“Service is the rent you pay for the privilege of living on this earth.” Shirley Chisholm
In this week’s edition of Breaking the Mold: Shining the Light on Black Female School Leaders in Indianapolis, I would like to celebrate Nigena Livingston, founding school leader Urban ACT Academy.
Nigena Livingston is the founder and CEO of URBAN ACT Academy. Born and raised in Rochester, NY, she graduated from Wilson Magnet High School and attended State University of New York at Buffalo where she majored in Health and Human Services. She has earned a master’s degree in Education Leadership from Grand Valley State University.
DM: What inspired you to become an educator?
NL: My first job after college was working at a bank. I hated it. I realized that I wanted to make a more significant impact with my life. I had several jobs growing up as a summer camp counselor and even worked as a substitute teacher. I realized that those jobs didn’t feel like work to me. I actually enjoyed working with children. I expressed my dissatisfaction with a friend who shared a job opening with me at a Head Start. I briefly worked there in the office as a Family Partner. I enjoyed working with the families, but I really loved taking every opportunity to visit the kids in the classrooms. It was then that I had the revelation that I should become a teacher. I began looking for alternative routes into teaching. I accepted a job working as a Middle School Teacher in Detroit. Not only did I love teaching and building relationships with my students and families, I also realized the social justice connection that I was able to make as a teacher. I haven’t looked back since.
DM: How has your experienced shaped you as a school leader?
NL: Given that my public education helped prepare me for college and career, I think it was something that I took for granted. I naively thought all students had equal opportunity to access education if they wanted to do so. My first years as a teacher in Detroit, Michigan highlighted for me the inequities in our school system. Ultimately, I saw a system that held back our youth instead of propelling them forward like it was supposed to do. I made a vow my classroom would be different, that I would do whatever I could to ensure my students would be positioned for success. I absolutely believe teachers are the leaders of their classrooms. I also feel strongly there needs to be a level of consciousness a teacher should possess that extends beyond the “job” of teaching. That for the teacher, there is a passion for service and change particularly with students who have been underserved and/or live in under-resourced communities.
DM: Why are you so passionate about education?
NL: I am passionate about education because I have personally seen how it can change the trajectory of a child’s life. I know the story about 3rd grade reading levels and prison cells has been debunked, but the reality is there is a correlation between education and quality of life. I hold the firm belief that schools have an obligation to prepare students to pursue their passion and to live in their purpose. Education can disrupt generational poverty by allowing individuals to not only pursue their preferred employment options, but also increase their income potential. I want people to live a life that is emotionally satisfying and education can support that by helping them to develop awareness about themselves and the world around them. I can go on but I’ll stop at education can empower us and build stronger communities.
DM: This series about is about black female school leaders. Did you have any black female school leaders that served as mentors to you while you were a teacher?
NL: Absolutely, I was raised in the era where people were rocking, “Each One, Teach One” t-shirts! My mother, Gail Livingston, was a teacher and school administrator. She was my first mentor. She visited my school and observed me teaching in my first year and actually gave me feedback. I knew she was coming so I thought I planned a super engaging lesson. She tore me up in an evaluation! But, her feedback was accurate, timely and constructive and helped me to be more critical and reflective in my practice. Most of her best friends are also teachers and administrators and they have always answered my calls or texts and have offered me great support. There were some veteran teachers in my first school placement that I still reach out to now. Can I give shout outs? Lucy Simpkins, Shavonne Caldwell, Minnie Keys helped me out significantly as a new teacher.
DM: Why do you feel there is such a lack of black female school leaders?
NL: While I agree there could be more black women represented in administration given how many of us go into the teaching profession, I also I think it would be more accurate to say that women don’t get the same shine as a Dr. Steve Perry or Geoffrey Canada. Don’t get me wrong, I think those men are brilliant and appreciate their contributions in education, but I can name quite a few other black women in education who have done or are doing similar things but have not gotten similar recognition. There are multiple inequities beyond race. Gender is another.
DM: What advice do you have for other black female teachers who hope to be school leaders one day?
NL: Stay the course. Write down your goals. Reflect on them. Take note of where you are in relationship to your goals. Constantly evaluate what you need to do to get there. If you happen to get setback, realize it is temporary and charge forward on a new path. Remember that failure isn’t final and success is not a fixed point. If you reach your goal, set a new, more ambitious one. Find a mentor and build relationships with people who will keep you energized, optimistic and action-oriented. Your integrity is important.
DM: Tell me about your current school? What do you want our readers to know?
NL: I am working to launch URBAN ACT Academy in August of 2018. URBAN ACT stands for Us Reaching, Benefitting, Aiding & Nurturing A Community Together. Through a place-based educational model and focus, we will work with students, families and neighbors to highlight the rich assets that exist in our neighborhoods and use them as an opportunity to leverage learning in math, reading, science and social studies. Our students will develop their sense of place by designating a significant amount of time to learning outside of the classroom and building their knowledge and understanding of the natural environment, history of the people and issues that threaten our culture. We want to make learning a relevant experience that is connected to our student’s lives. We will begin serving students in grades K-2 and will grow to include 8th grade.
DM: When you retire what do you want your legacy to be?
NL: I want my future students to say that they were able to live a life of purpose, to be champions of both causes and people and to continue to leave the world a little better than it was when they inherited it.