Last year, the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) launched a Social Innovation Challenge dangling the prospect of receiving a $500K investment to further the work of education reform activists of color. One hundred twenty-two individuals and teams submitted ideas and underwent six months and four phases of intense process. Then, last week, BAEO announced that they would not actually award the investment at all. While the outcome of the BAEO Challenge was unfortunate, I leave it to others to criticize the process. I am more concerned with the impact of BAEO’s stated rationale for canceling the competition: The
organization announced in an email and press release that among the 122 applicants there was not a single “revolutionary or transformative idea.” I was one of those applicants and my words are for my 121 comrades. First of all, I applaud you for participating in the BAEO Challenge. The original call for submissions asked for “big thinkers, big action, audacious ideas, new approaches, and disruptive solutions.” Simply seeing yourself in that framework as a Black person working to change education outcomes for Black children in America is an achievement in itself. Like me, you were excited about the possibility of our elders seeing value in our creativity and our impatience with the status quo. This Social Innovation Challenge carried generational significance. It was an opportunity for an older generation of Black people to directly and purposefully invest in a new generation of Black people. You saw the significance of the moment because you are a visionary. Visionaries see and it is incumbent upon us to keep seeing. You took this challenge seriously. Not wanting to let the elder statesmen of our people and movement down, you worked long hours doing research, having conversations, strategizing, writing and rewriting—trying to get it just right. You invested your own time, money, creativity and relational capital into this process. You shared your best ideas. You gave of yourself mentally, emotionally and spiritually as part of an agreement that one idea, from one of us, would tackle this problem you care about so deeply.
You sacrificed because you believed it was worth it—for one of us to be propelled to a new level of prominence and effectiveness. You understood that even if it were not you who won the grant, you would be gratified that a new generation of Black leadership in education would emerge. You did this while holding down jobs, volunteer responsibilities and families. So, it’s understandable if you are now a little frustrated, even angered by the whole process—especially if you found yourself taking days off of work to go to Atlanta as a BAEO Challenge “finalist,” as I was. But don’t be discouraged. This agreement was broken, but we can’t let that fact break our willingness and ability to dream. The world is ready for and in great need of new Black voices leading a revolution in education. In fact, the world is desperate for them. You are still that new generation of leaders. We need a revolution in education—to radically disrupt a system that leaves
two-thirds of Black children unprepared to succeed in college, in work and in life. Although the BAEO Challenge did not identify any of our ideas as “revolutionary or transformative,” we are still the future of this movement. We will lead this revolution. Revolutions don’t emerge from the presentation of an award. They start in obscurity, in the trenches, in neighborhoods and courtrooms, community centers and statehouses, in countless localities the whole country over. So keep visioning. Keep leading. Keep dreaming, believing and working. The real revolution is out here with us. To my 121 fellow laborers, wherever you are…carry on.
Chris Butler is first a husband and a dad. He has been involved across the spectrum of public engagement activities and has worked with a number of diverse constituencies in urban and suburban communities. He has also been involved in several political campaigns including his service as a youth and young adult coordinator for Barack Obama’s primary bid for U.S. Senate.