In a recent confluence of minds, the trailblazing spirit of our founder and CEO, Dr. David E. Kirkland, converged with the visionary insights of our esteemed partner, Dr. Ephuquoo Manē. This captivating exchange offered more than just words; it illuminated the very heart of forwardED's purpose. Dr. Kirkland's pivotal affirmations resounded clearly, echoing forwardED's unyielding commitment to equity and justice. Amidst a dynamic landscape shaped by an ever-empowered public and the surging tide of technology, forwardED's place was envisioned as a catalyst for change. A beacon for those drawn to the call of justice, equity, and excellence, this conversation provides pivotal insight into what forwardED is all about.
The dialogue, a brief yet expansive interlude into our organization, laid bare why forwardED exists and remains essential to partners across the U.S. It revealed not just our uniqueness but also our familiarity – that quality that ties us to the shared aspirations of humanity's quest for justice. As you immerse yourself in their conversation, you're invited to witness the fusion of profound ideologies and a potent vision for moving education closer to justice. It is a conversation that invites us all to embark on a collective journey toward a more equitable and empowered future.
Dr. Ephuquoo Manē (EM): Dr. Kirkland, thank you for your time today.
Dr. David E. Kirkland (DK): Thank you, my friend.
EM: I hear you are doing a new thing.
DK: A new thing. I don’t know if I’d call it a new thing. I’d say it’s a continuation of work that I’ve been blessed to do for the past 20 or so years, and now I get to do it on new terms.
EM: New terms. I like that. What is that, “new terms”? Is it a euphemism for freedom?
DK: Naw. I can’t be free as long as so many of us are still in chains. But it feels good to have a platform that feels detached from the master’s house. Let’s just put it that way.
EM: I hear you. I hear you. But I want to talk to you about forwardED.
DK: Sounds good. How do you want to start?
EM: I want to know everything. But let’s start here: What is forwardED?
DK: Well, forwardED is an education management organization. It is both an idea and an agency, a mission-driven organization determined to do equity and justice work while promoting it.
It’s the company that I dreamed of while I was the Executive Director of NYU Metro Center. When I ran NYU Metro Center, we did so many innovative things. We created curriculum scoring tools to help school districts understand the harm their curriculum may have caused students. We did direct interventions with tens of thousands of teachers across hundreds of districts with ideas such as racial equity and cultural responsiveness in view. We partnered radically with community organizations and student groups, taking the academy on the road to where the real work was happening to impact change.
We raised millions to tackle issues and research problems defined by those most impacted by them. We employed the genius of our community in real jobs that allowed them to make real impact in education and beyond it. We paid livable wages. We constructed work with dignity. And most of all, we chased freedom as a collective, always united to something much broader and bolder than we were.
We helped schools and districts improve and transform in so many ways. We used academic techniques to do justice work: applied research and evaluation, technical assistance, and professional learning, including content development work, consulting, and direct services. This was good work, but I often felt straitjacketed. We could only move in so far as we were allowed by a university whose interests were not always aligned with ours or our partners' interests. More or less, we were able to critique the system successfully but were less able to create solutions in response to those critiques. So forwardED is a partner to change, committed to advancing the conversation beyond just admiring the problem.
EM: What do you mean by that?
DK: I am happy that we have created something committed to building the world our children deserve through our schools and beyond our schools. forwardED advances the work beyond the vocation of critique and looks toward transformation as a process of building solutions. Yes, it’s hard out there. Now what? What are we going to do to improve our condition? What does it mean to advance us and do it in a way that boosts our agency? I want our partners to know that we can get to where we want to go together and meet all our challenges together. This is empowering because we are powerful together.
EM: I hear you. I hear you. I also hear an urgency in your voice. What is that about?
DK: I need this to work out! I love that we are now in a place to name the problems we have in education. But I love even more taking on those challenges and doing everything we can to answer tough questions. Nobody’s coming to save us, and this is good for us because how empowering is it for us to know that we can save ourselves?
