An Interview with Taishya Adams, Educational Equity Specialist, American Institutes for Research
In this interview, Taishya Adams and Makiyah Moody discuss the importance of resisting, reforming, and re-imagining. Taishya talks about reclaiming space at the table, blackness in the workplace, threading the needle from historic relevance to present day implication, and reciprocal mentorship.
Makiyah Moody (MM): Thanks for tuning in for this installment of Black & Bold: Perspectives on Leadership. I’m Makiyah Moody and today I have the pleasure of conversing with Taishya Adams, who is hailing from Boulder, Colorado. Hi, Taishya.
Taishya Adams (TA): Hello.
MM: It’s so good to see you in real time.
TA: Indeed. Indeed. Wonderful to see you as well.
MM: Great. So, let’s just get into some of these questions because I know you have so much to share and offer to this dialogue. The first question is about this current moment that we’re in. For me 2020 has been a year unlike any other with a global pandemic, the protests from coast to coast, thinking about just the environmental challenges that we’re facing as a country and as a world, and there’s also this uptick with nonprofits and foundations that are claiming racial equity as this aspiration – actually declaring it. And so I’m wondering, what’s been your biggest moment of reckoning as you reflect on 2020?
TA: Thank you for that. I would agree that it has been unlike any other in my lived experience. The biggest moment of reckoning so far for me was really it feels almost like a cumulative issue. I mean, obviously, there’s a pandemic. I think one of the biggest opportunities there has been the great pause where we really as a country had an opportunity as a globe to revisit work production. What does it mean to be in community? What does it mean to have access to the outdoors and green spaces, especially when you’re in a quarantine or a space where you’re sheltering at home? Really got us revisiting education. I mean, really the biggest reckoning is that everything is back on the table, right? There’s so many times that we as organizers, as activists have been told, no, we can’t do that because of X, Y, Z. Well, this great pause, in my opinion, has really provided us with a rich opportunity to put everything back on the table.
And really, you know, I was talking with the wonderful folks over at 350.org, and, you know, they reminded me about what space did I want to be in. Do I want to be in the resisting space, in the reform space or in the re-imagining space? And I feel like 2020 is offering an opportunity to be in all three of those spaces. There tends to be a hyper focus on spaces one and two about resisting so you’ll see these protests that are the voice of the unheard, as we know, you see this continued focus on reform efforts, reforming a system that was never designed for all of us to be in it and thrive. All of us to thrive in the system. But there’s not as much on the re-envisioning or re-imagining. You know, there’s a lot of lip service, but there’s not often a lot of time committed. You know, you have like a one-day retreat once a year to do your mission and vision. But this this current moment has, I think, really pushed us to think more about what type of world do we want to live in in light of our current circumstances. And that’s very exciting, both on the foundation side, the nonprofit side, as well as the governmental agency side.
MM: Mm hmm. That’s a fascinating, I think, paradigm or frame of reference for me: resisting, reforming, re-imagining. I will be carrying that through the rest of the week in thinking about how I want to show up and where I want to exert my energy. So, speaking of energy, based on your LinkedIn activity you are a busy woman. There is a lot going on! How are you spending your time?
TA: Thank you. My grandfather was very big on service. He just really instilled in all of us how critical it was to be an active participant in our democracy. Civic engagement is very important as well as education. And so, you know, I really sit at the intersection of education, health, workforce and environment. My work at the American Institutes for Research (AIR) is centered around educational equity, really working with state education agencies and school districts across the country as they are reckoning with what does it mean to have equity and have equitable access, but also what it does racial equity mean?
So again, there are a lot of opportunities to address the gaps that we’ve seen in achievement and wealth, etc. but also how do we take it to the next level, right? I don’t know if you saw that report last week that the wealth gap remains the same as it was since 1950. And so, again, it’s really those roles at AIR has been around. OK, well, knowing that, how do we, again, create an evidence base that is inclusive – more inclusive of the communities that are being served – in the design, implementation analysis and reporting, but then also on the technical assistance side? You know, when we’re talking about anti-racism, when we’re talking about implicit bias, when we’re talking about issues around linguistic competence, you know, it’s more than a student-focused or student-centered initiative. It requires all the adults in the entire community where the student is being educated. So, you know, that’s really what the crux of my work is on: that education space and in building bridges internally with AIR, with our health content experts and our workforce and youth development and international development, again, really trying to strengthen the intersections internally.
