Here's Why 'Work Hard, Be Nice' Isn't Enough

Jul 22, 2020 11:58:00 AM


I am a KIPP alumnus, former teacher, a life-long KIPPster and I am in full support of KIPP’s decision to change their motto, “Work hard. Be nice.” 

Last week, I read a couple of critical opinion pieces about KIPP’s decision that omitted the most important voices—those of KIPP students, families, alumni and teachers. I have no doubt in my mind that KIPP’s standards have not changed and they continue to create joyful, academically excellent schools like the one I attended—KIPP DC.

On its surface, the slogan is seemingly benign. But [pullquote]the reality for many of my fellow KIPP students across the country is this term fails to address the systemic inequities and injustices that many of us face.[/pullquote] As a member of the KIPP family for more than 15 years, I have a fervent and firsthand understanding of the intentions behind the motto, but I also understand the unintended, harmful impact of it.

My story, and countless stories of Black and brown youth in under-resourced communities, is why I support this decision. For many of my peers with whom I attended middle school at KIPP DC, [pullquote position="right"]working hard and being nice wasn’t enough.[/pullquote] We showed up to school every day, ready to work hard and collaborate with our classmates and teachers to grow our brains. After school, we went home to work hard on hours worth of homework. We even showed up to Saturday school with the same mindset, but that wasn’t enough.

Some of us didn’t make it to our high school graduations, and it wasn’t because we didn’t work hard and weren’t nice. Some of us had to drop out of school to take care of siblings or find a job to help put food on our family’s table. Some of us didn’t make it because violence struck and lives were taken while getting to or leaving from the same school building where we were taught to work hard and be nice in order to be successful. 

I rose despite injustice and oppression, and today I use my voice and knowledge to make our country and world a place where children are free to create the futures they want. While at KIPP, I received an amazing education, and with the support of my teachers and the KIPP Through College and Career program, I graduated from Syracuse University. Following graduation, I joined Teach for America and returned back to KIPP to become a teacher and support the many students and families from my neighborhood in hopes that they will live a life of choice like I was afforded.

KIPP’s job is to equip our youth with the necessary skills to become responsible citizens and—more importantly—to build a more just world. No revolution or civil rights movement was ever won by being nice and docile. [pullquote position="right"]Black and Brown students don’t need to be told to work hard and be nice. We understand the importance of education and we show up every day[/pullquote]—despite the inequitable circumstances that many of us face—to continue working toward K-12 completion. To be clear, it’s reprehensible how hard Black and Brown students have to work to overcome challenges that some who criticize this shift will never know or understand, but we rise to the challenge every day.

I commend the KIPP Foundation and the board for listening to our students, alumni, parents and teachers about the changes necessary to make the organization more anti-racist. After all, these are the only opinions that should matter!  

Even though the slogan has been retired, KIPP’s main priority is to ensure that every student who comes through its doors receives the education that they deserve, while being taught by amazing educators who love them. I’m excited to work with the KIPP Foundation as well as countless KIPP alums, teachers, and students to come up with a more inclusive slogan that respects and takes into account the lived experiences of KIPP students around the country. 

Nathan D. Woods

Nathan D. Woods, M.Ed. is the senior manager of community relations and advocacy at KIPP DC. Prior to joining KIPP, Nathan joined Teach For America and worked as a middle school social studies teacher in San Antonio and a high school history teacher for KIPP DC Public Schools. Nathan holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and child and family policy from Syracuse University and a master's in educational policy and leadership from American University.

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