What after all has maintained the human race on this old globe despite all the calamities of nature and all the tragic failings of mankind, if not faith in new possibilities and courage to advocate them. – Jane Addams
Before becoming Birmingham Education Foundation’s (Ed) Policy and Advocacy Manager, Louisiana native, Corinn O’Brien, spent ten years in public schools and education systems. While pursuing her undergraduate degree at Louisiana State University, O’Brien witnessed Hurricane Katrina’s devastation as the storm made landfall on Louisiana’s coast. As she observed the calamity’s effects on New Orleans, she knew that she wanted to remain in the city and further develop her interest in teaching. In 2008, O’Brien began working for Teach For America as an eighth grade math teacher and saw the unimaginable inequities in New Orleans; she instructed 17-year-old students who performed math on a first- or second- grade level and who would age out of the system before completing their education. As O’Brien struggled to reconcile how a world existed where such inequity occurred, she joined a team of teachers who were turning around a failing charter school in New Orleans.
Serving alongside students, families, and teachers, O’Brien worked with a team that transformed their school from an F to a B school report card score. After seven years in teaching middle school mathematics, O’Brien applied to graduate school at Vanderbilt where she enrolled in their Learning, Diversity, and Urban Studies program. Afterwards, O’Brien became an assistant principal at a charter school for seventh and eighth grade in Nashville, where she met Ed’s Strategy Director, Victoria Hollis. Hollis introduced O’Brien to Ed and a job opening appeared for Policy and Advocacy Manager, which O’Brien gladly received.
Last year, as Strategy Manager, O’Brien created Ed’s Policy Project, a new initiative that focused on researching the best education policies & practices for K-12 settings across the nation. Working alongside policy fellows, the Policy Team wrote a series of briefs and reports that profiled potential solutions to implement at the state and local level.
Ed’s Policy Project seeks to share research with people who are not typically at the policy table—students, parents, primary caregivers, community members—, but who are experts about what’s going on in Birmingham and what schools need. To further address the gap between those discussing policies and those with direct experience living under the policies, the Policy Team formed Ed Chats: a mechanism to share policy research with the community and to have conversations about their feedback, what’s missing, their personal experiences, and what Ed should do with that information. Last year, the team wrote a total of 20 papers, three of which were published and released—School Discipline and Restorative Justice, Data Transparency and Accountability, and Teacher Residencies. At the corresponding Ed Chats, one for each published paper, the Policy Project built momentum and engaged over 160 people through the three events.
As the Policy Team prepared for this year, they evaluated the primary feedback from Ed Chats, which requested more action and a need to go beyond conversation. Although the project continues to compile research and engage in dialogue, O’Brien emphasizes that “research should be a starting point for action.” Thus, in its second year, the Policy Team added a new initiative: community action groups. Within the advocacy groups, community members will learn, produce, and share policy information because “people want action . . . that’s what they’re used to Ed doing, and they want to build on that legacy,” O’Brien states.
As the Birmingham Education Foundation promotes the exciting work within the Policy Project, O’Brien hopes that the team continues to pursue innovation, manage the project’s growth, and seek opportunities to build. For O’Brien, her role as Policy and Advocacy Manager provides her with a position where she can develop her passions as an avid learner and reader. She wants to provide Birmingham kids with as many educational opportunities as possible, desiring to both expand and improve the options offered to the city’s students. When given the right circumstances, children can accomplish anything. O’Brien believes “that real change can happen when communities come together,” and that there is “no one more qualified to advocate for their children than families.” To achieve these goals, O’Brien seeks to use research and dialogue in action to elevate community members’ voices to advocate for new possibilities for their kids.