I also do a lot of service on the civic engagement side with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, where I’m the first Black woman to serve as a commissioner in the commission’s history. And there again, I’m bringing up these issues around well, one, acknowledging the strengths that those communities play in Colorado around wildlife and our 55 state parks. But also, you know, how can we strengthen beyond a survey or a focus group? You know, Black people and Indigenous peoples and, you know, my Asian Pacific Islanders, etc., you know, the Rainbow Coalition, in all of the critical life decisions that are being made around water, air, Earth and fire. And the same with my work in volunteerism with Outdoor Afro, which is specific around Black people and connecting Black people to nature, re-imagining Blackness in the outdoors, and again, also protecting outdoors. So I think to myself, where are the most important decisions about our life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness being made and who is at the decision making table. That is always my first.
You know, that is where I spend most of my work trying to either extend the table, re-establish what the table even looks like – is it is it the meal that we even want to be having? Are these the most? You know, who decides who you know? When I think about research or what I think about, you know, these policy initiatives that are that come out very well-meaning, very well intentioned, but I always ask who decided that this was a problem?
Who decided that this intervention or program or policy was going to address in a prioritized way as well? You know, so I see, for example, “recreate responsibly” as a big initiative by the outdoor industry. That’s great, but that doesn’t necessarily specifically address the over-policing of Brown and Black people in the outdoors. Right? Asking people…it’s an ask…it is an invitation, but it’s not a right. So how do we know, again, that ownership, that collective ownership and making sure that we have that representation is really where I spend most of my time, whether it be through a AIR or Colorado Parks and Wildlife or through my volunteerism with Outdoor Afro.
It really comes back to power and reclaiming our space both, you know, in our history books as well as our current spaces. So oftentimes I’m asked, you know, oh, I can’t find you know, we’ve got to diversify our pipeline and there’s just not enough. And there’s a sense of scarcity! You couple that with a sense of urgency! But then I start, you know, to go in the receipts or evidence. I call them the receipts. I go into the receipts and then I see, oh, there’s this person. There’s this research. I mean, it’s there. We’ve always been here. We’ve always – and by we I mean Black people specifically, as well as the others who you don’t see where the most important decisions are being made. We are there. We have the credentials. We have the expertise.
What I’m trying really to confront, I think ultimately, and I’m glad that I’m not the only one in this, that it really is a Herculean effort is. Can we create the will to make the decisions that are needed that are responsive to not only the evidence base but the stakeholders who are being directly impacted?
MM: There are so many things that you just said where I’m having visions from previous board service experiences, where the mantra is there’s just not enough people of color that are qualified to serve on our board. And it just smacks of such laziness to me to not actually do the work of cultivating meaningful relationships with individuals that have a right to be at the decision-making table. And so, I applaud all of the examples that you just lifted up in these different domains through education, health, workforce development, the environment. I think reclaiming our space and our power is definitely something that resonates deeply with me and so I appreciate the eloquence with which you just laid out what all those things on your LinkedIn channel actually mean and how they connect.
So you mentioned your grandfather and service being really important. And I know that work in the social sector is usually grounded in our values and our principles as individuals. Can you think of a time when your values were in tension and how you reconciled that tension or not?
