Finding a Home for All of Me: One Black Woman’s Journey in Education

February 2024
Mikkaka Overstreet

I am a lot of things. I’m a woman, a writer, a bookworm, a teacher, and a cat lover. I am queer and anxious and introverted. I’m smart, silly, and kind.

Most of all, I’m Black.

For over 40 years I have moved through the world in a Black body. I can confidently say my race is the aspect of my identity that has most impacted my experience. It has determined how people see me and how systems impact me. My Blackness shaped my long career in education, from an “at-risk” child to a functioning middle-class adult with a terminal degree.

My Blackness is an essential piece of what it means to be Dr. Mikkaka Overstreet.

Beating the Odds With Caring Educators

I grew up in a tumultuous environment. My home life was inconsistent at best, terrifying and painful at worst. I was “at risk” because I was poor and Black, my father was murdered before my first birthday, my stepfather was incarcerated, my young mother worked multiple low-wage jobs to support us, and our neighborhoods were “rough.” Society didn’t expect me to amount to much.

My Blackness did not inherently make me more equipped to teach or support these children. However, I do think that seeing themselves in the teaching staff made a difference.

Yet there were caring adults in my life who had a different vision of my future. Aside from family, these adults were most often teachers. They encouraged me, guided me, and believed in me. Thanks to the support of my grandmothers and many quality educators, I was able to beat the odds and grow into a successful adult. These caring adults are the reason I was the first in my family to graduate college, then obtain master’s and doctoral degrees. They are the reason I am here today.

I knew that every child who was like me did not have the same support. For that reason, I decided to become one of those caring adults: I pursued a career in education.

Teaching in WASP Country

I started my teaching career in January 2006, a fresh December graduate. My college advisor had connected me to a “good school” in Louisville’s affluent East End. A second grade teacher was retiring over Christmas break, and the principal wanted a replacement rather than a long-term substitute.

Fresh out of college, I walked into one of the best elementary schools in the state (according to test scores) to replace one of its longest-serving, most beloved teachers. She and I could not have been more different: Besides the considerable gap in age and experience, she fit the East End in a way I didn’t. Middle class and blonde with adorable blonde grandchildren, she was from the community and could talk home improvement projects and Bunco. I was young and Black, with an afro and a newly rented one bedroom apartment nearby. I grew up in the parts of town these people avoided completely, and I had never even heard of Bunco. I felt out of place and fraudulent.

I got into education to help kids like me—poor, marginalized, “at risk.” Yet here I was, in the center of WASP country, where mothers wore stiletto heels to bring their children fresh sushi for lunch. Unlike my colleagues in poorer neighborhoods, I had no shortage of volunteers to help with parties, field trips, or classroom tasks. Though most of my kids had no trouble buying everything on our lengthy supply list, I had a triple-digit annual allowance from the parent-teacher association. Meanwhile, teachers at other schools spent their own money on pencils and paper.

I felt like a sellout.

The Right Place: The Importance of a Black Teacher

It didn’t take long for me to realize that, as usual, God placed me exactly where I needed to be. The children in the East End needed to experience what I had to offer—it was important for the white kids to see a Black woman as a positive role model. And I needed to see our full education system to understand the disparities, contradictions, and fundamental flaws.

In addition to students from the East End, my school served a small group of children who were more like me. Because Louisville is still racially segregated, the city created a bussing system to integrate schools. That meant a small contingent of poor Black kids was bussed in from the other side of town—most from the same housing projects. Due to lack of reliable transportation, many of their parents never saw the school, unless a school staff member picked them up for parent-teacher conferences.

These kids tumbled in, bringing their rambunctious personalities and neighborhood rivalries with them. Most of the teachers—despite their best efforts and intentions—couldn’t understand them. The children got into trouble, struggled academically, and stuck together as a raucous and sassy clique. Teachers tried in vain to keep them apart, but when I looked into classrooms full of white faces with one or two brown faces planted here and there, I couldn’t blame them for seeking one another out at every opportunity.

My Blackness did not inherently make me more equipped to teach or support these children. However, I do think that seeing themselves in the teaching staff made a difference. And I was more familiar with some aspects of their lives than my white counterparts because of my life experiences as a Black woman.

