Before Phoebe Boyer could even complete the question, Kaya Henderson was beaming.
At the 2021 Virtual Staff Summit on Friday, Children’s Aid invited Henderson, the former Chancellor of DC Public Schools and the CEO of the education platform Reconstruction, to be the keynote speaker. Boyer, the president and CEO of Children’s Aid, wanted to ask Henderson about what Juneteenth meant to her. As soon as Boyer said the word, Henderson began to bounce.
“Black freedom, baby!” she said. “Juneteenth!”
Children’s Aid recognizes it as a holiday and scheduled the Staff Summit on the day beforehand as an opportunity to commemorate, educate, and celebrate.
At the outset of the half-day event, students from Curtis High School in Staten Island – a Children’s Aid community school – enlightened attendees with a thorough history of Juneteenth National Independence Day. The day commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger and his troops arrived in Galveston with news that the Civil War was over and that all those enslaved were now free.
The next year, the first Juneteenth celebration took place in Galveston. It has been celebrated annually ever since. On Thursday, President Joe Biden signed a law establishing it as a federal holiday.
A clear understanding of history is at the heart of Juneteenth. Although July 4 is our nation’s Independence Day, the freedom that holiday celebrates only applied to a privileged few. A clear understanding of history is also at the heart of Henderson’s work.
Reconstruction’s aim is to create and administer educational curricula that situates Black people and culture in an identity-affirming way. A more complete picture of the contributions of people of color throughout our history benefits all students. For students of color, it helps them to understand the power of their cultural heritage and legacy.
Henderson first began experimenting with this kind of curriculum when she ran the Washington D.C. public school system. She became the leader of Reconstruction because she wanted to see it expand around the country.
“As Black people, we have a tradition of educating ourselves, but I wasn’t seeing it at scale anywhere, she said. “I felt like it was important to codify and solidify this culturally affirming education.”
Since launching in September, Reconstruction has served nearly 3,000 children. They have another 5,000 signed up for the summer, and they’re expecting upwards of 15,000 more in the fall. Children’s Aid students will be among them.
The staff responded effusively to Henderson’s presentation, flooding the virtual chatroom with questions and thanks. Henderson turned the tables and thanked them as well.
“During this pandemic, it wasn’t the institutions that saved us,” she said. “It was students and teachers and frontline community organizations like yours. I draw my energy and inspiration from people like you guys. You were the heroes of this pandemic.”
The Staff Summit also featured opportunities for staff to reflect on what freedom meant to them.
“I feel most free when I can be me,” said Executive Vice President Georgia Boothe. “Liberation means freedom from all forms of oppression.”
“I feel free when I feel safe and when I feel my voice is valued,” said Rose DeStefano, Senior Director of Collective Impact.
“When I think of freedom, I remember all the sacrifices that Black Americans made to have the rights that all Black and Brown people have today in the US,” said Pascale Saintonge Austin, Director, Family Planning and Pregnancy Prevention Programs. “We know the work continues.”
For the staff, the work continued on Monday – after celebrating Juneteenth over the weekend.