TA: Blackness in the workplace, I think, is where the tension comes into play. And I’m so happy that I can come to this conversation with a concrete example of how that worked in the positive and not in the negative space. Going back to that asset, we spend so much time on the reform, we’re not positioned to harness the opportunities of re-imagining. And so, at the American Institutes for Research, I’m also the chair of the Black Diaspora Employee Resource Group. And, you know, again, when the social unrest and the racial unrest, you know, culled again this is not new. We’ve seen this uprising ebb and flow of racial tensions in this country. Well, when we were cresting a couple of weeks ago, again, you know, the Black Diaspora Network, we typically meet on a monthly basis, but we started instilling weekly, virtual water cooler meetings where we can kind of just come together and decompress, because what we realized is that sometimes our very well-meaning, highly educated, etc. staff, as well as white staff members will say, “Happy Friday,” for example. And it’s just like, well, I just watched this video of a man being killed. Like, I’m not having a happy Friday, right. So how do we build the cultural responsiveness and competencies of all our staff and that’s where that implicit bias training and a lot of work is being done on that area. But also, how do we create safe spaces for our, you know, for specific to the Black diaspora network, our Black colleagues who are having a unique experience. Right. So that they have a place to share. So that was really exciting. And then it built on to having a huge Juneteenth event. So originally it was just gonna be us, you know, celebrating as we have years past, but this uprising had allowed us to extend it and make it org-wide. And so we were able to really celebrate and honor Juneteenth in a way that we never had before and that helped to alleviate some of the tensions that I’ve had around July 4th.
And so as July 4th comes up, it’s almost feels it feels like it’s in the place where it should always have been. Right. My blood, my ancestors were not free. All of them in 1776. So I’ve always had a tension with that day, right, and in the workplace and how it’s celebrated and honored and the different programs that are run around it. I mean, I was in a work group and I saw this big call out to and the programs around Fourth of July. And I asked about their planning, of course. Are you doing anything around Juneteenth? Oh, no, we haven’t. You know, that’s a flag to me. How are you being inclusive? So, again, you know, hopefully I’m providing an example of where we were able to alleviate some of those tensions. And again, it’s about that power piece. I’m elevating Juneteenth in as high of a regard as I can without it being a federal holiday – hint, hint, wink, wink, nudge, nudge – into the importance of the Fourth of July. But again, it’s the willingness to acknowledge, the willingness to set aside time. I mean, our CEO made an announcement, set aside time so that our colleagues could participate. It wasn’t a sit and get. We had breakout sessions of five to seven of our colleagues. Over one hundred and fifty people participated in our organization virtually. And then one of the questions that we asked there was, again, it’s not enough to just honor and acknowledge. What are you going to do with this new information? And so, one of the questions that we had in that breakout session was now that you – let’s just assume that this is new information – Juneteenth is even in Black communities, people like were like what’s that about prior to the Blackish video.
So anyway, you know, when that when that opportunity came up, we were able to, you know then say, how does this lost history impact your current work? Right? Because we are working with a lot of Black communities and so how is this information around agency, you know, collective responsibility, et cetera? You know, how does that resonate now that you know? And what other lost history could exist that has significant implications to your work? And so making that commitment and then my idea is that I’m going to get a follow up to those small group members and say, “Hey, you know, you had a chance to talk. Now, I invite you all to reconvene in a month and have that conversation again of how have you then acknowledged and identified the implications of Juneteenth to your specific project work, particularly if that project work impacts Black people at all. Although I would argue that that history is United States history and not just the history of Black peoples in the United States.
MM: Did I hear a microphone drop? I think I heard a microphone drop in Boulder. Go on. It strikes me the threading the needle from historic relevance to present day implications, I think is a miss for so many individuals and organizations writ large, just like the information gaps in how we got to where we are and there were these design choices that were made, which is why we are where we are. And so back to your point about the re-imagining and figuring out the table setting, and if we even want to have a table, is such a salient, poignant point right now for me as I think about my space in the world. That was a really great example. Thank you, and very timely with that other Independence Day coming up later this week. So, you have, I think, alluded to a couple of things related to like your full plate and how you spend your time, where you’re investing your energies, et cetera. And I’m wondering if you have an example of when you’ve had to reclaim your time. With a shout out to Maxine Waters, who is the mother of reclaiming my time, I’m wondering if you have any examples to lift up related to that context or how you set boundaries potentially. Maybe it’s not about reclaiming time. Maybe it’s about boundary setting or something in that vein.
