On Privilege: YES Prep COO Reflects on the Voices in Education Reform

Recy Benjamin Dunn HeadshotIn our BOLD Commitment to EQUITY series, members of Team 2020, our Executive Leadership Team, share how their work helps to eliminate educational inequity to advance social justice. Recy Benjamin Dunn, YES Prep’s Chief Operating Officer, is the guest author of our third installment. As COO, Recy leads system-wide operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy. Recy has an MBA and an MA in education from Stanford, and undergraduate degrees from the University of Texas at Austin.  Additionally, he completed his School District Leadership certification program at Bank Street College of Education.

“A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both.” ― Dwight D. Eisenhower
privilegea right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor; a special advantage or authority possessed by a particular person or group

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who worked at the New York Department of Education during the Mayor Bloomberg/Chancellor Joel Klein era to reflect on our time together, see where people were now and discuss the public school reforms we put in place between 2002-2014. I had the opportunity to work at the NYCDOE from 2008-2012. There were 150 people in the room at the reunion– four of them were Black males, two of the four were event staff (waiters), and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two Black men who were part of the reforms that took place in New York City during that era, but it was striking to me that on that day, more were not present.

As a man born into this world with a Black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with identity, color, and many aspects of this socially constructed thing we call race. During my adolescence and as I became an adult, I came to understand that I had privilege in many aspects of my life. Being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter skinned Black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a Black man and am proud to be a strong Black man.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve. There is an imbalance of power— white people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

Throughout my career, I have been drawn to positions in education where I can have the most leverage for true systemic improvement and change to hopefully make a better world. I have always sought to use my privilege to help others, specifically Black and Brown people and those who look like me, but may not have the agency or privilege to exercise their voice.

There are more than 1.1 million students in the New York City public schools. Of those, 27% are Black, 41% are Hispanic, 13% are English Language Learners, 77% are in poverty and 19% are students with disabilities. Many of the reforms during the Mayor Bloomberg/Chancellor Joel Klein era in New York City led to small schools, charter school proliferation and closures of underperforming schools. The three-legged stool of the reform agenda, Children First, was often described as leadership, empowerment and accountability. While the reforms were not perfect, I fundamentally believe we created many great school options for children in New York and made lasting change. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work. And it was a privilege for me to be in that room in NYC years later, reflecting on our legacy. The counterweight is that the room was largely white and those same folks are too often seen as the only leaders and voices that drive the collective education reform work.

When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence? Jeremy Beard, Head of Schools, started the same day. It was the first time YES had Black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.
“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the RGV and didn’t even know where it was on the map.
“Yes, it was,” he insisted.
“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”
“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.
“It wasn’t me.”
He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent and I would be remiss if I didn’t express that this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two light-skinned Black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different Black dudes. Even with a seat at the table, I continue to struggle and deal with microaggressions and ignorance, both professionally and personally.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard. In fact, I remain hopeful in the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege and is actively working toward becoming more diverse and inclusive. Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other Black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for Black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be Black men at YES. It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

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