Shortly after a St. Anthony police officer shot and killed Black motorist Philando Castile in July 2016, Joyce Ester, president of Normandale Community College, watched a news report with students from the school where Castile worked. "This little white girl kept talking about Mr. Castile," Ester said. "She knew him." That snippet resonated with Ester, an educator who believes that knowledge is one of the keys to solving problems that have vexed the nation since its founding. In 2021, Normandale launched its Black Men in Teaching program, hiring Marvis Kilgore, a world traveler and polymath, to lead it. Kilgore shares more about the program below.
Q: I'm curious about how this is not just a job but a mission for you. Can you tell us about your background?
A: I'm from … Holly Springs, Miss., and all of the images that you conjure up about small town … Mississippi — seven out of 10 of those are likely correct. It's not segregated by law, but it's … socially segregated and that presented a few challenges to my family as it relates to educating my brothers and sisters. We were fortunate enough to [go to] a private school ... with a predominantly Black population.
I come from a modest middle-class family. But my mother's side, in particular, has done some revolutionary things as it relates to education. She was in the first class to integrate her high school. She was the first one in the family to go to college, then get a master's degree, so she really set the tone for, quite frankly, Black excellence.
Q: You followed their example?
A: I was going to have a career in education, so I went to Dillard University in New Orleans, a small liberal arts HBCU, where I majored in foreign language education. After Dillard, I decided … to go to graduate school, so I went on to Ole Miss [where] initially I majored in education. But it was way too easy, so I just changed … to Spanish. After Ole Miss, I moved to Houston to do Teach for America for two years, teaching fifth-grade bilingual math and science predominantly to first generation students. But I was very unsettled and unhappy with the trajectory of my life … so I decided to sell everything that I had with the exception of my house in Houston, and put everything that I could in two suitcases and … moved to the Middle East. I told myself I had to sink or swim.
Q: What did that teach you?
A: It was like one of the best decisions I've ever made. I had a lot of time to really push myself and a lot of quiet time. I knew that I would come back home eventually. I wanted to come back … to a job that would make some waves — change the landscape in education. And now all roads lead to Normandale, and the first-ever Black Men in Teaching program [in the region].
Q: You're coming at a critical time of racial justice reckoning in a place with gaps in housing, education, health and other things that cause some to [call] our state ... the Mississippi of the North. Tell me about the opportunity in that.
A: Actually, I thought to myself about, what have I gotten myself into? George Floyd was murdered in broad daylight in front of children. A few months later, there was another incident, you know, but I told myself, this is where I need to be. My community needs me. The experiences that I've had globally and Stateside have prepared me to be on the front line to make some substantive change. As a result of some tragic circumstances … I want to make sure that when I'm at the table advocating for the men of my program and discussing my program, the messaging is clear: We are coming to disrupt the status quo, to take up space basically for a community that has been historically excluded. The conversations we're having about equity, diversity and inclusion — that's great. But if you don't attach resources to the conversation we're just spinning our wheels.
Q: Tell us about the program.
A: The mission of the Black Men in Teaching program is to recruit and support Black, African and African American men until elementary education and secondary education pathways to have a positive impact on our students. We do realize that there's so much work to be done, we just needed to start somewhere. With this program … we're getting a historically excluded population [and] we're targeting them to become well-educated.
Q: What numbers are we talking about?
A: In this inaugural cohort, we have six young men. We're hoping to increase the number each year, based upon donor support, community support, to reach our magic number of 20 to 25. The ultimate goal is a stand-alone center that will serve as a regional model for the Upper Midwest, because when you look at the data in neighboring states, you see similar issues — huge numbers of students of color, very few teachers of color.
Q: And your models?
A: We're not aware of any other program at a Minnesota college or university focused on recruiting Black, African and African American men into the K-12 teaching profession. Nationally you have Call Me MISTER out of Clemson University in South Carolina. And you have another Black Latino male teacher prep program at a community college in Connecticut. We want to get to the forefront to make sure that we get this right. And we're able to get results that are able to be packaged and replicated to ensure that we're not only closing gaps in education but we're closing those gaps in STEM, in business, the arts. We have some huge plans.
Q: Black boys are sometimes alienated in classrooms and reported for behavioral issues. How does having a Black male teacher help?
A: Well, I'll talk a bit about the cradle to prison pipeline. There's been tons of research that very clearly lay out how Black boys, in particular, are punished more severely, often alienated in the classroom with tons of behavioral issues. They're more likely to be streamlined or placed into special education, to be medicated, and all of these things affect the academic trajectory. If you're labeled at a very early age, that label follows you and is extremely detrimental. One of the things that we actually wrote into our mission is that we will rewrite that negative narrative placed upon Black men by society.
Q: How do people misunderstand a program like this?
A: They may think that this is only helping Black people, but a program like this benefits everyone. It's not just a Black thing, but an American thing, to ensure that everyone is well-educated, to ensure that you have representation. I use the analogy of a hand. If you harm your thumb it will affect your whole hand. However, if you give that thumb some extra support and provide the necessary resources to ensure that it's healthy and strong, your whole hand benefits. Someone who's ... well-educated contributes more to the economy. And they don't have certain economic and social issues, so the ripple effect is great.
Q: Is there anything I haven't asked that's important for our readers to know?
A: Well, the men get a $10,000 scholarship to cover tuition and expenses. It's a robust financial aid package. A key component is that the young men also have an opportunity to study abroad. As someone who lived abroad for almost a decade, I can say that's very important. They will have an opportunity to understand what it means to be a Black American man outside of this perspective. There were very few instances in which I experienced racism, so it's empowering — you walk a bit taller and think a bit differently.