TA: So, I’m not exactly sure. I have to give some more thought as to why I have always had pretty strong boundaries around making sure I have time for joy. So, I started my work with the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School program and I will never forget when we all convened on Alex Haley’s farm in Tennessee for the training and all the people were coming from all over the country. And it was really my first time in the education space as a career and really think about it as a career and one of the sessions was called the Island of Peace. I remember thinking, you know, there was like, you know, multicultural reading strategies and, you know, very specific to the education space because this was summer and after school programs. But then there was this whole strand called the Island of Peace, and essentially what it was, was there was a yoga class, there was a how to meditate, an art class…the idea was that as activists, as those who are really fighting the good fight for our humanity, oftentimes our plates are running low. We, you know, our temple, our temple of our of our body, of our mind, of our spirit, it can get very drained. And so to prevent burnout, they created this strand called the Island of Peace and that was where we really talked about creating these healthy boundaries and how important it was to create these boundaries, and so it’s just been very interesting now that I reflect back on that and realize, “Oh, right! That’s where that came from!” Because I have a hard boundary around working at night. I have a hard boundary around working on the weekends. There are exceptions, obviously, to every rule. Proposals tend to be one of them. They always land or fall due on a Monday or, you know, just the complexity of proposal writing tends to necessitate weekends and evenings, as well as, you know, networking, etc. But again, it’s just been interesting because when I work with my colleagues, that’s one of the things that they remark on – that they appreciate that I have boundaries. Like I set time for my lunch break and I’m very hardcore. It’s a recurring lunch break every day for an hour and I’m pretty stingy about that time because, again, I recognize how important it is to have those breaks, and it also goes back to what I was talking about earlier around resist, reform, and re-imagine. And we spend – I’ll speak for myself – I spend so much time on the resist and reform space that I don’t have time for re-imagine and I do believe and it does connect to the podcast I just heard from the good folks at the Nap Ministry around the role that rest plays, not just for, you know, I’m tired, I need to rest, but resting our mind and building those neural pathways that happen when we are arrested allows for a level of creativity and innovation that cannot exist when we are exhausted. And so that was another piece as I’m starting to understand, some of those core tenements in the Nap Ministry around rest as reparations, rest as resistance and really again starting to understand the historical context that necessitates the need for us to rest. And again, being responsive to in the re-imagining space, do we want to re-imagine the conditions of the existing dominant culture? The dominant culture around perfectionism? Around a sense of urgency? We know these things took generations to get here; it’s going to take generations to get us out. Right. And so, this expectation around sense of urgency that’s not something we can necessarily bring into this re-imagined space or do we want to bring it in to the re-imagined space? And so, again, when I think about these ideas around care, I like what the Nap Ministry says around moving away from self-care, which kind of ties to that rugged individualism, right, to this community care, as well as the soul care. Recognizing that I am more than my physical body, which sometimes at self-care tends to default to the physical body. So again, I love that soul connection as well as that community because I am only as healthy as my community. Right? That one droplet of water is only as healthy as the rest of the ocean. It’s always being mindful about strategically connecting those two is critical.
MM: That’s powerful. It reminds me of an interview I did with Akaya Windwood, the former president and CEO of Rockwood Leadership Institute, where she said something very similar about self-care being about more than the individual, but really needs to take into context the community and the “we” versus the “I.” Your point is really resonant and in alignment with the comment that she had made. So you’ve done a lot. You mentioned the Freedom Schools. You’ve talked about some of your volunteer work, your work with AIR. I am wondering, as you look back on your career and all of those milestones, if there was a soundtrack of greatest hits that parallels or tracks with your career to date what would what songs would make the list?
TA: The first song that comes to mind is Mary Mary’s “Shackles (Praise You). “Take the shackles off my feet so I can dance.” I listen to a lot of gospel music. I just feel like it, again, makes that soul connection back to a power greater than myself. I even love “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” I mean, that song in and of itself, that poem that was turned into a song, obviously really resonates with me. And it’s funny because I think about it often when I’m tasked with doing the Pledge of Allegiance or the National Anthem, I always kind of default in my mind back to “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and again, when you think about the end, there: “Let us march on ‘til victory is won.” That’s it. When I hear this is hard or this is uncomfortable, OK, we’re marching on. Marching is hard. It’s not like hanging out. It’s not floating to victory; it’s marching to victory. And that’s one step at a time.
