Celebrating Women Who Inspire Us: Ama Nyamekye

Ama Nyamekye is Executive Director of Educators 4 Excellence (E4E) in Los Angeles with 15 years of experience elevating public education.

Prior to launching the Los Angeles chapter of Educators 4 Excellence in 2011, Ama taught in both prison and public school systems and saw the clear link between public education and social justice. Her experiences with youth, public schools, prisons and poetry ignited her passions for justice, creativity and collective action.

United Way of Greater Los Angeles has had the honor of partnering with Ama and E4E to end inequity in the education system. Since E4E-LA’s inception five years ago, United Way has worked with the teacher-led organization in its mission to ensure teachers have a leading voice in the policies that impact their students and profession.

In honor  of Women’s History Month, we sat down with inspirational and influential women in the community -- including Ama. Read her Q&A below:

Throughout your work, you’ve addressed issues in the education system, offered creative solutions to overcome these challenges and reached extraordinary milestones. Is there one moment in your career where you felt the most accomplished and proud of the work that you have done?  

Historically, women -- particularly women of color -- have not had a large enough voice in elected leadership and policy-making. So often, men occupy these positions of power. At E4E-LA, more than half of our Teacher Leaders are women of color. These incredible individuals author our policy papers, serve on our leadership programs and have been inspired to lead in elected positions in their schools and unions. The work that our Teacher Leaders have done to elevate their voices makes me very proud!

Was there an event -- international, national or personal -- that propelled you into your career or path of service?  

When I was 19, I was studying poetry -- I wanted to be a poor poet -- and volunteered to teach a poetry workshop at the women’s ward of a prison. I like to joke that it ended my career as a poor poet and began my career as a poor public school teacher! I loved the art of teaching poetry more than I loved the art of writing it. I really do believe that teaching is an art and a science that needs our investment. When I was in that setting, I realized how influential I could be as a teacher.

In what way is the experience of teaching in a prison unique?

When teaching in a prison, you have an actual “captive audience.” Education there is a form of escapism, transition and healing. It contrasts against the notion of control and defeat that is inherent in our prison system. I wanted to be a part of that transformation, but I also recognized that there are ways in which our education system can perpetuate this prison pipeline. Being there allowed me to see how the system needs to change and to have a vision for what it could be -- a way to improve the outcomes of so many.

You are one of the core leaders and founding members of UWGLA’s CLASS Coalition. What spurred your involvement and leadership in CLASS?

Los Angeles has a vibrant community of parents, families, community leaders, civil rights activists, and civic leaders that are engaging in -- and supportive of -- public education. What was missing was a real bridge to teachers who want to lead on some of these changes in partnership with the community. We have been honored to make sure our teachers have a voice at the civil rights and community tables where equity is being discussed.

All month long we have celebrated Women’s History Month. Is there a female figure that you admire most and why?

In my office there is a painting of Ruby Bridges who, as a six-year-old girl, walked to integrate a school in New Orleans. In the painting she is flanked by four white, male federal marshals while walking in front of a wall that has been splattered by a ripe tomato and defaced with the [“N” word] written across it. When the work of improving something as massive as public education feels particularly draining or difficult, like a mountain too big to scale, I remember Ruby and how much courage it took for her to walk to school in that climate of activism around desegregation.

It makes me feel courageous and hopeful, but it also reminds me of the urgency of this work and why I do it. I look at this painting every day.

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