The speakers were located in different parts of the country and the applause took place in the chat box, but even over Zoom, the event was festive.

The 1954 Project Presents: The 2021 Luminary Awards, held last week, was a celebration of educators—specifically, Black educators. The ceremony kicked off with filmed interviews of people describing their first Black teacher. Magic Johnson and his wife spoke briefly, as did actor Jay Ellis and musician, writer and activist Common. But the stars of the celebration were the five Luminaries selected by The 1954 Project: Black leaders working to transform education.

The 1954 Project, which was named for the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, was created last year with seed funding from the Cleveland Avenue Foundation for Education (CAFE) and the Walton Family Foundation, as IP previously reported. The goal of the organization is to recruit and support Black leaders in education.

As CAFE co-founder Liz Thompson observed when she announced the awards, “The 1954 Project seeks to radically reimagine how philanthropy connects with diverse Black leaders in education by providing these leaders with substantial, flexible support in order to drive innovation, improve student outcomes, and create lasting systemic change.”

The celebration marked The 1954 Project’s first round of Luminary awards. Each of the Luminaries, who were selected from an initial group of 200 candidates after a rigorous vetting process, will receive a grant award of $1 million. Thompson hopes the substantial size of the grants will give the Luminaries the resources they need to build on their work without constantly worrying about the bottom line. In an interview last year, she cited research showing that the revenues of Black-led organizations are 24% smaller than those of white-led organizations.

“That is the kind of information that drove us to start The 1954 Project in the first place,” Thompson said. “We are going to be giving seven-figure sized grants to make transformative change possible.” During the awards celebration, Thompson announced that the Walton Family Foundation had just made an additional $15 million investment in The 1954 Project.

Blueprint of the possible

The five Luminaries selected are all working to promote education justice in different ways (see the complete list of Luminaries). Aimée Eubanks Davis started Braven to help students, particularly underserved and first-generation college students, make the transition from college to their first job. Braven provides college-based coaching, mentoring, networking and internship opportunities to help prepare students for the job market.

Another Luminary, Nicole Lynn Lewis, heads Generation Hope, a group that helps teen parents get college degrees. Lewis got pregnant when she was still in high school, and when she broke the news, mentors and family members alike assumed that was the end of her college dreams. But she was determined to go to college anyway; she enrolled at William and Mary and took her three-month-old baby with her. Her book, “Pregnant Girl: A Story of Teen Motherhood, College, and Creating a Better Future for Young Families,” was just published this month.

Adrian Mims started The Calculus Project after he noticed how few promising Black students were participating in upper-level math classes in high school. The Calculus Project tries to close the achievement gap in mathematics by providing summer math programs and working with teachers and school administrators to steer more students of color into calculus and other high-level math classes. According to the organization’s website, research shows that each level of math a high school student completes boosts their chances of completing college.

The project also introduces students to people of color in STEM fields. “Students need to be able to know and envision themself as STEM students,” Mims said. “So we bring people into the classroom, mathematicians and scientists that look like them. This gives them a blueprint to know what is possible.”

Mims himself did well in math when he was in school, but if he ran into problems, he had people to help him, including a math teacher who lived next door. “I had people who believed in me,” Mims said. “That helped me and showed me the importance of that kind of support.”

Building the Black teacher pipeline

Sharif El-Mekki, another Luminary, heads the Center for Black Educator Development, which is working to build the pipeline of Black educators. Research shows the benefits to Black students of having even one Black teacher. While 15% of U.S. students are Black, the percentage of Black teachers is just 7%.

According to El-Mekki, there are many disincentives to a teaching career for Black students. but the primary barrier is racism. “When people are asked why they left teaching, the number one reason Black educators give is that they did not feel valued or respected as an educator,” El-Mekki said. “The burden of being Black in America is reflected in our schools. I’ve heard countless stories of racial stress, of Black teachers not being respected as intellectuals doing deeply important work. Instead, Black teachers, especially Black male teachers, are often expected to take on the role of disciplinarian, as if that is the primary thing they have to offer.”

The Center for Black Educator Development is working to change the education system through its Freedom Schools Literacy Academy, which provides training, mentorship and experience for high school and college students who hope to become teachers. The center also provides ongoing support for students during college, and in the workforce.

El-Mekki himself attended a primary school started by African-American educators, so all his first teachers were Black. “There were high expectations, and a high level of support,” he says. “I never felt unloved. Having Black teachers made me feel seen, heard, understood.”

Hiewet Senghor heads the Black Teacher Collaborative, which is also working to increase the number of Black educators. During the recent celebration, Senghor applauded The 1954 Project for supporting the work of Black education leaders, who are too often overlooked and under-funded. “The solutions lie in the hands of Black people,” she said. “That’s how we’re going to achieve true systemic change, instead of nice little fixes.”

Tears, chills and dancing

Among the highlights of The 1954 Project award ceremony were video clips of the finalists as they learned that they’d won a Luminary award. The awards will not only allow the educators some financial breathing room, they are also an affirmation of their life’s work. Several of the winners burst into tears of joy. Aimée Eubanks Davis stood up and danced.

“I was shocked, overjoyed, overwhelmed,” Sharif El-Mekki said later. “I’m getting chills just replaying it in my mind—it was such a powerful experience. And it struck me that so often, that is how a Black child feels when they have a Black teacher who says, ‘I see you, I believe in you.’ It is so powerful to have that kind of support and encouragement.”