Alumni Spotlight: Keesha Ceran, Teaching for Change

Posted in News Story Spotlight

Keesha Ceran is the Associate Director of Teaching for Change, a nonprofit that strives to build social justice starting in the classroom by providing professional development, publications, and family engagement programs to help support teachers, other school staff, and parents. The Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership spoke with Keesha about her experience in the  world of education, her time within the Nonprofit Management Executive Certificate Program, and her recent acceptance of the 2023 American University MLK Jr. Visionary Award.

The nonprofit sector is vast with so many important causes to champion. What led you to pursue a career in education with a focus on social justice?

I think for me in particular, a big motivator was COVID. I call it the Great Confrontation — seeing the racial rebellion happening and the disparities that were happening, whether it was conflict in the workplace or how to balance work and home life. For a long time, many organizations were traditionally inflexible and rigid to what we had seen as support and understanding of the whole self within an organization, even though other industries were creating flexible work schedules, offering fully remote or hybrid work environments. They were adapting the traditional 9-5 to meet the needs of employees contributing to the work. These factors and among others motivated me to want to be in a space that was making direct change and impact.

Education has always been a root issue for me when I think about social justice. It’s not so much the format of education or the structure of the education system necessarily but it is this connection of what is knowledge, who knows it, and how it is shared. My family is from Haiti and so I think a lot about the disparities that exist there and how it happens to be around what knowledge has been shared. When I see things like microfinance organizations that are connecting women with a craft they might be doing on their own and building a business around it, I think those pieces are really important. I’ve always had a curiosity about the pipeline from pre-K through college, if that’s the choice of a person or their family. The curiosity continued to grow, having spent over a decade on a college campus as a student and then a staff member. Through this lens, I was again confronted with how knowledge flows and what is missing and how young people are adapting to new environments and new frameworks of knowledge. What is the information that gets shared and how it is shared has been at the heart and core of who I am. As a lifelong learner and knowing I want to be soaked into history, culture, and community — these are some of the grounding reasons for my desire to jump into the work we do at Teaching for Change.

Your organization, Teaching for Change, provides educational programming and support to teachers, families, and students that emphasizes important topics like early childhood anti-bias education, the history of the civil rights movement, combating Islamophobia, and incorporating curriculum about Central America, among many other projects. Within this work, what topics have you found to be the most impactful for students to learn about?

A core of what we do and who we are is about the philosophy of teaching outside the traditional textbook, and we recognize that because so much is lost and not centered in the textbook, a lot of our resources provide the information that isn’t generally known. When I think about what is the most impactful, it’s hard to choose because there is so much information. How we were founded was based on the work we were doing around Central America. We began in the 1970s as a coalition of community and concerned educators who were coming together to provide context for this new generation of young people. We were confronting this huge gap of what educators knew or understood about the communities they came from and how to support and serve them. Thinking about the fact that next year we will be celebrating 35 years as an organization, this is still true.

What I love about the work that we do here in D.C. is again thinking about what history is missing from the general curriculum and what’s so important about seeing ourselves represented in that work. One of the things that we do locally that I love is called Teach the Beat, which brings go-go music into the classroom. It’s the official music of Washington, D.C. and is awesome to see the intersection of history with the present and a music technique that young people may not be familiar with. There is this joy that happens especially for educators or administrators who have a memory of go-go and get excited when they walk past a classroom and wonder why Sweet Cherie, Ju Ju, or another artist is there teaching that day. It is those moments of connection that are so valuable and so important. We know that music is a universal kind of language and an entry point for a lot of young students and educators, like me, who are not from the D.C. area and are learning what D.C. is, and has been, and how it can grow.

What new approaches are teachers using to engage students that you think have promise within the future of education?

I really respect these educators who continue day in and day out and I feel that educators, in particular, get missed in what it is to be first responders in the way that society has deemed it. The other part that gets missed is when we classify this reverence of first responders and its generational connection. Someone’s father, uncle, or whomever was a police officer or a firefighter, but that same tradition is very much embedded in the culture of education. There’s a tradition of generational lineage that we don’t really celebrate when it comes to educators. What I appreciate about educators who are committed to this type of work is their desire to continue to learn, to bring in these new resources that they are engaging with – whether it’s through our Zinn Education Project, Teach the Black Freedom Struggle classes, our teacher working and study groups, or the curriculum fairs we host here in the D.C. area.

