What is your personal story, and what struggles have led to your success?
I grew up in a relatively small city (population 60K) called Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Pine Bluff is about 35 miles southeast of Little Rock, Ar. My childhood was complicated, in my opinion. I was primarily raised by my grandmother due to being born to a single mother who was 16. The relationship between my mother and father was also complicated, to say the least. This complication kept me being tossed from house to house, within our family, for one reason or another. I remember praying for stability and peace. As I got older, drugs, alcohol, and violence became a part of my life. I never used drugs, but the people who did became common fixtures in our lives as my mother struggled with her own addictions. Ironically, it was in these difficult moments, for a child, that I was introduced to humanity and inequality. While spending time with my grandmother afforded me resources, it was spending time with my mother and her "friends" that allowed me to understand the stories behind the drugs and other vices. The stories of layoffs unfairly docked pay, firings, denied disability claims, etc., are what fueled me to have a heart for those who struggled. As I grew older, I noticed it was Black people who seemed to struggle the most. Even through addiction and violence perpetrated against my siblings and me, my mother taught us to care for those who were struggling. I was able to see her career come to an end because of drugs, but also, I got to see her go down fighting the loss of her dignity and perceived worth to her family and friends. It was that fight of hers that showed me that, behind the vices and misfortunes, there is a fight going on for hope and dignity in all despite what is oppressing someone. While I was learning these lessons with my family, I was learning another one with my teachers.
My teachers saw the curiosity in me and showed me things outside of my four-block radius. My teachers had conversations with me about the latest word I added to my vocabulary from reading the dictionary or encyclopedia. I loved to read, and I loved to learn. My teachers took me ice skating for the first time, or to a play, or to an upscale neighborhood. It was teachers who applauded me for being selected to Beta Club, Governor's School, Captain of R.O.T.C, the Debate Team, etc. So, while I was learning the hard lessons from the streets about the effects of policies and practices that disproportionally impact Black people, I was also unknowingly learning how to study, understand, and articulate an issue effectively enough to inspire others to care about it too. I could go on and on about my journey, but I thought those moments that introduced me to humanity and dignity were important to highlight because it informs the work I do now.
How did you become involved in education?
I started in education as a substitute teacher when I completed my military service as an Army officer. Before my military service, while in college, I tutored upperclassmen in a variety of subjects. Teaching was something that always came naturally to me. I really enjoyed seeing people "get it." After completing my military service, I moved to Mobile, Alabama, to start my graduate program. While in school, I started teaching Biology, Anatomy & Physiology, and Chemistry at Williamson High School. I served students in the classroom for seven years before taking a one-year hiatus to work for Aventis Pharmaceuticals in some of Alabama's rural parts. After becoming disgusted with how some of the physicians were taking advantage of the lack of education and access to quality healthcare of people of color in those rural areas, I vowed that I would go back to the education field and work relentlessly to educate young people of color on how they learn, how to access information, and how to think critically and reflectively about socio-political issues in their communities.
I eventually moved into roles that carried more responsibility (administrative) and gave me opportunities for more significant impact with students and their families and my fellow educators. At their request, I started to work with other educators on increasing their capacity to work with students of color, particularly young men and boys of color. So much so that I started my first consulting group, Zen Educational Consulting, to work with other schools and their staff on equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives. During this time, I wrote my first two books, Hardwired by Nature: What We as Educators Underestimate About Our Minority Students and The Dedrick Sims Reader. Our Hardwired by Nature: School/Program Design Through an Equity Lens is foundationally based on that book. Over the years, I have expanded the content and created seven comprehensive workshops that focus on equity and inclusion. We currently conduct these workshops around the country. We have impacted thousands of educators and other professionals working with students of color, emphasizing young men and boys of color.
Eventually, my frustration with the lack of urgency and sometimes indifferent efforts of traditional education towards the improvement of education access and outcomes for students of color led me to move to Denver and start my own charter school for young men. The school, the Sims-Fayola International Academy, was approved in the fall of 2011 and opened in 2012 with 125 young men. Unfortunately, the school closed in 2015 due to several complex issues. However, because of the success and challenges of the Sims-Fayola International Academy effort, I have been able to assist other aspiring charter groups around the county to navigate the charter school development process as well as leaders of traditional schools in restructuring the learning experiences they were providing for the students they served, to include one in my hometown of Pine Bluff, AR and a more recent one in rural Louisiana. This now makes up the School Support pillar of the Sims-Fayola Foundation. We are currently working on other charter school projects in Michigan and Texas.
I had the unfortunate experience of having a school I started having to close. That was heart-wrenching to watch because of how it impacted the young men, families, and teachers who believed in our mission. I was told long ago by a very wise mentor that "when you shoot for big goals like you have Dedrick, you will undoubtedly experience failures and shortfalls. But with big goals come big risks. You have to learn to push through the setbacks and challenges and stay true to your moral compass." That turned out to be very accurate. The school closure is just one of the biggest challenges I've had. Still, there have definitely been many smaller ones that have really tested my resolve to ensure equitable learning experiences and access to students of color, particularly young men and boys of color.
Through your books and philanthropy, in addition to your work in education, you are supporting black men. Can you tell us more about that?
The Sims-Fayola Foundation's vision was always an intention of mine, but with a different mission than it has now. The Sims-Fayola Foundation's original idea was to serve as a fundraising and research entity for the Sims-Fayola International Academies. Still, after the closing of the first school, I decided to take the best parts of the school and share this knowledge and experience with other educators who wanted to improve their capacity to work with young men and boys of color through our foundation programs. This eventually led us to be asked by professionals outside of education, who work with students of color, to seek our support in their work. As of August 2019, our foundation has impacted over 10,000 young men and boys of color, delivered equity workshops to over 2,500 educators, mentors, non-profit leaders, law enforcement and school resource officers, and parents. In our newest strategic plan, we outline significant additional efforts to support Black and Brown young men by forming a 12-month fellowship to support male educators of color. This fellowship's macro goals will be to increase recruitment and retention of male educators of color and provide culturally-based support structures that offer communalism, professional best practices, and a network of safe spaces.
What would you most like to share with the next generation of Black leaders?
Understand the historical disposition of the world towards us, use those facts to discover who you are and what role you are being called in light of that, lead with love, empathy, and understanding, and find places of happiness to recharge.