An Interview with Kenya Bradshaw, Vice President, TNTP
For more about the Black & Bold: Perspectives on Leadership series, click here.
Kenya Bradshaw, Vice President, Community Engagement and Policy, TNTP
Choosing Love. Continual Learner. Constant Change.
As a champion of children, Kenya Bradshaw’s work in education reform is grounded in the belief that all children deserve the opportunity to achieve their hopes and dreams and education is the primary vehicle for reducing poverty.
Tell me about your current role?
I’m Vice President of Community Engagement and Policy at The New Teacher Project (TNTP). I’ve been with TNTP for five years, and I oversee design, development, and implementation as we think about sustainability and how to authentically engage families and communities. I do this work because I see education as the primary vehicle for reducing poverty and making sure that as many children as possible have the opportunity to achieve their hopes and dreams. (Kenya Bradshaw pictured at right.)
What are some of your career highlights?
I used to work for Stand for Children, and as the Tennessee Executive Director, I helped put a number of progressive school board candidates in place. Since then, I have watched them lead through a community-centered lens. In addition, I helped build the advocacy strategy that resulted in Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K Program, which connects thousands of students with free, high-quality Pre-K. I also served on the transition planning committee that merged Shelby and Memphis County Public Schools, two districts that had previously been racially bifurcated. I mention that one because I believe that it’s important to reflect on areas where I could have been better. In an attempt to create a world-class education for our children, we sometimes appeased racism and fear. Instead of actually merging the districts in to one district and creating mini innovation zones, we instead broke off based on neighborhood lines. I wish I had taken a more aggressive stance to build a collective vision for all kids in the county.
If there was a headline for your leadership journey throughout your career, what would it be?
I strive to develop others and to be a continual learner. A good leader is one who can lead others to their next step, not just lead them through the work they’re doing.
I also ascribe to a staffing philosophy where I hire to address my weaknesses. Some hire in their strengths. I hire the exact opposite — I want people who are stronger than me on my team. We are not required to know everything or be good at everything. Instead, we must be humble about what we don’t know, and inquisitive enough to keep learning.
What are your favorite types of challenges?
Creating something from nothing. I love to begin with an initial vision — an idea — and then build it into something. When I build a team, I hire people who have the expertise needed to help implement that vision.
When I retire from my current role, I want to work in international education or on water rights and water security. I see a tremendous connection between water rights and education. Urban communities are being systematically exposed to environmental poisons, and as a result, special education rates for kids in communities with water issues are disproportionately higher.
I believe that Flint, Michigan is the tip of the iceberg for what else will happen in the U.S. and the rest of the world. People only think about water in Flint, and they often forget that there was lead in the pipes. And the majority of counties around U.S. are leaking some lead. The Environment Protection Agency (EPA) says there can be a small degree of safe exposure, but in actuality, kids should have no exposure.
What is one book that was meaningful or influential in your development as a leader?
I can think of several books that had a major impact on me. The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein shows how laws have been used throughout history to justify the oppression of people of color. I also have a book of Dr. King’s speeches that I return to again and again, as well as an anthology that contains some of the best speeches in the world — Lincoln, Mandela, Gandhi — which I’ve found to be really helpful. And of course, the Bible. My faith provides me a foundation to return to in times of uncertainty.
Work in the social sector can be very personal and linked to one’s values. Can you think of a time when your values were in tension during your career and how you reconciled that tension or not?
As I mentioned before, the 2012 merger of Shelby County Schools (SCS) and Memphis City Schools meant a tremendous amount to our community, but I don’t think we did enough to demand innovation during and after the merger. We had an opportunity to revamp the district academically, improve career and technical programs, and create a much more progressive vision. I believe that SCS individually has taken great strides in these areas post-merger, but as a community we still lack a comprehensive education blueprint.
I am a huge believer in equity and innovation, and I don’t think I let my values live up to their full potential during the merger. As activists, we tried to be very collaborative, when we needed a stronger position. How do we look out for our children who are not going to have the ability to break off from the district — as many of the suburban districts ended up doing?
We are now six years out, and SCS has led with some strong community values such as moving all employees to a living wage. I still wonder how much further we could be if we thought of all children as our children.
Summer 2017, Democratic Representative Maxine Waters coined the phrase, “reclaiming my time,” as she thwarted Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s attempts to waste her time with nonsense. Can you share an experience in the workplace where you have had to reclaim your time? What was the context? How did you navigate it? What was the outcome?
In Rep. Waters’ case, she reclaimed her time by refusing to allow Sec. Mnuchin to use the time that was rightfully hers to spread false narratives. Instead, she owned her own narrative.
One of the main ways that I’ve reclaimed my time was by committing very early on in my career to not allowing myself to be tokenized. I do not support companies or organizations that lack a strong vision for diversity or that don’t have women of color in leadership positions.
Another way that I’ve reclaimed my time is by showing up as my authentic self. I wear a lot of hats in my life, as do most women of color. I am a Vice President, an aunt, a sister, a small business owner, and a wife. All of these roles are important to me, and I strive to be a person who does not compartmentalize her life into “work” and “outside of work.” I try to show up as myself wherever I go.
I have also reclaimed my time by being transparent about my mental health needs and my mental health journey. I have an anxiety disorder, and I am very open about it. I resist the narrative that we need to be seen as perfect in order to be taken seriously as professionals.
What’s your approach to self-care? Are there any rituals you use to survive and thrive?
I’m a huge believer in self-care. I schedule quarterly visits to the beach, because that’s where I have the deepest communion with God. I believe in regular massages and I’m adamant about protecting my mental health — I’ve had a therapist for over eight years now. Recently I’ve been challenging myself physically as well. I ran a half-marathon last December and signed up for the St. Jude 10k this December.
What advice would you offer other Black women trying to develop or amplify their voice and become self-advocates?
Ask for help. Find an executive sponsor by reaching out to other Black women who are thriving in the fields that you aspire to. Executive sponsors are different than mentors. They can nurture you and help you get exposure by opening doors that you may not have even known needed to be opened.
People want to help you and see you succeed. You need to carry that belief and walk boldly.
If you could change the social sector in a way that would benefit, lift up, or affirm black women, what would that change be?
I would want to see far more Black women, Latina women, and First Nation women in positions of leadership where they are controlling dollars, resources, and strategy, and also receiving the support they need to be successful. Black women have always been servants in their communities, many times in the background; may they take their rightful place as leaders, CEOs, elected officials, and board members.
Women of color also need to think about how we can change the political narrative. There are still too few of us in public service and on boards. How can we push other women of color to consider running for office? It’s so necessary for our communities.