Spotlight on Sharif El-Mekki, City Year Philly’s 2022 Idealist of the Year
City Year Philadelphia’s annual Red Jacket Gala is coming up next month on Thursday, May 5. We’re looking forward to coming together as a full community to celebrate our students, our AmeriCorps members, our schools and our city. If you haven’t RSVP’d yet, simply make a donation at least $75 per person, and you’re invited!
As part of the evening’s festivities, we are thrilled to honor Sharif El-Mekki, Founder and CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development, as Idealist of the Year. El-Mekki has been a steadfast partner, collaborator, and supporter of City Year Philly’s work for nearly two decades. As former Principal of Mastery Charter Shoemaker, he worked with a team of CYP AmeriCorps members, where he helped pilot a new college and career readiness mentorship program and supported alumni in pursuing careers as teachers at Mastery schools. Learn more about El-Mekki in this recent Philadelphia Citizen article.
Read our Q&A to learn more about El-Mekki’s work, his collaboration with CYP over the years, and his thoughts on supporting Black youth to pursue careers in education.
How did you come to learn about and get involved with City Year?
I first learned of City Year about 20 years ago through Lee Ann Pomidoro, a former CYP staff member, when I was Assistant Principal of Turner Middle School. She was looking for schools to partner with City Year, and I loved the concept. She described the AmeriCorps members as young, idealistic, near-peer folks who could provide support and afterschool programming for schools, and I thought, “Wow, this sounds amazing!” I worked in three schools for a total of 26 years—Turner, Shaw Middle School, and Mastery Shoemaker—and I am honored and grateful that City Year was a partner in all three of those schools.
El-Mekki speaks at City Year Philly’s virtual 2021 MLK Day celebration.
What was your reaction when you learned that you had been named Idealist of the Year?
I was honored, thrilled, humbled and surprised, all wrapped up in one. When you’re recognized by members of your community—and I consider City Year a part of my community—it lands differently. I have a deep respect and admiration for City Year, and their values are so aligned with my own. For them to honor me in such a way is, I think, also a tribute to our decades of partnership.
Too often, our youth are told that they have to wait until they’re older or reach a certain status to be able to make an impact. But in reality, young people lead all the time.
As Founder and CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development, you’re working to increase the number of Black educators nationwide through recruiting, training, hiring and retention. Why are you passionate about this work, and what motivated you to start this organization?
I got into teaching through an alternative certification program. I was originally planning to go to law school, and I had not considered education as part of my path. That changed when I met a veteran educator, Dr. Martin Ryder, who said that that the purest form of activism was teaching Black children well. That really resonated with me, and I wanted to be able to offer something similar to others.
At the Center for Black Educator Development, we are working diligently to create a national Black Teacher Pipeline that’s effective, sustainable, predictable, and that engages high school and college students—as well as early-career educators—to pursue this pathway into teaching. I wanted to build this Pipeline because I know the impact that Black youth can have in their communities. Our programming and apprenticeships allow them to experience schools as leaders of the classroom, as contributors to a community of learners.
Another reason why I wanted to start the Center came from an Angela Davis quote: “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.” This idea of committing to doing the work aligns with our values.
El-Mekki (front left) wears a t-shirt from the Center’s We Need Black Teachers campaign.
What resonates with you the most about City Year’s work?
City Year’s approach resonates strongly with my core belief that the calling to lead is now, and the participants in leadership should be the youth. Too often, our youth are told that they have to wait until they’re older or reach a certain status to be able to make an impact. But in reality, young people lead all the time. City Year empowers, enables and provides the space for this intergenerational leadership where Corps members aren’t just impacting students in K-12 settings, but they are also given opportunities to be led by their near-peers and by City Year staff. The model of Corps members being able to teach, lead, serve and learn deeply resonates with me.
Mary Church Terrell, an early Black education activist, used to say, “Lift as you climb,” to educators and those adjacent to schools. That’s how I see City Year Corps members—they’re lifting up students as they climb.
What does education equity mean to you?
I look at social justice, racial justice and educational justice as all inextricably linked. For me, education equity is about addressing all these things simultaneously, because ultimately they are all part of one orientation towards humanity. We need to understand the history of how we arrived here and the current context, but then also have a vision for the future and do the hard work to make things better.
Many Black youth, particularly Black boys, say that no one has ever had conversations with them about pursuing a career in education. The impact of just having conversations and planting these seeds can be incredibly important.
What’s the best way for City Year AmeriCorps members, and others, to support the development of Black educators and/or get involved with activist organizations like yours?
When I first learned that there was such a dearth of Black educators and that the attrition rates of Black educators are much higher, the number one thing I started doing was having conversations with Black youth and helping them connect the dots between leadership and leading in classrooms. I would point out times when I saw youth doing amazing things—such as helping a peer or a younger student, or even interactions with adults—and say to them, “you know, that’s what the best teachers do.” Many Black youth, particularly Black boys, say that no one has ever had conversations with them about pursuing a career in education. The impact of just having conversations and planting these seeds can be incredibly important.
The other piece is learning more about the Black pedagogical frameworks, the Black historical lens, and the contributions of Black educators. If we have a better understanding of these contexts, it’s much easier to have conversations with youth, partner with communities of color, and have a more equitable lens.
The Center for Black Educator Development has a paid summer apprenticeship program for aspiring Black educators. We hope that Corps members will consider participating once their service year is over. We also welcome Corps members and our partners to share this with youth who are interested in learning what teaching is all about and how education and racial justice intersect.
Are you considering a year of service, or do you know someone who is? Learn more about how to apply to serve with City Year Philly during the 2022-23 school year! Visit cityyear.org/apply-now to get started.
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