Dr. Shawn Joseph Triumphs Over Nashville’s Ignorance, Racism

Dr. Shawn Joseph and the cover to his new book being released Oct 28, 2019, "Finding the Joseph Within."

By Ashley Benkarski

NASHVILLE, TN — Former Metro Nashville Public Schools Director Dr. Shawn Joseph is turning hardship into opportunity, a message extolled in his new book “Finding the Joseph Within” to be released Oct. 28.

It focuses on parallels between the life experiences of Dr. Joseph and the Biblical Joseph, particularly on keeping faith and standing firm against adversity in the personal and professional realms. “The longer you live the more challenges you will face inevitably,” he said. Scripture in the book serves to remind that “all hard times are short term and temporary as long as you keep your faith.”

Dr. Joseph’s departure from MNPS was a testimony to his convictions after he endured harsh public scrutiny fueled by misinformation and racism, he said, noting much of the blame he received was misdirected and the successes ignored. He was the first African American to hold that position at MNPS.

During his term, he said, reading scores grew faster than the state and the nation, ACT scores grew faster than the state in every category for the first time, suspensions decreased and more students are getting industry certifications. “I requested that we mutually separate because I didn’t want to be an impediment to teachers getting their raises and the funds,” he said, adding that it was the best thing to do for the city and children.

“Do I make mistakes? Absolutely,” he said. “I question would it have happened had I been a white male and I believe the answer would be no. People would be celebrating the advancements made, but since it’s me there’s the condemnation.” 

He recalled a press conference held concerning the number of priority schools based on data before his leadership, “but it was on my watch that it increased so […] the narrative was there.” A shortfall in state funding due to 1500 fewer students became a headline, he said, “but they never went deeper to say it was an anomaly. We had been growing every year so it’s understandable how that shortfall could have come.” Rather than moving the money from savings, Joseph put it toward supporting special education students and English language learners. “There’s a reason why we have the most rewards schools that we’ve ever had this particular year,” he said. “It’s because money went where it was needed–in our poorest schools. And in the schools that were more affluent, they did not lose ground with that shift. No stories have shared that […] A year later, they didn’t drop their scores because they had what they needed, but there was a big part of town that did not have what they needed and when they got it, things got better. It’s not rocket science, it just takes political courage.”

“Race matters in America still today,” he said, recalling the bullet holes in Emmett Till’s memorial sign while working in Mississippi. “That visual just reinforced to me that there are still people in this country that hate based upon race.” Although “there were cultural nuances and things that I did that people weren’t accustomed to, that there was a reaction to, that I wholeheartedly should own,” the reaction made race feel relevant, he said. “It can’t just be black folks and latino folks and people of color screaming about the injustices that are happening. We need courageous white folks, people in power to speak up and talk about the injustices that occur and there has to be a multiracial coalition, similar to the beginnings of the NAACP,” he said, noting this movement must take place in communities across America.

Joseph said he believed that racism was also focused on some schools, noting stereotypical perceptions surrounding children of color in predominantly poor districts. “Fourteen percent of our student population don’t speak english as a first language,” he said, explaining that language barriers affect standardized test scores. He lamented the segregation that still exists in the district, noting the metro area has seen a trend of families with means choosing not to enroll their children in MNPS. “I have never blamed a family for seeking the best but I will blame a community for forgetting those who don’t have the opportunity to go somewhere else,” he said. “It means nothing [that] we have the lowest tax rate in America if we have some of the poorest outcomes.” The challenge, he said, is recognizing responsibility for the collective whole.

Fortunately, “God will always send someone in your life in your darkest moment to help you move forward,” he said.

For Dr. Joseph, that person was his manager while employed at an ice cream restaurant during the 1980s when he was 14. When changing labor laws required employees to be 16 his manager let him work under his brother’s name and social security number rather than fire him, he said. Thankful he could continue to take some of the financial burden from his mother, stay focused and not give in to the “temptation and pressure” of drugs and violence, he likened his manager to the Biblical Joseph’s brother, Reuben, who persuaded his brothers not to kill Joseph and attempted to rescue him.

Joseph went on to create success in his life through service and leadership, becoming the first in his family to graduate high school and earning a doctorate degree from George Washington University.

“It’s not where you start, it’s where God will bring you if you allow him to bring you there,” he said. “God has never blessed someone he hasn’t hurt.” Rather than becoming angry with God, Joseph stayed the course, letting faith lead. 

“The walk [of a Christian] is filled with suffering that is redemptive,” he said. “God uses that pain to give you Godly humility, and with that Godly humility you have the ability, in time, to really lead. So when He does give you that blessing, that blessing doesn’t come with the arrogance that could come if it was given easily. It comes with an appreciation and humility to do good work.”

He addressed staying grounded through the tumult while Director of MNPS in the fourth chapter titled “I Ain’t Mad at Cha.” Nashville provided him the opportunity to serve 86,000 children along with “insight and wisdom to be able to prepare a new generation of leaders” as an associate visiting professor at Fordham University in NY which focuses on social justice, he said. He’s formed an institute for equity and effective governance that works with superintendents, school boards, unions and politicians, uniting them to move outcomes for children, he revealed. “We’re showing people techniques for how to do that and in my case, I’m speaking from the experience of this is what happens when you get it wrong. Even though Nashville got results, imagine what would have happened had we all been rowing in the same direction.”

“If you focus on your mission you will always have a job, but if you focus on your job you may miss your mission,” he said of his decision. “With leadership comes the burden of responsibility that is challenge. I am beyond thankful. I would never say anything negative about Nashville and my experience here.”

“We moved on and are working to give people a voice in the city,” he said. He’s also been appointed a board member of The Equity Alliance and is involved in community work through Nashville Unchained, the NAACP, Gideon’s Army and the Interdenominational Ministers Fellowship with the goal of  promoting “education, economic empowerment and political empowerment” in the city by building a multiracial and multicultural coalition to address voter turnout and the lack of nutritional food options in predominantly minority areas.

“Finding the Joseph Within” can be pre-ordered at nashvilleunchained.com.

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