MM: In this conversation, you have referenced in a meta sense your grandfather, ancestors, the lineage…I’m curious how you would describe the type of ancestor that you want to be.
TA: You know, I love this question because one of the questions I’ve been asking for my opening activities sometimes that I got from the good folks at 350 or from People of the Global Majority – either way – good folks doing good work out there. They asked me once what characteristic or trait did I gain from my ancestors to contribute to whatever the project or program we were doing and that was my first time really thinking about that individual ancestral level as opposed to the kind of aggregate Black people legacy. So, again, I love this one because it kind of extends that onward.
One: grace and humility in this work. I try very hard to be explicit about my failures and missteps to push back against the disease of perfectionism, recognizing even Martin Luther King and so many others…I look at Nina Simone’s life’s work and I’m reminded of the necessary missteps in order to progress. Oftentimes, I think there is a fear in going back to that re-imagining space. There is a real fear around getting that wrong. Do you want to be right or do you want to live? Do you want to have a life? Too often we’re caught in semantics and so I really am pushing for a larger conversation and so hopefully, I’m walking the talk as it relates to the role of failure, the role of doubt, the role of uncertainty, the necessary role to move forward.
I think another big piece is that with the finger I point at others, there are three others pointing back at me. There are intersections…recognizing that a focus on education requires a focus on health, education, environment; they’re all connected. How can we be more intentional about multi-sector approaches is another legacy I see; it’s all connected.
MM: Well, I think you’re demonstrating that through your points with education, workforce, health, the environment…seems like there is a real bouquet, I guess, a real bouquet of the different areas that you’re touching and bringing that grace and humility to, so my…oh, go ahead.
TA: Well, I was just gonna say, because you see that in the land, too. I mean, I think Mother Nature, our planet is a wonderful teacher and can be a wonderful mentor to us. When you look out into the land, that’s what you see. You don’t see a mono crops, for example, now we can see how damaging that is to the planet. When you have a mono crop or when you’re always in production, the land cannot handle that and so it reacts. It responds whether it be in large forest fires or air quality, etc., and so, again, I’m just trying to model what has been modeled to me by the universe and really trying to align to universal principles of the universe as opposed to structures and frameworks that were really designed to oppress my ancestors and people who look like me today.
MM: Two more questions for you. One of them, which I feel like you’ve already done this through just the examples that you’ve given in the stories shared with me thus far. What advice would you offer to Black women who are trying to develop their voices and become better self-advocates?
TA: Mentorship. And reciprocal mentorship is what I would recommend highly. I recently got into a reciprocal mentorship, which was my first intentional reciprocal relationship with an elder and it was their idea. You know, I went to them saying, “Oh, you know, I really love mentorship,” because, again, I feel like we are so disconnected that finding community with other Black women has really been pivotal for me and my work. I think, again, entering The Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School, there was already this beautiful networking infrastructure of Black women that were from all over the country, different content expertise, different geographies, different lived experiences, but there was a Blackness that bound us and a womanhood that bound us, and that is a unique intersection in and of itself. So along the intergenerational and generational spectrums, oftentimes I feel like young women kind of have mentorship from one area — might be education related or after-school related — but it’s disconnected from, you know, the larger community of Black women. And so, you know, plugging in where it exists or forming community where it doesn’t exist is something that I would highly recommend.
Intergenerational is another component I would recommend, and it’s there, right. I think the great pause has created more virtual connection opportunities that previously didn’t happen before. Again, obviously, technology is an access issue, bandwidth is another access issue. But the platforms are there and those accessibility barriers are starting to come down again. It depends on where you are, but I think that is has been absolutely a critical part of my own growth is having someone or some ones in my inner circle, Black women, to not only help me, but also, again, that I can help them and recognize that we each bring value. That value can look different and that’s why even when we think about, well, what do I do for a living? Well, how do you contribute to the world? Your value is not attached to how much money you make. You know, again, that’s a value proposition. To me it’s about the impact that your work has on the world. But I didn’t come to that by myself. Right. I came to that in community with other Black women who helped me rather to be able to make that distinction.
