Carmen, Co-Founder Project Edquity, Mother, CA
Carmen Perkins, Co-Founder of PROJECT EDQUITY, is an innovative thinker providing unique solutions to address issues of inequity and exclusivity in education. A bold woman, educator, community activist, wife and mother - who seeks to solve the issues of our time in transparent and controversial ways. She lives in California with her husband and children.
Carmen is a Catalyst for RE-ENVISIONED and was interviewed by her Mentor Catalyst, Erin. Check out her work on education and diversity at http://www.projectedquity.com/.
Think about a kid you really care about – someone who is meaningful for you and just tell me a little about them.
I think of my oldest son who is a Freshman in high school. He’s very much a traditional learner: he loved education, sat in his seat, always gets straight As – the education system has worked for him. But I’ve seen how it hasn’t worked for everyone else. He just got lucky with the personality he has and the place he’s in – he has great educators and schools that support his learning style. But it’s interesting because I’ve been so lucky with him that my lens has just shifted because everyone’s not getting straight As or exceling or loving learning. It sparked this curiosity in me of all the different ways students learn and the fact our education system isn’t set up for the non-traditional learners and what that means for him. I believe education sets you up for the next stage in life – and empowers people in ways. Especially as a minority it has definitely been my saving grace of providing me with opportunities and getting to places and spaces I wouldn’t have without an advanced education.
Tell me about some of your son’s strengths – what’s his name?
His name is Donny. He’s really passionate about people. He realizes he hit the intelligence jackpot but he’s a giver and wants to see everyone around him succeed. He believes in the power of education in a real way – that it is formative and that as young black man how important it is for him to have opportunities.
Now, imagine that Donny is now in his 30s – out of school and starting into adult life. What do you hope for him for his life? What would make it a ‘good’ or ‘successful’ life?
To find happiness through service and to realize – I always try to remind him - you’ve really been given these amazing opportunities, a great family and financial stability and with that comes a certain level of responsibility. Many people haven’t been born in your shoes and have these great opportunities. Whatever you choose in life you must take advantage of what you know and understand that other people don’t have them. Whether you’re a janitor or CEO , you have to ensure that other people have access to opportunity. I hope that he finds his passion, whatever that looks like, whatever that is.
I like the find happiness through service. What do you think it takes to be happy?
A lot of self-reflection – you really have to know who you are and to dig deep and separate yourself from the world. Determine what places make you happy, what kind of people do you like being around, what kind of things spark your curiosity. I think it takes a lot of reflection and work on yourself. I feel sorry for kids growing up these days because they have too much distraction and it doesn’t allow them time and space to get to know who they are. So taking a step back from technology and access to constant information and do a lot of self-reflection and a lot of one on one interactions and try lots of things.
Is there anything you worry about getting in the way of them achieving that? Anything that keeps you up at night?
I worry that because he’s been sheltered a bit by living an upper middle class life that his reality is different from a lot of other people who look like him. Finding your balance in that is difficult - I grew up similar – to figure out where you fit in as a black person in this world when society tells you one thing and you experience something completely different is hard. It’s probably easier for kids now because minorities are becoming the majority. But I worry that he won’t carry his identity with him in the way I do. It’s the first thing I say when people ask me to say a little about myself - I’m a black woman. Kids these days don’t carry that with them in a way they’re proud of.
When you think of this life you want for him – pursuing his passion and finding happiness through service - ideally, what would you like the role of school to be?
Empowering students to be leaders by finding your north star - figuring out how to be a leader internally and externally. I think school plays a role in taking kids outside their comfort zone and challenging them. Life is going to be challenging enough kids need individualized attention.
I know there’s a lot of project based learning and new ways of teaching, but really ensuring there’s equity in how he’s getting information and feeling like he can have a voice in a multitude in spaces. What I love about project based learning is it forces kids to find their voice, to reflect on information, and to present it. It’s one thing to learn and take a test, but “processing what did that lesson mean to you, how does it impact you as a person?” I hope school does a good job giving kids these 21st century critical thinking skills. It’s not just about checking boxes anymore it’s about ensuring they’re emotionally intelligent critical thinkers.
Do you think schools will play the role you want them to for him?
I don't think it will for him. He goes to Catholic school so there's a lot about service and it’s ingrained in his daily life. But I don’t think for him: he’s almost done and only has a few more years left. But I hope it does for my younger kids – one’s 5 and 3. The way they think about things is totally different. Their level of inquisitiveness in the younger generation is very high – if school doesn’t keep up with that they’ll easily lose them because they want to know answers, they want to know why, they want to know what they can do to impact change. I don’t think the system is there yet.
