One Good Question with Derwin Sisnett: Which do you build first, schools or communities?

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This post is part of a series of interviews with international educators, policy makers, and leaders titled “One Good Question.”  These interviews provide answers to my One Good Question (outlined in About) and uncover new questions about education’s impact on the future.

In what ways do our investments in education reveal our beliefs about the next generation’s role in the world?

To me, investment is all about bringing opportunities to others that we’re given to me when I was a kid, whether it was from my parents, community members, or business folks.  What I think we should bring to the table is time and thoughtfulness around this work.  My work is not just about education. It is about the whole community.  In the education reform movement, we’ve somehow convinced ourselves that if we overdo the classroom work, we’ll somehow address all the issues that we need to address because of kids’ “perseverance” and “resilience.”  If we get that part right, the students will somehow make it out.  The problem is – they make it “out” and you’ve left another void in the community.  Education investment has to be more about compassion and more about giving something that actually represents a sacrifice.

Building the infrastructure doesn’t necessarily ensure that people will take advantage of the service, that requires a shift in mentality. What you’re building in Memphis, a mixed-use development for schools, affordable housing, and performing arts center, will be a massive statement about the positive value on school and bigger community. If you build it will they come?

I don’t believe that if you build it they will come.  I believe if you build them, they will come.  As much as we wanted to build the Town Center as quickly as possible, it was in our best interest to actually build the capacity of the school, families and community first.  We almost had to realize this lesson over time because it took us years to raise the dollars.  When we open the campus this fall, we’re literally just transferring a school from one building to the next.  It’s not a difficult transaction for our organization.  We’re not wondering if we’re going to meet enrollment and we’ve developed a broader facilities strategy where Power Center Elementary will move into the older campus.  Therefore, it you build them, the people in your community, to a place where they see access to education as the first step to change, then they will protect and engender sustainable change for others.

There is some discourse that high-performing schools lead to gentrified communities.  How does that fit in the community development model?

In Atlanta, I met with an African-American developer, who understands African-American community, and he gave the best analogy about mixed-income communities.  He said, this is like Orbitz, you don’t know how much that person sitting next to you on the plane paid, but they got a seat on the plane.  Education access should operate in the same ways to increase access for all youth.  I grew up in New York where everybody paid $1.25 to get on the train.  That train is accessible to everyone and eventually even Mayor Bloomberg got on that train.  From millionaires to folks for whom it’s hard to get $1.25, they all understand the value of the train and it gives them access to everything. We are all on the same vehicle.  That’s where we need to be with education.  High quality schools represent an opportunity to eliminate gentrification.  It actually can inspire diverse communities.  People start to value what the school is itself and they recognize that this is not some thing for poor people or rich people, this is something for people.

This is a human issue.  That’s quite frankly my concern with education reform, we call it a civil rights movement, but we don’t actually have a call for humanity to this work.  It’s just simply “all kids need a great education” and we don’t drill down to why.  The why is because of humanity.  When I think about gentrification, the reason that happens is because somehow, we believe that this “thing” is so good now, this person shouldn’t have it (anymore). We convince ourselves that we somehow earned this public good.  No one in NY feels like they “earned” the A train. That’s just the vehicle to get from point A to point B.  and that makes it a right.

Derwin SisnettDerwin’s One Good Question:  Why do we so clearly understand the problem with Blackberry when the iPhone came out, but don’t understand the problem with ed reform?  It’s so easy for us to see how Blackberry missed the mark—they couldn’t catch on to the personalized aspect of the phone. But with schools, we still think we should focus solely on schools– not community development or community revitalization.  I wonder why we’re missing that mark?  Do we have the wrong people asking the questions?

About Derwin: In 2015, Derwin Sisnett founded Maslow Development Inc. (Maslow), a nonprofit organization that develops communities around high performing schools. Prior to creating Maslow, Derwin co-founded Gestalt Community Schools (Gestalt), a charter management organization that manages the growth of high-performing, community-based charter schools in Memphis, Tennessee. Maslow was established in order to extend the community development and real estate practices that are a core part of Gestalt Community Schools’ mission to other high performing schools across the country. To date, Gestalt serves 2,300 K-12 scholars across 6 campuses in Memphis. In addition to his work at Maslow and Gestalt, Derwin serves on the Power Center CDC Board of Directors, the Crosstown Arts Board of Trustees, the Martin Institute for Teaching Excellence Board of Trustees, the Methodist Extended Care Hospital Board of Directors, and the Memphis Light, Gas & Water Board of Commissioners, where he serves as Chairman. Derwin has earned a BA in Psychology from Emory University and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Hollins University. Derwin is also a Pahara-Aspen Fellow and a Broad Academy Fellow.




The Author

Passionate about education reform, multilingualism, peace, diaspora dance forms, and intersectionality.

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