When the only Black boy in my class got in trouble for referring to a white classmate as “my n-word," I understood that some in the Black community use that word to refer to their friends. More importantly, I wasn't too uncomfortable to discuss it frankly with the boys, as my colleagues feared to do. Rather than fussing at Kevin for using a "bad word" and sending the message that his primary discourse was wrong, I talked about the differences between the language that’s appropriate to use at home compared to school.

After Malcolm almost got a referral for refusing to remove his hood in class, I discovered he was embarrassed that his mother hadn't finished his hair and feared that his schoolmates would ridicule his half-twisted afro. I spent my planning period twisting the rest and chatting with the normally quiet fourth grader as he sat on the floor between my legs. The ease and familiarity felt like home to both of us, and I formed a lasting relationship with a child I'd hardly spoken to before.

I also remember a candid conversation with Corinne, a Black mother. Her daughter, Shelley, wasn’t bussed in; she was from the East End with affluent parents. Corinne was an active PTA mom and often hovered in the doorway watching me teach. Toward the end of the year, Corinne confided that she would be moving Shelley to a local private school. Corinne had waited because she knew I might be Shelley’s last Black teacher. So many of Shelley’s friends and neighbors were white, and Corinne wanted her daughter to experience a positive relationship with a teacher who shared her background—an experience Corinne knew Shelley might not have in her private school.

In all these moments, I realized how important it was for me to be exactly where I was.

System Challenges: Underfunding, Tokenism, and Burnout

Eventually I left the classroom, hoping to make an impact on the larger education system. I spent a few years at the Kentucky Department of Education as a literacy consultant. When facilitating professional learning to teacher leaders, I was often the only person of color in the room. I had known that the U.S. teaching force was predominately white women, but it felt different to see the evidence everywhere I went. I thought about how many kids would spend their K–12 years with limited to no interaction with people from other cultures.

After I finished my doctorate, I took a position at my alma mater directing a program dedicated to diversifying the teacher pipeline. It was a fulfilling, frustrating, underfunded job that eventually wore me down. It was extremely difficult trying to recruit and retain folks of color when the higher education system seemed to work against me at every turn. (If I never deal with financial aid again, it will be too soon.)

I was determined to make an impact without giving every scrap of myself to an uncaring, unchanging system.

Next, I took a tenure-track position in North Carolina. I realized I could make a difference by helping the predominately white teaching force become better at teaching all kids. I loved teaching pre-service teachers and put all my time and energy into the work. I found opportunities to co-teach, model, and provide professional development to practicing teachers. I wrote articles, books, and blogs galore. And, because the pay in academia is abysmal, I worked side jobs writing for publications and providing consulting services.

By the time I reached the precipice of tenure, I was completely burned out. I was tired of publishing in the echo chamber of peer-reviewed journals. I was sick of being the token Black person on every initiative, committee, and task force that well-meaning folks thought I would be great on. I was exhausted, overworked, and underpaid. And I felt disconnected from work that really mattered.

Thus, halfway through the process with no doubt of my success, I withdrew my tenure application and walked away from academia. I was determined to make an impact without giving every scrap of myself to an uncaring, unchanging system. I wanted to find a place where my expertise would be truly valued.

A Home for All of Me

Enter Education Northwest. I couldn’t believe there was an education nonprofit looking for a literacy consultant and that I would not have to relocate. The organization had been around for a while, and the work looked promising.

Then I looked at the staff. At that time, there were far fewer people of color than there are now. Leadership was almost entirely white, with one Black woman serving a dual role as a director and diversity, equity, inclusion, and access strategist. It was a bad look.

Despite the red flags, I took the job—and I do not regret it. For the first time, I have a Black supervisor, which has been a delight and a comfort in ways I never imagined. Although the lack of diversity in senior leadership remains a concern, Education Northwest has shown a commitment to improving the culture; championing diversity, equity, and inclusion; and creating a brave space for staff members of all identities.

After almost two years, I am still happy at Education Northwest. It feels like a place where I can make an impact—doing work that really matters—without leaving parts of myself at the door. My Blackness, woman-ness, queerness, and all the things that make me Dr. Mikkaka are seen as assets.

It’s not perfect, but it feels like home.