MM: Mm hmm. Reciprocal mentorship. I’m going to make note of that.
TA: And the other thing is, I’m really coming to this, and that is that I am not going to solve every problem by myself. We take on so much. I struggle with asking for help. I really, really struggle with it. I think a part of it is going back to that, you know, as a Black woman, that superwoman Black woman thing, which is not good for us in some ways, and Black Girl Magic is great in other ways. Black women in particular, you know, I look at these new roles around diversity, equity and inclusion, chiefs of diversity — and it tends to be Black women and they’re getting putting being put in roles that are above and beyond what anybody has ever been able to accomplish in those roles. And so how do we make sure that those women in particular can sustain, can have that container or have the community and soul care to be able to sustain those efforts? And do they have the supports needed? A title is nothing without responsibility and authority, without transparency and accountability. And so that’s another area and amplifying the voices, making sure that, you know, how do you distribute leadership? How do you create leadership pipelines? We’re not alone here. And recognizing, you know, where is the role of Black men? Again, I know I’m focused on Black peoples again in all of the different intersections it’s important to have a focus area and anybody who knows me knows I’m also very committed to liberation for all peoples.
MM: So, a final question. We’re going to zoom out just a little bit for a question about the social sector – foundations and nonprofits. If you had a magic wand and you could just make some change happen – Presto! Magnifico! – what change would you make to the social sector that would benefit or affirm Black women?
TA: We know that Black women who are leading organizations in the nonprofit space receive less funding from foundations than their white counterparts doing the exact same type of work. They receive less money with more strings. And so as far as low hanging fruit, that’s one: just revisiting on the foundation side: what are the barriers as far as the application process? The recruitment process? The reporting process? And I’ve noticed a lot of foundations doing some great work there. I think that can continue.
I also wonder, you know, on that larger scale, the first thing that comes to mind to me are reparations. How are these foundations really confronting and just discussing and having conversations around reparations? And by that, I mean, you know, are there prioritizing levels as far as the foundation cycles are concerned to the different communities being served? And then what I talked about earlier around those pathways. If I were to make one change, you know, at a harder level, is creating more Black women or creating space for more Black women at the board, at the most important decision making places in the organization, whether that be the foundation or the nonprofit sector. Do you see Black women there? If not, change it. I mean, what is the plan?
Because going back to the environmental sector, Dr. Taylor over at Yale has been talking about diversifying the nonprofit environmental sector explicitly in her work since 2014 and provided recommendations. Everything. I’m coming into this space on my Commission and Outdoor Afro side and I’m saying, well, where are the inroads that have been made since then? I mean, people are acting as if we haven’t had these conversations before and we have. So acknowledging that this is not a lack of information. It is not a lack of an evidence base. It is a lack of will. Do we have the will to step up? I see something that’s not working; I’m going to step up. I’m going to say something. Step aside. Oh, I see that there are no Black people in this room. I’m going to step aside and invite in other voices that are disproportionately underrepresented in the decision-making table. And then, alas, my favorite is step down. I mean, we see that Serena’s husband stepped down and said fill my spot with a Black person.
So again, there are examples. There are approaches. There is an evidence base. What we lack is the will. Do we have the will to do what is necessary to right the wrongs of the past and not only right the wrongs of the past, but build a future that we have never even seen before – both as a country and as a globe!
MM: Preach on, preach on. I would just say, yeah, let us march on. Thank you so much for making time for me from beautiful Boulder.
TA: It was my pleasure.
MM: I send you good wishes and good vibes as we navigate this current reality.
TA: Indeed. Indeed. And again, I was reminded that the Chinese character for crisis is danger and opportunity. Right? How do you harness that? How do we re-imagine in that opportunity space and not just reform? That’s the challenge.
MM: Great. Thank you so much.