By Louis Guiden, WA Charters 2019 Aspiring Leader
A Louisiana native, I’ve been in Seattle for 26 years. I came to the Northwest hoping to escape some of the realities of the South. I didn’t want to be held down by the racism I experienced growing up.
I had dreams of attending a historically black college or university (HBCU), but my community environment made that difficult. I suffered impacts of being bussed out of my neighborhood, not being given a fair shot, and being victim to gang culture. After being suspended from three high schools, I was sent to adult education at 18.
My experience is unfortunately not rare, particularly for male youth of color. As an adult, I feel so passionately that we can’t ignore that kids’ lives outside an impact on their ability to learn in the classroom.
When I got to Seattle I thought, “I’ve made it out of the hood. I’m going to live the American dream!” I got a job at Wonder Bread in the Central District. But, I faced racism in the workplace, which was a rude awakening to the fact that racism was REAL in the Northwest. I never received training and suffered a traumatic brain injury two weeks into the job.
For years after that, I struggled with chronic pain, depression, anxiety, and multiple ankle surgeries.
In 1999, I had a spiritual awakening. I found mentorship from male elders and businessmen in my faith community. I spent several years in different trades, including becoming a successful mortgage brokerage, to running my own janitorial business, to wholesaling, to working at Waste Management, and Boeing.
In 2008, I started working with youth in schools. I channeled what I’d been through, showing youth that if I could make it out, they could too. I found a niche working in schools and juvenile detentions in the region.
I had found my calling. I started a mentoring program, feeling a sense of responsibility for creating something good that I could have benefited from as a youth. I was able to connect with my students, but it wasn’t until I started working in partnership with their teachers that they could improve in school.
In order for engagement to be successful, a few key things must be in place. First, kids must feel respected, valued, and a connection to the adult. There must also be trust – a sense of “I trust him, he understands me, why I’m acting out, and what I’m going through.” Only then can true engagement begin.
Teachers were open and willing – I showed them how to be vulnerable about why they couldn’t connect with black and brown kids – how this was a big barrier to trust. As a Black Man bringing that context to staff, I was able to create an environment where people could share their concerns, their cultural beliefs, and their fears.
My personal mission is to be a change agent. To be a relevant messenger in challenging times bringing an empowering, life-changing impact that not only calls the listener to action but ignites their core and activates change.
Two years ago, people in my network started encouraging me to get my administration or teaching certification. I have a vision, an engagement model, leadership experience, and I understand the politics and the community, but starting my school is a huge undertaking. If I decide to pursue that path, I want to make sure I do it right, with the right support systems.
Then I was selected to be in the WA Charters Aspiring Leaders fellowship. The program has given me invaluable opportunity exposure to the charter school sector – it’s showing me different opportunities for me to pursue my burning mission and vision to support youth and families of color.
I’ve really benefitted from being part of a diverse cohort—we are all people of color. We have REAL conversations and talk about what is possible for educational equity.
Leadership is about empowering the next generation. It’s about supporting, coaching, and it’s about creating opportunities for others to lead. Aspiring Leaders assigns you to a mentor, and that relationship has been so valuable. My mentor has shown me how I can be an asset in this growing charter sector.
Aspiring Leaders has also helped me build connections here in Washington, and also with other black leaders in California, Louisiana, and Michigan. It’s given me the ability to travel, to immerse myself in the grassroots, to see what is going on in the trenches. It’s amazing. I’ve witnessed restorative practices, family healing models, workforce development, and re-entry juvenile justice in the schools. Practices that should be the norm, not the exception.
If you are a pioneer, and you want to find your own place in educational equity work, Aspiring Leader is an amazing opportunity. I’m still figuring out exactly what my path will be, but today I have the support to find the next step on that journey. I know that regardless of what that looks like, I will be supporting underserved youth and doing it in partnership with other mission-aligned people.