Alumni Howard Fields, Darryl Diggs convene The State of Black Educators Symposium at the Touhill
The event, which kicked off with a low-key gathering in the Terrace Lobby and moved to a formal program in the Anheuser-Busch Performance Hall, offered the chance for practitioners at different levels of the education system to network and discuss ways to improve the recruitment, development and support of black educators, particularly black men who account for only about 2 percent of the nation’s teachers.
“I think that’s the first piece – for us to get together and have conversations not just with black educators, but allies, folks who are not black or consider themselves of color,” said Howard Fields, who created the event with fellow UMSL College of Education alumnus Darryl Diggs. “I think that’s half of it. The other half is action. Because if we meet every single year, we have to be able to move forward with some initiatives and some policy, some changes to help us increase the visibility of black educators and decrease the number of black educators who report trauma in their work or who want to leave the field.”
He wanted to use the event to begin creating proactive and collaborative strategies for addressing racism in schools, school districts and other organizations.
Fields, the principal of Steger 6th Grade Center in Webster Groves and owner of BSEd, MEd and PhDs from UMSL, met Diggs, the assistant principal at Parkway South High School, in October 2018 at Camp Lakewood near Potosi, Missouri. Fields was serving as a mentor at the Missouri Leadership and Development Systems Leadership Academy Outdoor Leadership Experience in which Diggs, a 2007 BSEd graduate, was a participant.
“We hit it off very well,” Fields said. “He was talking a lot about some of his experiences, and I had recently transitioned from a more urban school district to a suburban one – going from a principal in Riverview Gardens to a principal in Webster Groves. When he went through some of the difficulty that he was going through, it was really reminiscent of a lot of other black leaders, and black educators more specifically, that I had been fortunate enough to engage with. Looking at all of that, I knew needed a support group.”
Together, they founded Black Males in Education St. Louis. The organization held its first event – a happy hour – with more than two dozen people last May, but they soon began to think bigger.
By last October, they’d come up with the idea for the symposium and lined up Missouri Commissioner of Education Margie Vandeven as a featured speaker.
The response to the symposium was significant enough to send Fields and Diggs looking for bigger venues to hold the event, and UMSL – and specifically the Touhill – became a sentimental choice.
“We had a number of universities, a number of school districts as well as a number of organizations that were saying, ‘Yes, we want you to come here,’” Fields said. “But I thought about the Touhill, I thought about UMSL. My committee for my dissertation work was fantastic with Keith Miller, Lynn Beckwith Jr., Carl Hoagland and Matthew Davis. At the time, the dean was the interim, and every conversation I had with her, she was just always respectful.
“If there was an opportunity to bring an event of this caliber to any place, me being partial and biased, UMSL was the place.”
Two other UMSL graduates featured prominently in the program with Jennings Superintendent Art McCoy delivering the welcome and University City Superintendent Sharonica Hardin-Bartley among the featured speakers, along with St. Louis Public Schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams, Wentzville School District Superintendent Curtis Cain and Maplewood Richmond Heights School District Superintendent Karen Hall.
“This is a fantastic opportunity for educators across the region to come and hear about what really needs to happen in our classrooms,” Adams said in a testimonial shared on BMESTL’s website. “This is fantastic – 1,700 people coming to listen to other educators talk about the challenges of what needs to happen in our schools and our classrooms. This is over the top. There’s nothing like it. It’s the most fantastic Friday night that I’ve spent in the last year.”
Fields and Diggs have already started the planning for next year’s symposium and an associated two-day conference. They’ve scheduled both for February 4-5 at the Touhill.
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