Editor’s note: Startland News is showcasing six Kansas City changemakers from five local organizations in its inaugural Community Builders to Watch list. The following highlights one of the 2021 honorees, selected from more than 100 initial nominees by a panel of judges. Click here to view the full list of Community Builders to Watch — presented by Fishtech Group and supporting sponsors Plexpod, Google Fiber and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.
Cornell Ellis, founder and executive director at Brothers Liberating Our Communities (BLOC), has what sounds to some like a fairly simple goal: increase the number of Black male educators in schools — starting with Kansas City. But if the solution to the representation gap was easy, Ellis said, it wouldn’t be ingrained in classrooms across the country and reflected in outcomes for students, especially Black boys.
Keep reading to learn more about Ellis’ plans for reshaping education.
QUESTION: Give us a glimpse into your background — who are you?
ANSWER: I’m a native to Kansas City and a product of a diverse Kansas City public and private education. After graduating from Rockhurst High School, I played football at the University of Missouri-Columbia for two seasons.
In college, I began my passion for education and justice. I became the director at Boys and Girls Club Teen Center in Columbia, Missouri, while also managing curriculum for trauma informed English Language Arts practices at Roosevelt University in Chicago. I earned my Bachelors of Arts in History from Avila University with a specialization in Ancient World Studies.
After graduating, I taught, managed, instructional coached and worked in administrative duties for eight years. Through this teaching success, I was able to participate in and lead advanced professional development opportunities like the National Academy of Advanced Teacher Education (NAATE) and Better Lessons Master Teacher program.
I helped found AMPLIFY! Teachers of Color Conference and Brothers Liberating Our Communities (BLOC), which both exist to sustain and increase teachers of color in education.
My educational and professional experience provides a strong understanding of equitable and justice centered surroundings for schools and leaders through public speaking and consultation with my LLC: Eggshells Inc.
It has been my career goal to create safe spaces for difficult conversations around race and equity. By curating liberatory curricula, creating anti racist professional development, and providing school systems with supplemental tools for teacher evaluation, I aim to make all schools places where all teachers can thrive and all students can achieve.
Get tickets now
Q: When did you first realize your work was building community in Kansas City?
A: When I stepped into my first teaching role, I didn’t have a team of colleagues that looked like me, or with whom I shared lived experience. I was part of only 1 percent of Missouri teachers who identify as Black men.
Over the course of my teaching career, I saw this data point in action. Black men also leave the profession in one to three years, which leads to an ever emptying cup Black men in education. I longed for spaces where I could collaborate with people who navigate the same world that I do.
In Kansas City Public Schools, 4 percent of teachers identify as Black men. This number still falls dangerously short of the 17 percent of KCPS students who are Black boys.
Schools are 50 percent more likely to lose Black teachers than their white counterparts. Black teachers and Black male educators, specifically, are severely under-represented and their absence is felt in student achievement data. Data strongly support the notion that students who experience teachers that look like them, speak like them, and share lived experiences with them, have dramatically increased achievement data.
When we recruit and retain Black male educators, we increase representation and, thus, student achievement. Over the course of my teaching career, as a Black male educator in an underrepresented space, I’ve seen you become more than just a teacher to students. You become their father and brother figure, a positive influence on their lives.
There are many theories about why Black men are not becoming teachers, but the real questions lie in why Black men are leaving the profession.
What can we do as leaders, community organizers, and philanthropists to impact the education system so Black teachers want to stay for a lifetime?
BLOC works to solve this problem through our pillars: Connection, Development, and Engagement.
As a Black male educator, my job becomes more sustainable when I have a network to lean on, development that makes me a better teacher, and a community that supports my work.
Q: What is your hope for Kansas City’s tomorrow?
A: Brothers Liberating Our Communities will measure our success by how many Black male educators we retain in this work and help advance into building and educational leadership.
Since 2016, we have retained 100 percent of our BLOC members in the education space, and all of them have gone on to be true leaders in their buildings. Taking the programs surrounding our pillars, BLOC was founded on and growing them to continue sustaining black men in education will be the first step towards our outcomes. We will continue to keep 100 percent of BLOC members (basic and gold) in education by transforming their experiences inside of existing educational environments. We will measure success in the long run by adding 50 new Black male educators to the KCPS Pipeline by 2026, and retaining 100 percent of BLOC members in education.
Through the tools and resources BLOC creates, thousands of students and families will be served through teacher development. When schools and teachers lean into racial equity and teacher representation, the learning community benefits. BLOC hopes to increase the number of Black male educators so all students can achieve at a higher level.
BLOC is looking to increase the ratio of Black male students to Black male educators to a more equitable level.
A true vision of racial equity includes the number of Black boys in the United States matching the number of Black male educators in the United States. A long-term outcome of this work is that every student in America has access to qualified, revolutionary Black male educators and leaders of all identities. Furthermore, professional working groups emerge for all identity subgroups within education and these groups would work together both to individually dedicate development based on identity and rooted in affinity, but also to further the pursuit of justice and racial equity for all students and communities. Local educational agencies would be able to operate as coalitions, overseeing the application of federal and state education dollars, ultimately ensuring that students are learning from the most qualified and culturally representative team of educational leaders possible and getting the opportunities they deserve.
Q: How can the community get involved with and support your work?
A: Check out our website! Come hang at an event, volunteer, or donate!
Q: What do you want your legacy to be?
A: Educational equity and justice.
Community Builders to Watch is presented by