“If your ‘why’ has anything to do with students or the betterment of your community, they can’t wait another day – and they’re probably waiting on you.”
Ateira Griffin is a Baltimore visionary, nonprofit founder, former teacher, and fearless Black woman. Through her multifaceted leadership and organizing roles, she shines as a walking example of the fight against educational inequity and Black oppression.
Both edgy and eloquent with a radiant sense of self, Ateira will always step up when there’s an opportunity to support change. Among her many leadership roles, there’s now another: appointed member of the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners.
She’s the right equity warrior for the job – read on to learn why serving her hometown in a leadership role wasn’t a matter of if, but a matter of when. Ateira has some words of wisdom to share about why her time to serve is now... and why it’s your time, too.
Why did now feel like the right time to step into school board leadership?
There were a few things that factored into throwing my hat in the ring, including a couple of phone calls from local people encouraging me to apply. Getting that extra nudge from my community was so motivating. I’ve always been one to say that if I stepped into a leadership role, it would be because the community asked me to. I believe if your community asks you to step up, you already have the support you need to run.
What keeps you motivated to pursue the work of equity, regardless of the time commitment?
I’m always going to step into a space when I know change is needed, and I believe now is the time for us to stand in spaces of status quo. I’ll be there as long as it takes to course-correct.
Knowing this is a volunteer school board member position in Baltimore, I did a lot of research about the time commitment involved. Since this would be in addition to the nonprofit I run, Building Our Nation’s Daughters (BOND), I needed to know which days I would need to attend committee meetings, visit schools, and connect with parents, stakeholders, unions, and advocacy groups. I took a realistic look at my schedule and blocked off my time to ensure I could dedicate at least a whole weekday to the board.
I also wanted to account for the time I will need to refuel and remain effective. If you stop taking time for yourself, you’ll reach burn out. By consolidating my leadership roles to the week days, I’ll have weekends for self-care, family, and relationships.
How are you preparing mentally for this new role?
While I do have some experience being in the “spotlight” through leadership, I know the school board is a very public-facing appointment. To prepare for that, I have the practice of meditation to keep me grounded. I’m also a person of faith and make sure I stay rooted through reading, attending church, and looking to prayer. My close circle of loved ones also keeps me lifted, and they’re my source of joy.
On the research front, reading has been a major part of my school board preparation. I’m learning how the board operates, setting up one-on-ones with advocates, organizers, and other board members, and keeping a pulse on Baltimore city. I want to make sure I hear all the voices, because those voices will inform my role.
What does it mean to you to have this opportunity to serve your home community?
There’s nothing like serving where you were born and bred. I’m still a Black girl from Baltimore City, inside and out. I know what it’s like to grow up here, to watch my relatives struggle, to be a young adult, and to experience underlying racism and zip code destiny. I know what it feels like to both teach and be a student throughout the Baltimore school system. It’s truly unique to think about the decisions we’ll be making and consider, “How would little Ateira feel right now? How would the girls I taught at Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women be impacted? What perspective would my neighbors have about this decision?”
What words of encouragement do you have for current or former teachers who have their sights set on similar roles?
This takes me back to an organizing campaign we did to get more funding for Baltimore City schools. One of our slogans was, “We Can’t Wait.” We knew that if we waited another year to fundraise, we would lose another $290 million that was needed to provide heat, resources, and text books. Without that fundraising, our kids would be in cold classrooms sharing books with each other.
So, if you’re thinking about stepping up into a leadership role and feel like you need an extra push, remember your why. If your ‘why’ has anything to do with students or the betterment of your community, they can’t wait for another day – and they’re probably waiting on you.
What words of encouragement do you give yourself on the harder days of nonprofit and education work?
Black women are often told by society to shrink ourselves. I have to push past those inner thoughts and outer obstacles for our community. If we continue to diminish our potential by waiting for the right time to set bigger goals, we are also diminishing the potential of the next generation, because they don’t see our talk in action. We love to tell kids to shoot for the moon. We have to do that as adults, too. And we have to show them how.
*This interview has been transcribed and edited for clarity and brevity.
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