EM: Wow. That was powerful. You really believe in the work that you and this organization do . . .
DK: I do. forwardED has dignity at its center. We are committed to equity, too, but equity is too small a project for what we are reaching for, so we have chosen to pivot by embracing a dignity-driven approach to our work.
Equity really is about supporting people within the existing system so that they can have a fair chance in that system. Rarely is it about tearing down those systems or creating alternative models that make the existing models obsolete. Equity is the bandage we put on the wound or the armor we give vulnerable people to wear to survive in hostile conditions.
Dignity is making sure the bandage and the armor are not needed for survival in the first place. Dignity is a person's right to be valued and respected for their own sake and to be treated ethically from the start, without concession.
forwardED affirms this ethic. We affirm the inviolability of human dignity, and our organization has been designed specifically to support education stakeholders in developing and implementing dignity-driven policies, practices, and programs that educate all students effectively and equitably, as well as provide appropriate support and services that promote positive student outcomes in the promise of dignity in education and beyond. I know this is a mouthful.
EM: No. I love everything that you are saying. If I hear you right, you are critiquing our current focus on equity.
DK: No. Not really. I am advancing it, or should I say pivoting beyond equity (the means) and centering dignity (the end)
EM: I got you. I got you. So, how does dignity-driven education look in practice?
DK: Dignity-driven education is an all-encompassing approach that acknowledges and embraces the struggles within all human life. So, it starts with the inward journey of recognizing our humanness and the brokenness within each of us as prerequisite to mending the brokenness in the world around us. This process underlines the transformative power of understanding our situation, empowering people to initiate both personal and societal transformations rooted in our worth. Dignity-driven education stands as a model, not merely responsive but “presponsive,” forging a path that begins (as opposed to ends) with our healing, where belonging sits at the core and our power hinges on our ability to believe in a kind of human magic.
I thought about this magic when I first heard about the recent debate around African American studies or history. I was doing an interview for a radio program, and the interviewer asked me what I thought about what was going on in Florida with the College Board revising significant parts of its AP curriculum and AP exam to exclude certain parts of African American Studies that politicians in Florida saw as problematic. They thought I would respond to the question with a statement, but I found the question to be problematic. The only way I could respond was with a question: Why is the College Board creating African American history and African American Studies curricula in the first place? Why are so many of our school districts in so many of our communities dependent upon organizations that do not know our young people, that do not know our schools, that do not know our communities to create the terms on which they learn? This is why I founded forwardED because we can design our own content, and we can design it better and without the fear that it will be taken from us simply because our politics have demanded comfort over critical thinking.
By "we," I am talking about the people most implicated by institutional structures, systems, and decisions. They should have a lead role in their construction. I have heard from a number of districts across the country that end up having to reformat or create from scratch things like curriculum guides because they find what's available to be insufficient or culturally destructive. Dignity-driven education is not about building for or without the people, but building with and alongside them.
EM: But what does it look like in practice for the people to create their own . . .
DK: Just as you said. We have this innovative new service called “Culturally Responsive Custom Curriculum” or CRCC. This service builds upon our trademark Custom Curriculum service, which is designed to help schools and districts improve their curriculum guidance and enhance the overall student experience within their educational systems. I have to say that we believe in the power of research-backed tools, so we are not talking about building without rigor or science but understanding that those concepts are not neutral. We aim to collaborate with our partners, using our best science to inventory existing resources and practices while drawing on the best available educational theories and techniques. Through meaningful conversations and consultations, we work closely with our partners to develop and build a curriculum that aligns with their goals, desires, and what we know works best for our babies.
