During Black History Month: Work that inspires us

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Black History Month is a time for teaching and learning, but it is also time for reflection. In a year where racial unrest has been at a tipping point, I challenged my staff at Phi Theta Kappa (PTK) to reflect and share how Black leaders — past and present — have inspired their work as advocates for community college student success.

Lynn Tincher-Ladner

Through this exercise, I found that Black leaders not only fuel our mission, they give us a tremendous amount of clarity that centers around the importance of our work and the need to create equitable postsecondary outcomes for America’s community college students — regardless of race.

Headquartered in Jackson, Mississippi, Phi Theta Kappa sits at the very heart of the civil rights movement. People here can see and touch Black leaders who are a part of the Black history that we now celebrate. Local heroes like James Meredith, who was the first Black student to attend the University of Mississippi, can be seen most mornings having breakfast and coffee at a favorite local café. If you ask him, he will talk to you about the day he was escorted through violent campus protests under the protection of federal marshals. That was 50 years ago. In Jackson, there are memorials to the Freedom Riders and to civil rights leader Medgar Evers, who was murdered in 1963 for opposing school segregation.

As I began hearing from staff members, there were a lot of inspirational Black leaders whose names I wasn’t surprised to see on the list — Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, Jackie Robinson, Zora Neal Hurston, Henrietta Lacks, Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman were all listed among staff members as having a tremendous impact and being significant points of inspiration.

Phi Theta Kappa staff members have also been inspired by more contemporary Black voices, including Lizzo—who advocated for Black voters to participate in the most recent presidential election, Shonda Rhimes and Amanda Gorman, whose profound poem at President Joe Biden’s inauguration left the nation speechless. Not surprisingly, staff members have found inspiration from family members — the first in their family to graduate from college, or the first woman of color to serve on a jury, grandfathers and mothers. In big and small ways, these Black leaders have made history.

Other staff members pointed to specific works that served as points of inspiration including Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. Others included:

  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Wouldn’t Take Nothing for my Journey Now and Human Family by Maya Angelou
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston
  • The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration and Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents byIsabel Wilkerson
  • Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal by Dr. Randall Kennedy
  • Black Boy by Richard Wright

But most notably, I found our staff to be most inspired by today’s students who are making tomorrow’s history. As community college leaders, we know that persistence and completion outcomes for Black community college students are less than they are for their White counterparts. Changing that is at the center of what we do every day on more than 1,200 community college campuses across the country.

But in a recent study of equity outcomes among Phi Theta Kappa members, we learned that our Black students have at 93% student success rate — demonstrating that PTK is not only leveling the playing field for Black students, it is changing it. These students — many of whom are from low-income backgrounds or the first in their families to enroll in college — teach us more than we teach them. They inspire us to do better than our best and to provide them with the recognition, leadership training, tools, financial resources and mentorship they need to improve their lives and the lives of their communities.

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Dr. Lynn Tincher-Ladner is president and CEO of Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society. Phi Theta Kappa’s mission is to recognize high achieving college students and provide them with opportunities to grow as scholars and leaders. Phi Theta Kappa is recognized as the official honor society for community college students by the American Association of Community Colleges.