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

No one asked Sharif El-Mekki if he was interested in becoming a teacher until after he had graduated college. In fact, during conversations with colleagues he discovered that while other Black educators had been invited into the profession after college, their white counterparts had, on average, first been asked if they were interested in becoming teachers in the third grade. 

El-Mekki founded The Center for Black Educator Development in 2019 to increase the number of Black educators in the U.S. education system and address other inequalities plaguing our schools. By making sure that educators of all backgrounds are appropriately equipped to address their own racial biases and support students of color, The Center improves the quality of education that students of color receive. 

Because of his innovative work, El-Mekki 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 El-Mekki about his work. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Q: What inspired you to launch your organization? 

While a lot of people were interested in more teacher diversity, I didn't see a whole lot of coordinated efforts around the country. We’ve designed our organization to have four pillars. 

  1. Policy: Advocating for educational policy and educational justice issues -- policies that would help inform, support, and protect.  
  2. Professional Learning: All educators should have very deep and profound, robust, meaningful and sustained, culturally responsive practices.  
  3. Pedagogy: We recognize that so many teachers who are coming to our Black and Brown communities are not even aware of the deep, meaningful, and powerful Black pedagogical frameworks. Typically, a teacher goes to a teacher college, and they learn about Horace Mann and [John] Dewey and [B.F.] Skinner and even [Maria] Montessori, but they don't learn about Black education theorists, Black behavioral theorists, Black child psychologists, human growth development theorists. 
  4. Pipeline. That's something within our control - engage the students who are within our communities.

Q: How is your organization helping to create a more equitable education landscape?

We've worked with the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) and stakeholders to create the Aspiring to Educate initiative. PDE has a goal of increasing teacher diversity by 2025, and we've been able to provide support and technical assistance to stakeholders. 

In many places, a school superintendent may say, “I want to improve diversity.” That's great, they absolutely play a crucial role, but they should not be the only one in a city focused on that. Nationally, we're hoping to inspire and challenge folks to create a consortium. Look at it as a city issue -- how the Chamber of Commerce, legacy civil rights organizations, and nonprofits all come together in a concerted effort to diversify their city's teachers and educators. 

Q: What are the biggest challenges you see facing children of color in the U.S. education system?

I think one of the biggest challenges continues to be low expectations for children of color. Not seeing their full humanity. Our teacher apprenticeship is really built on a lot of the learnings of Freedom Schools from across the country. We have an intergenerational model -- our staff coaches and mentors college students. We lift as we climb. And I think if educators entered the profession with the understanding that you're basically training your replacement; it means you're looking at these children of color as your equals. I think the mindset of so many educators about, not only the children but the communities who love them and send them to our schools is extremely problematic, if not downright racist.  

Q: Can you tell me a little bit more about the 1954 Project and what you hope to achieve with their support?

It's such an honor to be recognized as one of The 1954 Project inaugural Luminaries. I just have deep respect for the other four educational leaders in our cohort. All of us will learn together and individually so this cohort model is really powerful and important. I'm hoping that over the next few years as we grow and face barriers, doors, and blind spots, the 1954 Project will help us get beyond those and grow and learn. What does it look like to expand? How can we continue to grow our work and provide more support across the country? Ultimately, I look at the 1954 Project as partners in building the Black teacher pipeline and it sets a precedent for how to support educators of color. 

Q: How can philanthropists help reimagine our education landscape and specifically better support Black education leaders? 

Sometimes a funder might say "that's great work" and not quite understand the depth of meaning it has in the lives of leaders of color. I'm hoping a philanthropist can really see beyond just the work and recognize that the people who are actually solving the problem, they probably live aspects of it. And they should be highlighted, funded fully, and supported. 

Philanthropists should be asking:

"How can we best support you?" 

"What are the barriers that are blocking your progress, blocking your effectiveness?" 

And just centering their voices and experiences more. We've been really grateful to our funders for being supportive and curious. 

Q: What should donors know about growing the field of Black education philanthropists and allies that The 1954 Project is trying to bring together?  

They should know that it should be a coordinated effort. Our pipeline is a 12-year investment and I know people often shy away from the long-term. They want to see immediate results. It didn't take two years to build a teacher workforce that is almost 80% white, or 96% in Pennsylvania. I hope that donors will take a long view.