Leader for Life: City Year Milwaukee alum Kiesha Johnnies
My name is Kiesha Johnnies, and I proudly served with City Year Milwaukee’s FOUNDING corps. Yes, founding corps. What does that mean? That means that back in 2010, after I graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I agreed to serve a year in the city I grew up in with an organization that was just getting started. I joined 64 other young “idealists,” and we became City Year Milwaukee’s first ever corps.
“I served, and continue to serve, because all children, regardless of where they come from, deserve the opportunity to be equipped with knowledge and skillsets that provides access: access to a four-year university, two-year college, trade school or entrepreneurship.”
If it weren’t for the no-nonsense educators in my life, I would not have known, nor experienced, the possibilities of life outside of our area code, 414. Showing me at such a young age, versus just telling me, changed my world, my perspective and ultimately, my outcome; now I have the opportunity to provide knowledge that will grant access to the children I serve.
I can’t believe that it was 10 years ago when I joined City Year. Not only did I give a year to change the world, my world changed forever. Today I rely on skills, tools and resources that I gained from serving with City Year as the Training Project Leader. In fact, it is the culture of the organization and the professional development that I received from City Year that has steered me to where I am today.
As part of the Senior Corps team that was bringing City Year to Milwaukee, we wanted to make sure we provided excellent service to our students and community. We have a phrase shared in City Year that says, “Found it right!” We knew that it would be important to set a solid foundation that others would be able to build upon. In doing this, I learned that whenever we are founding something we must think it through, take the time—and do it right the first time.
We spent hours learning about City Year’s current impact and aligned our vision for the possibilities of City Year Milwaukee. From the look and feel, to the training schedule and the numerous guest speakers, we wanted our basic training academy to be a memorable yet impactful period for the 60 newest AmeriCorps members in Milwaukee, ultimately preparing them to successfully enter into six Milwaukee Public Schools.
I vividly remember creating the feedback box- a cardboard box that I decorated to collect feedback sheets on every session provided to our corps members so that we could improve their learning experience and enhance their skillset the next time we met. Feedback is a gift! It was during my time with City Year that I learned how to give and receive constructive criticism, reflect and implement.
This start up spirit stayed with me and following my year of service with City Year, I joined Teach for America and served as a Kindergarten teacher during the founding years of a charter school here in Milwaukee. As a teacher, City Year’s culture and ideas permeated my classroom and the students I worked with. I tried to foster Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of beloved community, which is something referenced and lived out during my year of service. Since the school I worked at was in its first year, there were numerous leadership opportunities afforded to me. From serving in City Year, I was accustomed to leading my peers; I had experience providing guidance, engaging all stakeholders and the importance of asking for feedback. All these skills served me well as a teacher leader.
The time I spent learning and growing in City Year sparked an interest and a passion for education. I was oblivious to the educational inequalities in a city that I grew up in.
“Not only did City Year expose the reality of where we are academically, they also provided their AmeriCorps members with the resources and leadership skills to actually shift that reality through our work in the classrooms.”
As I taught, I knew I wanted to expand my influence. After teaching, I was recruited to be the founding principal with HOPE Christian Schools. It was there that I was truly able to reflect on many things that I had learned at City Year and infuse our school with that same passion and energy from my year of service. I used tools and techniques that I had learned in City Year like the leadership compass, privilege line, meeting norms, circling up, spirit breaks and much more, to establish expectations and set the tone for the students and staff at my school. In City Year we used the leadership compass as a tool to understand each other’s working habits and how to effectively tackle projects as a team, and as a principal, it was necessary that in our first admin meeting my team participated in the leadership compass training. This allowed us to understand our areas of strengths and weaknesses as we prepared to embark on a journey together and open a new elementary school.
City Year taught me the importance of embedding academic success with service. For this reason, I prioritized building a DIVERSE team at my school. And I know that for us to be successful, we would need to serve together so I prioritized service projects and trainings that discussed difficult things like privilege and race and how it affects our students. I even hired someone who I had served alongside me in City Year to be a teacher at my school because I knew she had received in-depth training and development during her year of service with City Year.
have continued my passion for education in my current role as coordinator of coaching, clinical practice, alumni relations and recruitment at MSOE. In this role I serve as a coach to students who are teachers, assistant principals, principals and school administrators in the Master of Business Administration education leadership program.
“As I reflect on my time with City Year and how it affects my day-to-day work, I think back to all the interpersonal skills I gained while serving, things like public speaking and leadership but also learning about how to deal with conflict at work.”
In my role as a coach, I see a lot of people struggling with having difficult conversations. I think back to the skills I gained from working on a team and provide guidance and advice for those I coach. Through my work with City Year’s Alumni Board, I’ve been able to engage alumni from our MBA EL Program, plan events and continue to expand their impact and their professional development.
I learned a lot during my year of service with City Year Milwaukee, and I know the other corps members I served alongside did too. In fact, many of them are doing incredible work today. Lauren Feaster is the Chief of Staff for Teach for America MKE, Anthony Staton is the Dean of Students at Milwaukee College Prep, Emily Hoch is a therapist; there are so many other founding year corps members that continue to do impactful work for our city. Our service has lasted well beyond the one year commitment.
We started each morning with a saying that has stuck with me to this day- Today is Tuesday, November 5th, and we live to serve another day, and that is a beautiful thing.
Let’s continue serving the children of Milwaukee.
Remarks given by City Year Milwaukee alum Kiesha Johnnies (’11) at City Year Milwaukee’s 2019 Impact and Eggs event.
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