In August, we held our inaugural social justice curriculum fair and just a week ago we held our annual Black Lives Matter school curriculum fair. When you talk about the tenets of Black Lives Matter at school, our foundation is that every young person needs to be affirmed in the community where they spend their waking hours. Having more educators continue to invest in these resources and new pedagogies and to investigate how they can develop their praxis can create the just classrooms that we desire for our young people and that hopefully then creates the just communities that we desire for ourselves.

You were recently announced as this year’s winner of American University’s MLK Jr. Visionary Award, an award that celebrates the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by honoring important contributions made within the DC metro area. Congratulations! With this new recognition, what do you hope to accomplish both as a nonprofit leader and within Teaching for Change as an organization?

For a long time, I’ve been committed to the radical, less saturated version of who Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was and what we still get to see from his writings and his speeches. I think it’s too much for us to assume that it is someone else’s generation to handle or fix what we’re seeing in front of us  — especially with the weight of what young people have to witness and then to add this as their burden; it is tragic, to be honest. For myself, there is a commitment to the vision [of MLK Jr.] and to continue to do the hard work that is necessary for change. I think that looks a bit different depending on where we are placed. What I’m finding is that there is success in engagement and in the connections of a broader nonprofit ecosystem. Who is answering that need doesn’t necessarily have to be in the education space; how are we all cross pollinating, whether its information sharing or collaboration in some other aspect, is important. I continue to think about what ecosystems look like and how we can continue to build those ecosystems in a positive community-centered way.

Organizationally, we will do the work until the work doesn’t need to be done anymore, and so I really love the people that I get to work with every day. I was blown away knowing how much they’ve been able to do with such a small team and how much we’ve been able to move in the last thirty plus years. I think it’s really exciting to be in a space where you can find your stride. Some days are really hard but then there is joy in knowing there is change happening at the same time. When I think about how we organizationally live up to those legacies of great champions, people who contribute a lot to the history, the change agents and makers of the world, I think it’s the everyday work that continues to be the motivation and momentum for what hopefully will be sustained for a long period of time.

What is one significant challenge you have faced as a leader in the nonprofit sector?

I think sometimes there is a challenge of when we are in the weeds doing the work and how can we either keep our head above water or have someone else remind us to look above the water to see who else is there. Sitting in different sessions talking about capacity building can be good but I don’t know if it necessarily answers all the questions when the response is for us, as nonprofit leaders, to make the time. It’s hard to make time when the thing you are trying to combat has no time boundary. That is a challenge I see in the sector itself, especially for small nonprofits that are directly situated in the community ecosystem. What does that look like for our own wholeness as practitioners and for the wholeness of the community and the sustainability of the work that we do?

How has the Certificate Program helped you in your career?

The blessing was that I was able to participate in the program six months into my role as the associate director at Teaching for Change. The biggest takeaway of the certificate program for me was understanding language for a sector I wasn’t aware of and also the grounding of what being a leader in this field looked like. It gave me the context so that I could do the work that I am doing at Teaching for Change. Even if I don’t act daily on many of the lessons I’ve learned, the information sits in my head so that when there’s an opportunity, it can be brought forward. It’s also given me a space to stay connected with my cohort members to offer resources or if there are questions that come up and for people to bounce ideas off of. Knowing that there are roughly 40 other people out there who I have a direct connection with is something that I will appreciate now and will continue to appreciate in the future.

What advice would you give to professionals who are considering participating in the Certificate Program?

The best advice that I would give is to know that the program is a toolbox, not a road map.  Recognize that you are doing good work as it is, there might be a nugget here and there that helps you refine a process or introduce something you haven’t been doing before. I also recommend [this program] for individuals like myself who have transitioned into this sector and are just learning.

To learn more about Teaching for Change, visit their website or follow them on Twitter (@teachingchange) and Instagram (@teach_change). Follow Keesha on Twitter (@njc89) or Instagram (@kjc89).