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A #BlackLivesMatter Leader At Teach For America

President Obama greets Brittany Packnett, the executive director of Teach for America in St. Louis, last December.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais
/
AP
President Obama greets Brittany Packnett, the executive director of Teach for America in St. Louis, last December.

When 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., last summer, Brittany Packnett felt that she had no choice but to get involved.

"I'm a North County kid," she said, referring to the region of St. Louis that includes Ferguson. "These are my people. Mike could have been my brother."

Packnett helped launch a newsletter covering the protests that unfurled around Brown's death and other police killings of African-Americans across the country — what has become known as the #BlackLivesMatter movement. At 29, she was the youngest member named to the Missouri governor's Ferguson Commission, set up to inquire into the root causes of the unrest in that city.

Packnett is also a 2007 Teach for America corps member, worked on Capitol Hill on the organization's behalf and is the current executive director of St. Louis' Teach for America program. She was a founding member of The Collective, the TFA-alumni-of-color organization we profiled last fall (you can read that story below this one). She sees her work in schools and her political work as feeding into each other.

She and her TFA teachers have found themselves mentoring high school students turned activists. "For me, personally, the function of the classroom is to create not only strong learners but strong leaders," she says. "We need great learners and critical thinkers, deeply engaged and pushing back on the status quo."

As we wrote last fall, Teach for America has been the target of increasing criticism lately, much of it from its own alumni. Critics have raised questions about the systemic impact of bringing minimally trained teachers, who until this year were mostly white, into high-needs, high-poverty, majority-minority schools. Applications to the programhave been dropping, though the diversity of corps members has risen.

"I think the way that TFA has responded [to #BlackLivesMatter] quite frankly has surprised a lot of people," Packnett says. She sees the organization "learning from this movement and this moment," as teachers and students respond to the unrest in Baltimore and elsewhere. She notes that co-CEO Matt Kramer quietly showed up at the protests in St. Louis.

With her experience in Washington and as an executive with TFA in St. Louis, and her roots in the community, Packnett sees her role in the movement as being "a bridge."

This includes, she adds, working alongside people who may not agree with everything TFA stands for or does. "I think I often find myself in common cause with people who, if we dug into the weeds, we might not agree on everything and that's OK. As long as I am aligned with people who act on the belief that all children are great and all children are meant to be great, then we can get together."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.