BTC), a social entrepreneurship venture aimed at building a collective of Black educators who can effectively bolster achievement for Black students. BTC’s vision is grounded in an innovative model that maximizes Black educator potential through a shared racial identity lens. 

Because of her inspiring work, Senghor was recently recognized as one of five Luminaries by the 1954 Project, a Black-led education philanthropy initiative to fund diverse leaders. Giving Compass recently spoke with Senghor about her work and future plans. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Hiewet Senghor, Founder and CEO, Black Teacher Collaborative

Q: What inspired you to launch Black Teacher Collaborative? 

I came to this world after a long career at a traditional civil rights and social justice organization and realized there was an elevated conversation around the value of a more diverse teacher force. However, as much as we were investing in increasing the number of teachers, we weren't making any investments or having conversations about what kind of unique support and development these teachers needed to make this a sustainable and healthy career. At the same time, we were making enormous investments in preparing white teachers to not harm Black and Brown children. That didn't sit right with me. We couldn't expect Black teachers to be magical and all of a sudden produce results and outcomes with no substantive support or training. I wanted to figure out how to build great Black teachers for Black students. I wanted to answer that question of “What is a great teacher?” Not through the mainstream lens, but through a lens that was grounded in Black culture, Black values, Black beliefs, and the idea of liberation. 

Q: How is your organization creating a more equitable education landscape in the U.S.? 

In the social justice sector, we went from saying equal to equitable. I would probably push on how we're even leveraging that term because oftentimes what we’re talking about is ensuring that the resources are not just equal but account for the impact of systemic racism. What is missing from this reframing is a space for a conversation about power and self-determination. The system that we are trying to change and the agency within that system is defined through a white-centric lens. I want to get to a place where we are providing Black and other historically marginalized communities with resources that are equitable and agency that is equitable -- agency being defined for BTC as through the lens of power and self-determination. That goes back to this idea of a self-determined purpose of education and a self- determined strategy on how to get to that purpose. 

Q: What do you think the biggest challenges are for children of color that you're seeing in the U.S. education system? And what are you hopeful about? 

It’s the persistent centering of whiteness. When we created the various models of teaching, they were all in service to an educational experience that was deemed great for middle-class white children. When talking about diversifying, we talk about bringing in teachers who can fit within that mold but just to relate to Black children instead of thinking about who the Black child is. We should be asking: What are the needs, values, and beliefs of Black children in their communities and their cultures? And then, how do we reconstruct a system to educate them in service to that? The way that we do schooling and the way that we define excellence and value through an education lens needs to equally include the voice and the perspectives of Black children, Black families, Black communities as it does white children, white families, and white communities. 

Secondly, oppressed people have less space to be bold, courageous, and new. When I started BTC, I looked at Montessori and international education models. Both of those are drastically different from a traditional American educational system. They were given a lot of time to develop and refine and were seen as radical, but not in a scary way. I think that the boldest ideas for what is possible for Black children will very quickly be labeled as radical in a negative way. That is a problem that we have to figure out when communicating our work to people, especially in a system that has said Black children need integration. But what we want for Black children is to have great Black teachers who are oriented towards who they are, their culture, and their values and are teaching towards that. 

Q: Let's talk about the 1954 Project and what results you are hoping to achieve with this additional support and funding? 

It was an incredibly important moment for me to be sitting on a Zoom call with three Black women telling me that they believe in me and the work that I am doing for the community. But what is equally as important is that they are giving general operating dollars. 

We hope to use most of this money to build the institution of BTC. We need a strong administrative infrastructure. I am in every way a bold, visionary leader and I need a strong organizational infrastructure to bring that vision.   Our work is about both having the impact that we want but also building a Black education-focused institution that will far outlast me. General operating dollars are absolutely critical but very difficult to obtain for social entrepreneurs who look like me. There are studies that show most of the social entrepreneurship field isn’t diverse, but it’s composed of people who are well connected, who can go to their community and get the kind of support that they need to build their organization. 

Q: How can philanthropy help reimagine our education landscape and better support Black education leaders in the U.S.? 

Philanthropists should value the voices and ideas of Black leaders. Donors should particularly understand that there is a body of work around educating Black children grounded in Black scholarship, Black research, and Black practice that already exists. There are people like Asa Hilliard and Joyce King who have been doing this work for years. In many cases, those scholars never had the opportunity to do the piloting and to put that innovation into practice. Donors should educate themselves about that research and engage with the people who are now trying to build on that work. 

In addition, they can expand their comfort zone. I worry that education innovation and education reform has become an “old boys network.” To some degree, there are markers that you need in order to become a social entrepreneur in this space. There are fellowships that you need to do and places you needed to have worked in. When thinking about diversity, I hope people know that it isn’t just a matter of skin tone, but it needs to be a matter of perspective. Individuals who come out of HBCUs [Historically Black Colleges and Universities] produce great scholarship on education for Black children, but some of them won’t hit the markers that make them acceptable in the education innovation landscape. If we really want to talk about empowering Black voices and Black ideas then we have to move beyond the gatekeepers and those established institutions. 

Lastly, recognize the resources that one comes into this work with. Think about the over-reliance on programmatic dollars and what that means for a social entrepreneur who's Black, and doesn't have the individual donor base that can allow them the general operating dollars to build the institution itself. 

Q: Final advice for donors, in particular for the growing field of Black education philanthropists and allies that the 1954 Project seeks to bring together. 

We need time to experiment and fail. There is a fear about whether we will make it five years, or whether people will be patient with us. I feel like I have far less room to fail and make mistakes. I have a much shorter runway to get it right, to scale, and to be strong. I think we need the space to experiment, to learn, to grow, to stumble, to fall, and to continue to know that donors will believe in our vision. 

I ask donors to invest in the Black ecosystem. Don't see us as just a value add to the [education] space that already exists. People tell us to partner with bigger organizations, but I would rather see donors invest in me and other Black leaders and Black organizations like me to create an ecosystem to support Black innovation in the education space. Organizations and leaders like fellow Luminary Sharif El-Mekki of The Center for Black Educator Development, William Jackson of Village of Wisdom, and so many others.