In what ways do you think it will or won’t with Donny?
It will because we made a conscious decision to send our kids to Catholic schools, which is all about service and giving to the world – what are your gifts and how are you going to share them? However with Catholic education there’s a certain level of rigidness and they’re not always thinking outside of the box. He’s in such an academically challenging place the kids are just worried about getting into Stanford and they’re not thinking further than that – what is it I want to do once I get there, what are my strengths, what are my weaknesses? I don’t think they’re there yet.
Do you think schools will play the role you’d like it to for all children? In what ways yes or no?
We’re getting there. I think school choice is awesome and having charter schools is amazing. If we continue to have innovative educators thinking outside the box and demanding new ways of doing things then we’ll get there. What is gravely important is due to the shift in economics and the disappearing middle class – it’s imperative schools think about wraparound services. We have to start figuring out how to educate the whole child. It’s not just about advanced proficiency in state testing. It’s about how they are emotionally, do they have food to eat, where are they living… Because our world is shifting and people are really struggling. Give it about 20 years.
Ahh, we need to hang out – I need some of your optimism some days! I believe we can shift – I hope it can happen in 20 years. Maybe if we’re all working on it.
Do you think people agree with you on each of those levels? I know this is a broad question, so let's go one by one.
Do you think people agree with you on what a good life is?
No. It’s constantly a conversation we have in my house. I’m motivated by things my husband isn’t motivated by. I think that I’ve had the privilege to think that through and really create my life in a way that I’m doing what I want to do. I know that everybody doesn’t have the opportunity to do that. For some people it used to mean having a good job with benefits and I can take care of my family. As people are embracing wellness and mindfulness our world is moving towards a place where people are trying to make their lives work for them and creating financial opportunities for themselves. People with access to money and information are doing that and people who don’t are struggling.
Do you think people agree with you on the ideal role of school in achieving a good later life?
It varies, right - we all have an idea of what we think. My idea of school is based on my world view of what I care about. I don’t care about what my kids do I care about who they are in the world and that they have opportunities to be their best selves. I believe money and opportunity will come, so I’m very much a hippie… I’m sure there’s a group of people agree with me.
Do you think people agree with you on the reasons why schools don’t do what you’d like them to do?
I think so: people are waking up. I’ve been in charter schools the last few years and people are awake and parents are aware of what their kids are and aren’t getting. They know what to ask for and they’re digging deeper to ensure access and equity in education for their students.. They want their kids to succeed so they’re figuring out how to hold people accountable. They’re waking up and ed reform is huge…it’s on lots of people’s tongue and people are waking up.
Why do you think we have schools as a society? Why school?
I think to ensure a baseline of functional understanding. Traditionally it was a way for people to get to the same place and learning the same thing. I’m sure that worked at the beginning of time. So, to ensure that at the bare minimum kids could learn to grow up and come to adulthood with a certain level of knowledge.
In terms of your own learning experiences, what has been an empowering learning experience for you, in or out of school?
I definitely hated school growing up; I was one of those people who felt school was definitely not for me. I didn’t understand the rigid aspect of everybody being the same type of learner when I knew I wasn’t one of those kids. It was probably in high school when realized “oh, this isn’t for me and that’s okay.” It was empowering for me to realize I am not this basic learner – this doesn’t work for me. Thank goodness my mom took me out and I did some home schooling. It was empowering to finally realize we’re all not the same. When I grew up in the 80s and 90s everybody received the the same cookie cutter education– you’re going to learn like this or if not you’re failing. So it was empowering to realize I learn differently and I don’t want to sit in this seat all day that’s okay. I’m excited education is shifting to all these different learning opportunities and environments, it’s important people like me don’t get left behind. Many of my friends never got to that point - they dropped out or don’t believe in education they think it’s a joke because never got to see what it’s like when it works well. It was empowering to figure out I learn differently and can do things differently.
Was there anything I didn’t ask you that I should have? Or anything you’ve been thinking about recently related to schooling that you wish you could have talked about?
My approach to education now is more from a collaborative standpoint. The state used to mandate what education looks like but now I think it’s imperative it be a collaboration between parents, students, educators and the community…everyone should have a voice in what their education looks like. I’m just a champion for that. It’s crucial because it’s clear that educators and policymakers don’t always know and if everyone doesn’t have a seat at the table and a voice and a vote then nothing really changes. It’s important to think about the roles everyone places in the education space.