With dignity and humanity at the core, CRCC ensures that a curriculum (or practice, policy, decision, etc.) is designed to be meaningful and (p)responsive to the people using it. In addition, our CRCC service includes a component called “Custom Curriculum Plus,” which offers opportunities for professional learning and development, creating mechanisms for adult learning alongside curriculum design through both synchronous and asynchronous means. So, in addition to developing a meaningful and (p)responsive curriculum, we go the extra step of helping educators who use their custom curriculum to bring it to life through meaningful and responsive practices. This is about equipping educators with the tools and knowledge to engage with our children effectively.
EM: I love this. So, dignity-driven education is about respecting people in their situations and working with them in those situations to build the things they need to thrive in the world.
DK: Exactly. This is what we do at forwardED. We use research and other support services to advance people and institutions that work with or serve people on those people's terms and not ours. We center youth, communities, and families in all our work. We provide humanizing approaches to that work, which, if I haven’t said it already, consists of applied research and evaluation, technical assistance, professional learning, facilitation, and other key services. Our team comprises visionary experts and organizational change agents who understand the diverse needs of our partners. We are driven by a set of core values that guide how we live and breathe our work.
As I said, we have successfully supported several schools, districts, for-profit, and non-profit organizations across the United States, helping them advance equity and promote positive and lasting change. Our team has been serving a diverse range of communities—urban, suburban, and rural—for some time now in various capacities. We pride ourselves on being diverse, inclusive, and deeply rooted in the communities we partner with. We are proud to have helped create a long-term trajectory of success for hundreds of thousands of children across the U.S. and the globe. We center young people and ground all our work in what we believe is best for them.
Our applied research and evaluation services intentionally center dignity and humanizing change and emanate from a culturally responsive-sustaining education approach to research and technical assistance. Simply put, our work is embedded within this cultural view where multiple expressions of diversity are recognized and regarded as assets for education. Advancing humanity is central to our organization, as we realize that people are different and learn in different ways, at different speeds, and under circumstances responsive to their unique needs. We have a long way to go, but we know that if we want to go fast, we will doom ourselves to a lonely path that will never get us to where we want to go. But if you want to go far, we will have to go together. We are committed to going far.
EM: Dr. Kirkland, thank you for sharing that insightful explanation. I can sense your passion and commitment to advancing education justice. Before we end this interview, can you elaborate more on how forwardED serves its partners and the communities it works with?
DK: Absolutely. As a leader in advancing education justice, forwardED has developed a comprehensive approach encompassing multiple dimensions. First and foremost, we are deeply rooted in the communities we partner with. I hope that comes across because relationships and partnerships are at the center of who we are. We pride ourselves on being in the weeds, with and of the people. Additionally, our focus on our partners is what drives us. And as I said, our long-term trajectory of success has positively impacted hundreds of thousands of children, empowering them to reach their full potential. So we are with you until the journey ends.
EM: It's truly commendable how forwardED goes beyond theory and actively engages with communities, centering their experiences and fostering transformative change. I can see why you're so passionate about this work.
DK: Thank you, Dr. Manē. Yes, this work is deeply personal to me, and I believe it's our collective responsibility to create just and equitable systems. Together, we can make a difference and ensure that every child has the opportunity to thrive.
EM: Your dedication is evident, Dr. Kirkland. I appreciate you taking the time to share your insights on forwardED and the principles the organization stands for. It has been enlightening to hear about all that you do and will do for the future of education.
DK: Thank you, Dr. Manē. It's been a pleasure discussing forwardED with you. I'm grateful for the opportunity to shed light on the importance of our work. I know we can work together towards a future where every child's inherent worth and potential are recognized and celebrated.
EM: Yes, indeed, Dr. Kirkland. The pleasure was all mine. Thank you for your time and commitment to this work.
Suggested citation: forwardED. (2023). A Glimpse into the Vision: A Conversation about Dignity, Innovation, and Empowerment at forwardED with David E. Kirkland. In forwardED Perspectives, https://www.forward-ed.com/post/a-glimpse-into-vision-in-conversation-with-david-e-kirkland-about-forwarded.