Kerry Lord believes you can’t ask people to do something and not give them the tools and the chance to do it – or do it well. Serving as director of Programs for Partners for Educational Leadership (PEL), she works with district leaders to address systemic inequities, coaches and mentors school leaders, and facilitates communities of practice designed to support school leaders.
Kerry has spent the past 28 years as a public educator, working in San Francisco first as a teacher, then as an assistant principal and principal before moving to Colorado. There she was an elementary school principal and worked with the Denver Department of Education reviewing school improvement plans for alternative high schools in Denver.
While still in San Francisco, Kerry worked with the Exploratorium Science Museum and the San Francisco Art Museum to incorporate art and science into the school curriculum. Even then, she reflects, she valued art as a way of seeing the world, and recognized the importance of inviting art into the teaching space. Her work there and in Colorado with students and families who were facing multiple challenges, such as poverty, racism and discrimination as a result of systemic inequities – and her restorative writing work with incarcerated youth – had a profound influence on her professional career.
Years later, this accumulated experience would lead her to help design the Equity Institute, held annually (prior to the pandemic) at the Wadsworth Atheneum’s Amistad Center for Art & Culture in Hartford.
“During my work in the 1990s and early 2000s with students who struggled to fit into a school system that was not inherently designed for them, I came to understand that gangs were a place where these kids felt they could belong,” Kerry reflects. “Their lives were challenged by poverty, drugs, AIDs, absent or abusive parents and multiple forms of deprivation. But no matter the infliction, they all shared the need to be heard and seen – to belong, to feel like they had a voice, like they mattered, and to feel valued.”
School, Kerry added, could at times be a “relatively safe haven,” but these already-marginalized students often were further stigmatized within the school system. “For students – especially students of color – who had learning issues and little support at home or in the school community, attendance and participation were challenges. For some teachers and administrators, it was easy to dismiss them, to steal their faith. I believed then, and do now, that it was critical to see past their ‘front’ and important to not perpetuate their oppression.”
“In our work at PEL,” Kerry continues, “we talk about the crucial components of centering equity in all of the work that we do, which includes challenging policies and practices that create and perpetuate inequities that disadvantage our students and families of color; we have to resist listening in ways that simply parallel our own autobiographies.”
As a black, bi-racial woman of color, Kerry finds this vocation especially satisfying and challenging, and promotes the importance of doing the work, not being the work. “Everyone in this business wants to be better, and to help others be better, too,” she stresses. “If we can have a role in helping others improve or succeed, that’s a win. We’re collaborating to build a better system, and to embrace our transformative roles. As much as anything, we’re learning to see and be heard, and to help make sure others are seen and heard, as well. That is a gift.”