An educator for over 20 years, Gini Pupo-Walker is the senior director of education policy and programs at Conexión Américas, a nonprofit in Nashville that serves Latino students and their families. She also leads the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition, where she works with other key groups in Nashville and statewide to develop a common education policy agenda that improves outcomes for students of color across Tennessee.

How do you advance education equity in Nashville?

The educational programs at Conexión Américas provide direct service to Latino parents through a parent engagement program called Padres Comprometidos. We also offer a range of youth development programs, including college access programs and after school programs to Latino students. I also oversee our adult ESL programs, where we help hundreds of people learn English. After nearly two decades of working with families and students, we decided to form an education policy team, which leads the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition. This is now considered a formidable force for education equity across the state.


Share one big success from your work to date and how you measured success.

Our coalition formed just after ESSA was signed into law in 2015, and we were able to quickly mobilize a broad range of statewide partners to craft a shared agenda on what we wanted to see in the Tennessee ESSA plan. We successfully placed members of our coalition on all six ESSA Working Groups convened by the State Department of Education, and we developed a public campaign and strategy to ensure that equity was at the center of the state’s plan.

We didn’t get everything we asked for, but we feel that the plan and its accountability framework send a clear signal to schools and districts that every single student matters. Multiple external reviews have highlighted Tennessee as one of the strongest plans in the country, and we believe our collective advocacy on behalf of our communities contributed to the final version and its success. We continue to grow in influence and numbers, and are proud of our influence and the work that our partners are doing on the ground to promote student and community success.


What do you think are the most pressing education equity issues right now? How can advocates address this challenge?

Americans have two sets of expectations about what children have the capacity to do and accomplish in this country, and we have developed systems that are designed to reinforce those differing expectations. Many students of color, and those living in poverty, continue to receive an education that does not equip them for success, and that perpetuates their marginalization in our society.

The current administration in Washington has added an additional level of intensity with their recent rollbacks of civil rights protections and rhetoric about immigrants and communities of color. This climate has served as a call to action for advocates in local communities, where they are beginning to challenge systems, policies, and inequities in a way that we have not done before. We see strong movement in the advocacy arena on issues related to teacher quality and diversity, access to rigorous instruction and coursework, discipline and school culture, college access and affordability, funding inequities, and parent voice and engagement. The best way to get movement on these issues is in building the capacity of local leaders, parents, and students to advocate for the change they want to see. That is the work that our coalition does every day.


You’ve been doing equity work for more than 20 years. How has the advocacy landscape changed?

I believe that social media and access to information through the internet has changed the way that communities can organize and inform one another. We now see students and parents mobilizing in ways that push policymakers to action, and advocates have much more access to research that highlights the practices and policies that can improve outcomes for our students. Advocates on the ground have a better understanding of the levers of change in education, and are able to connect with national leaders in the field in ways that were previously unimaginable, citing their work and connecting with them to advance their own agenda. I am also encouraged that so many more teachers are interested in how policy connects to their practice, and that they are using their voices to create change as well.


What’s next in regards to your work?

We are paying close attention now to how the Tennessee ESSA plan will be implemented, and are working to equip local communities to understand the new school ratings and report cards that will be released this fall. We are also preparing people to engage on school improvement efforts. Tennessee will release a list of the bottom 5 percent of schools (what we call “priority schools”) this fall, and we plan to engage with districts on school turnaround practices — and will prepare people to serve on needs assessments teams or school improvement committees. We believe that our coalition members must be the most informed people in the room, and we will not sit on the sidelines as communities wrestle with lots of new information and potential change in their schools.


What’s your favorite quote? Why?

I’m not one for quotes mostly, but I do subscribe to the belief espoused by Mahatma Gandhi, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” That really sums up the work I have done for my entire career, and why I recently decided to run for school board in Nashville. Hard work is my currency, and I have always believed that showing up was half the battle. The other half is reaching out to others and creating change and exercising power together. I’ve grown tired of people gathering at forums and conferences to “admire the problem” that is education inequity (another great quote I heard somewhere). We must actualize our vision for our community, and that requires tremendous sacrifice and work, and stepping into the foreground and leading the change we want to see.