As she watched another unarmed Black man die at the hands of a police officer and witnessed protesters filling the streets, Denisha Merriweather vowed to do her part to raise awareness of the link between systemic racism in the criminal justice system and the public education system.
From an early age, she was all too familiar with that relationship.
The daughter of a 16-year-old girl high school dropout, Merriweather easily could have been pushed along with many of her Black classmates through the school-to-prison pipeline. At her zoned district school, she was told she was “never going to amount to anything.” She failed third grade twice.
What saved her was moving in with her godmother, who got Merriweather a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship to attend a private school. The new environment put her on a path to success. She became the first member of her family to graduate from high school. She went on to graduate from college and earn a master’s degree.
Her career has allowed her rub shoulders with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. She’s been recognized before Congress. She’s also had the chance to call former U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos “boss.”
Today, Merriweather serves as engagement director at the American Federation for Children, an organization that promotes school choice and partners with Step Up For Students, where she interned as a student and which hosts this blog. The 29-year-old shudders when she thinks of how differently things could have turned out had it not been for the opportunities afforded her by school choice.
“I could have easily gone to prison,” she said. “The public system was not set up in its beginning for Black people to succeed. The school-to-prison pipeline is very real in communities like where I come from.”
Seeing George Floyd die face down in the street with a white police officer’s foot pressed against his neck last summer brought back of a flood of emotions and inspired an op-ed that made the case for swift education reform as a way to break the cycle of racial injustice.
“Families with children who languish in a system that kills them cannot afford to wait any longer. If we really care about breaking down racist structures and institutions in America, we must also give every child access to a great education of their family’s choice.”
But she went further. She decided to create a website, www.BlackMindsMatter.net (not affiliated with Black Minds Matter, a grassroots initiative in Los Angeles to prepare Black youth for leadership or a course of the same name geared to raise the national consciousness about issues facing Black boys and men in education), to gather all the resources Black families need to pursue high-quality education options in one place. The non-partisan site supports “all forms of choices under sun,” Merriweather said, from private schools to charter schools, micro-schools and district magnet schools.
It also includes a national Black-owned schools directory. Merriweather estimates there are about 500 such schools across the nation, and she wants to capture as many as possible on the list. So far, she has found 160, and includes a submission form on the site. To promote the directory as well as the website, she has set up virtual tours of six schools on Feb. 18 and 19.
Merriweather stressed that the website has been designed to be a safe space for those who oppose education choice and those who are unsure about it and want more information.
“This is a neutral zone for all of us in moving to point people who are on the fence or who see all the reasons people should not support choice,” she said. “I really hope that this new effort would dismantle all of that.”