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This Q&A is part of a series highlighting the work of Black education leaders in partnership with the 1954 Project.
As a black boy in the San Francisco public school system, Chris Chatmon didn’t have access or exposure to Black history classes. It wasn’t until college that he was able to learn more about his own history.
“One extraordinary teacher helped me realize that I had a crown in my pocket and I could take it out and rock it,” said Chatmon, founder and CEO of Kingmakers of Oakland (KOO).
KOO works to improve the educational and life outcomes of Black boys. Working with youth, educators, and communities, KOO is committed to transforming the education system. All of Kingmakers’ work is designed to engage, encourage, and empower students.
Because of this inspiring work, Chatmon was recently recognized as one of five Luminaries by the 1954 Project, a Black-led education philanthropy initiative to fund diverse Black leaders. In the following Q&A, Chatmon shares more about Kingmakers of Oakland and offers advice for donors.
Q. What inspired you to create Kingmakers of Oakland?
I saw an opportunity to uplift the unheard yet incredibly beautiful narrative and cultural prosperity of Africans throughout the diaspora in Oakland Public Schools and show how they have directly influenced all Common Core subjects. The policies, practices, culture and conditions – or ways of knowing and communicating what is “normal,” “right,” and “valued” – in schools advantages some students and disadvantages others. Kingmakers is able to center Black boys while serving all students.
We leverage a framework pioneered by john a. powell of the Othering & Belonging Institute that uses targeted strategies to reach universal goals, a concept most people understand as how “a rising tide lifts all ships.”
Q. How is your organization helping to create a more equitable landscape for education in the U.S.?
The education system in this country is failing our Kings. It is still a very antiquated system; the current emphasis on what is learned and how it is taught needs to be completely transformed. No matter where you are in this country, the data is the same. Black boys are coming in at the bottom of key academic indicators. Kingmakers of Oakland is shifting the failure from the Kings to a failed ecosystem.
We have a commitment to amplify multiracial, intergenerational, and cross-functional voices to transform education. From preschool through 12th grade, we work with districts to recruit, train, and retain Black male teachers. Black male teachers have a direct impact on the self-efficacy and long-term outcomes of Black children, but it's proven that all children benefit. We engage not only the Black teachers and students, but families and communities as well, to go farther faster.
We’ve expanded to Washington state and Georgia to work with teachers and schools on culturally relevant curriculum. We provide students with the opportunity to see themselves as Kings to remind them of their legacy and their history. Centering the voices of Black boys in these districts helps them to understand who and whose they are and as a result, all students and the entire ecosystem improves.
Q. What do you see as the biggest challenges facing students of color in the United States today? What makes you optimistic?
We have to recognize the power of narrative. Black boys are suspended and expelled at three times the rate of white students. They are overrepresented in special education and underrepresented in challenging course work like Advanced Placement classes, a disparity owed to implicit biases carried by educators and others who assume Black boys aren’t “college material.” Continuing to use these metrics in school systems is wrong. Social Emotional Learning indicators need to be lifted up, foremost a sense of belonging and empathy that students feel. This is what creates transformative learning environments.
Our approach is working and gaining recognition. Stanford University’s findings underscore the effectiveness of culturally responsive pedagogy in improving students’ outcomes. Kingmakers came directly out of the Oakland Unified School District’s (OUSD) African American Achievement Program (AAMA) which had tremendous success. OUSD data showed:
- 30% growth in graduation rate
- 48% reduction in suspension rates
- 25% increase in Black male teachers
- 93% retention in Black male teachers
To accelerate changing the narrative and serving the new demographic of this country will require unconditional love.
Youth voice and leadership is one of our key drivers so our Kings give me hope. We have two youth leaders who currently serve as active members on our board. We anticipate 100% matriculation for the entire first cohort of our Fellowship Initiative, a college readiness program.
We’re seeing policy changes with disproportionate discipline allies like California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond. He has advocated for resources being moved from the criminal justice system to school prevention programs that help reduce suspensions and chronic absenteeism. Early literacy programs are getting more attention because our children need to learn who and whose they are as early as Pre-K to begin the intergenerational healing.
Q. What results do you hope to achieve with The 1954 Project's support and funding?
We’re exploring regional clusters to deepen our impact and reach more districts that operate in the same region to leverage shared experiences and resources. This can accelerate progress to better support Black boys.
We also want to grow our place-based approach that we started with KOO Labs Design Center and Production House. Our organization purchased a facility in West Oakland in November 2022 that will become a resource to the local community where children, teens, and opportunity-age youth can learn skills like videography, photography, podcasting, music production, merchandise design, and manufacturing. Our goal is to teach the next generation the technical, creative, and imaginative skills required to tell new stories, gain professional experience, and increase financial literacy.
Next year, we have our sights set on purchasing 300 acres in Mendocino County to build a camp for Black boys. During the pandemic, it became painfully clear that Black youth lacked spaces where they could be with others who looked like them, a place where they could go to rest, heal, learn, and grow. Growing up, camp was a place where I could be myself and where I was accepted for exactly who I was. It allowed me to become the leader I am, so the personal transformation that can happen in these spaces is invaluable.
Q. How can philanthropists help reimagine our education landscape and better support Black education leaders in the United States?
Now is the time to double down on a commitment to education equity. Post-Covid, there is story after story about how the kids are not okay. It’s not just about learning loss, it’s about children’s emotional wellbeing. And we know that Black and Brown families got hit the hardest in the pandemic.
Black teachers are burning out at the highest rates. Kingmakers prioritizes creating support networks and affinity groups for Black male educators because greater diversity improves feelings of isolation, frustration, and fatigue that contribute to teachers leaving the profession.
Black teachers boost Black students’ academic performance, including improved reading and math test scores, improved graduation rates, and increased aspirations for college attendance. And, ALL students report having positive perceptions of teachers of color, including feeling cared for and academically challenged. We need to start measuring what matters and move to an asset-based – rather than deficit-based – narrative for our Kings.
In working with our districts we’ve learned the importance of being proximate to the community. Unrestricted funding and eliminating reporting or right-sizing metrics to focus on qualitative change allows organizations the freedom of discretionary spending that contribute to effective operations. It would allow us to scale at an accelerated rate to demonstrate impact across the nation in different contexts.