By Freda Freeman
DURHAM – William Jackson was determined to be the best dad he could be long before he became one. And he didn’t just care about his kids but all Black children.
Jackson wants Black children to be raised in an environment where they can develop, flourish, and thrive. That includes school as well as home. He said the best way to make that happen is by equipping parents with the tools they need to advocate for their children; by not only empowering them but putting them in positions of power.
Jackson abides by the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” so, in 2014, he started to build one – Village of Wisdom. “We are an organization that’s translating the wisdom of Black parents into culturally affirming learning strategies and learning environments. And we affectionately refer to our work as protecting Black genius. What that means is we are, quite literally, putting ourselves in learning experiences with Black parents to learn about what it means to create an environment where Black learners, especially Black children, feel seen, reflected, and affirmed while they are learning,” Jackson said.
The Cleveland Avenue Foundation for Education, which honors leaders of nonprofit organizations for their work in education, recently named Jackson one of its five 1954 Project luminaries for 2022. The award comes with a $1 million grant.
Jackson said he will pour the money back into the community by compensating parents who work with VOW, which “develops tools and resources that help parents, teachers, and students create ideal learning environments for Black and Brown learners.” Parents do research, plan educational workshops and activities, and train other parents. “Each year 80% of the money we spend goes to Black folks, so when I say pour back into our community, I literally mean it,” he said.
Jackson is the “chief dreamer” of VOW, and he dreams of a better world for Black children, including his daughters, ages 1 and 5. “I just want my girls to be able to pursue their dreams, to be challenged to dream, and to be resourced to achieve those dreams. I want their dreams to be informed by the truth and history, so they create something that manifests a better future,” he said.
Board chairperson Brittany Bennett-Weston said VOW helps Black parents step into their own power as advocates, and Jackson’s personal experience is the catalyst for the organization’s work. “I think Will is driven by his love of and belief in Black people, his desire for a liberated world where Black children (and adults) thrive, and his own experiences as a child of Black parents who affirmed and poured into him,” she said.
Taylor Webber-Fields, who has been with VOW for eight years, added: “Just in terms of his own lived experiences as a teacher and seeing the inner webs of the school systems, I think it really pushed him to be part of the change. And his willingness to learn and grow has been his biggest strength, that definitely supports his leadership.”
A third-generation educator, Jackson said he felt like he was teaching students to get high scores on standardized tests, but he didn’t feel like he was preparing them for life after school or outside the classroom. So, he went back to college and earned a Ph.D. to learn more about how children learn. Jackson, in turn, passes this knowledge onto parents.
“How would it change things if teachers had a Black parent to talk to as they were making instructional decisions, as they’re trying to figure out what does it mean to be culturally responsive to Black children? Who better to help somebody, especially somebody who’s not Black, understand what it means to be culturally responsive to us than somebody who’s lived, loved, laughed, and learned from a whole bunch of Black folks?” Jackson asked. “Power rests in decisions. So now a parent is impacting the decisions that a teacher is making about how they’re going to instructionally reach Black children.”
Nadiah Porter said one of Jackson’s strengths is motivating people to recognize and “slay” or master the genius within themselves. Porter came to VOW as a parent and is now on staff.
“Village of Wisdom not only encourages and supports me in acknowledging the genius that is inherent within my children, but also within myself. And, most importantly, my relationship with my children has blossomed even more through VOW, as I have discovered and continue to discover more about what and how my children learn, and the ways that I am supporting their intellectual and character growth in and out of the classroom,” she said.
Jackson said learning is the act of connecting prior knowledge to new information, however, he said there is often a disconnection between Black children and white educators. He said it is difficult for Black children to learn in an environment that doesn’t understand their culture.
“School systems basically do everything to tell a Black child that their culture is not welcome. Your hairstyle is illegal, the way you wear your pants is illegal, the way you talk is illegal, the things you talk about are irrelevant, and your people didn’t have any intellectual contributions to give here. If you tell a human that their culture is irrelevant in a learning space, you are robbing them of any prior knowledge that they have to make connections to new information. You’re robbing children of the very basic thing they need to be able to learn,” he said.