Philanthropy Roundtable recently sat down with Denisha Allen (Merriweather), founder of Black Minds Matter, a “national movement to celebrate Black minds, support excellence and promote the development of high-quality school options for Black students.” Allen, an American Federation for Children senior fellow, is a champion for school choice and a Florida tax-credit scholarship recipient. Through Black Minds Matter, she hopes to help provide access to an excellent education for every Black student.
The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: You founded Black Minds Matter, a project of the American Federation for Children Growth Fund (AFC), in 2020, a time when many Americans were seeking to address social injustices in our country. What led you to create this organization and what role does it serve?
Allen: I came to AFC after working at the U.S. Department of Education with Secretary DeVos. I worked with the Trump administration for two years, and then came to AFC as a director of Family Engagement. Then, in 2020, I wrote an op-ed in Real Clear Education about my frustrations in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. Our country was in civil unrest, maybe even the whole world was in civil unrest, and people were looking for ways to challenge racism. I wanted to bring attention to areas that would help Black America attain empowerment and excellence in all aspects of life. And, to me, that meant focusing on education. When I looked at the data, I saw that Black students are not reading on grade level or graduating from high school at the same rates as their white and Asian counterparts. I wanted to focus on changing that.
Unfortunately, at that moment in the national conversation, there was not a widespread initiative from the Black Lives Matter movement to talk about education and education reform. So, I coined the term Black Minds Matter to highlight that we need to focus on education freedom. We received a tremendous amount of support for what we stood for. And I’m proud that one of our first initiatives was to bring together a network of Black school founders. This was very personal for me because I went to a Black-founded school, and I benefited directly from the school choice movement.
Our mission is to nourish Black students with a rich education of their parents’ choice by any means necessary. Our goal is to expand our reach by engaging new audiences. This includes both Republican and Democratic elected officials, HBCU’s and our growing Black Founders Network. We are also committed to expanding our visibility through high quality content that can also be used to generate revenue for our work.
Lastly, we want to bring awareness about education freedom to the communities where Black students are most likely to be relegated to poor performing public schools. We have over 430 Black-founded schools in our online directory at www.BlackMindsMatter.net, and 150 Black school founders in our network. We were thrilled to have many of them in attendance at our second annual Black Minds Matter Summit in Washington, D.C., earlier this year.
Q: Can you tell us more about your personal connection to the work you are doing?
Allen: I went to a private school in Jacksonville, Florida, on scholarship from sixth grade onward. I failed the third grade twice because I couldn’t read. As you can imagine, I had very low self-esteem, and I was lashing out by starting physical fights. My life trajectory was going in the same direction as many of the people in my family who had all dropped out of school. When I switched schools, I went from getting F’s and D’s to getting straight A’s. When I founded Black Minds Matter, I saw the opportunity to highlight Black-owned schools as a part of that narrative, since school choice had such a transformative impact on my own life.
Q: Your website says that nourishing Black minds with a rich education is the first step to breaking generational poverty and societal inequities. What do you mean by societal inequities, and how does education combat this problem?
Allen: In America, there’s a class issue and there are a race issues, and sometimes those issues get intermingled and intertwined. But, at the root of both of those conversations is our education system. And the data shows that Black and brown students are performing the worst academically in this country. Just to give you an example, the NWEA just came out with a new study that follows in the same vein as recent NAEP [The Nation’s Report Card] scores. They said students on the whole will need three to four months of additional schooling in order to catch up from recent learning loss.
Shockingly, they found Black students will need two additional months to catch up. So, you’re telling me that Black students will need five to six months of additional schooling to make up for learning loss. When the system is pumping out hundreds of thousands of Black students who can’t read or do math into society, they end up in the criminal justice system. We call it the school-to-prison-pipeline. That is a societal inequity. That’s a civil rights issue. Black kids are not able to read. We need to change that.
When we look at education in America, we need to ensure that no kid is relegated to poor performing or failing schools because of where they live. Students in poorer neighborhoods are not receiving the same education as students who are going to schools where almost 90% of parents own their homes. We can solve this socio-economic/racial problem if we can create a market where competition is going to create incentives that perform better for students. Education freedom allows parents to choose the best school for their child regardless of school type. I sit on the board for Step Up For Students in Florida – the largest school choice program in the country. In Florida, we’ve seen academic outcomes for students in traditional public schools increase with every expansion of the state’s scholarship program. That’s because everyone is competing for students.
Q: Our 2021 Simon-DeVos Prize Winner Bill Oberndorf, chairman of the board of the American Federation for Children, has called access to education the civil rights issue of our time. Do you agree, and if so, why is that the case?
Allen: I absolutely do. It is the civil rights issue of our time. One of the goals of Black Minds Matter is to help the public see that school choice and education freedom are a part of the longer struggle for freedom in the United States and have deep historical roots. The conversation has been led by policy folks for so long, which is important. But I really want to make it more approachable and accessible to everyone. When we talk about the history of freedom in America, it is inextricably tied to access to education, from slavery through the Antebellum period all the way up to today. The struggle has always been access to education.
One of the ways we are working to showcase the connection between freedom and education is by conducting exhibits that illustrate the extent to which slaves wanted to read. One part of our exhibit showcases findings from archaeologists who found “pit schools” or deep holes in the ground where they also found tablets and pencils for writing. The slaves understood that their freedom was rooted in the ability to read and write, and they risked their lives to try to attain those skills. I always like to say there is freedom of the body and also of the mind, and that has always been the goal of African Americans in this country. They have never been divorced from one another.
Q: The recent Supreme Court decision ending affirmative action in higher education could impact students throughout the country. How do you feel about this decision and why?
Allen: I think it’s going to be very obvious that we need better options for Black students, and this decision makes that clearer. Black kids are not reading on grade level and removing affirmative action in higher education means Black kids will have to perform even better academically to be accepted into colleges and universities.
Q: As you look ahead, what are you most excited about for Black Minds Matter?
Allen: I’m always very excited about the Black School Founders network. They are amazing, so to be able to support them and champion the work they do for students is very rewarding. Many of them have models that are worthy of replication. We are going to focus on capacity building and finding ways to support them. I’m also very excited to get more involved in states and districts with the worst academic and life outcomes for Black and brown students, and to advocate for better outcomes in the lowest performing districts in the country. For example, I get excited when I think about a city like Baltimore, where reading and math levels are abysmal. The creation of education savings accounts in that city will help students access better choices. Through projects like this, we are going to close the achievement gap.
For more information about this organization or others providing Pathways to Opportunity, reach out to Philanthropy Roundtable Program Director Erica Haines.