• Bridget Locke

A Place Called Home for Teachers Like Me

Once Trinity Davis, Ph.D., founder of Teachers Like Me, determined her new non-profit organization’s “what”—which is to recruit, develop and retain Black teachers in the Kansas City area—she pivoted quickly to answering the “how.” The specific question to be answered: how would Teachers Like Me persuade prospective educators to move to (or remain in) Kansas City to complete their education and establish a present, consistent community for black students?

As she brainstormed and consulted with colleagues, the solution became clear: teachers, who often earn modest salaries, would need safe, affordable housing. Less clear for Davis was how to make low-cost rent an integral part of her organization’s model. She had no way of knowing that, somewhere across town, a passionate champion of social equity, and clean, green, affordable housing was already formulating a strategy…

Scott Johnson, a consultant, sustainable builder and tech entrepreneur, hadn’t long been in the area before hearing about the unique struggles that students and teachers of color face in Kansas City. After listening to a panel discussion on KCUR 89.9, Kansas City’s public radio station, Johnson learned that 80% of Kansas City Public School students were people of color, but teachers of color made up only 20% of the total teaching population. Johnson also knew from his own upbringing that it is difficult for educators to build wealth. That’s when his wheels started spinning; Johnson planned to take some of the vacant lots he’d purchased in Manheim Park and build affordable top-bottom flats for black teachers in the area to buy.

“I figured the teachers could live in one unit and rent out the other to earn passive income,” he said.

Executives in Kansas City Public Schools enthusiastically supported the spirit of Johnson’s idea and advised that affordable rental property is the more pressing need for teachers. He was also given the scoop on a new organization for which his proposal seemed perfectly-suited …

“After my initial conversations with the district, I received a follow-up email encouraging me to speak to Dr. Trinity Davis. I was told that she was starting a non-profit focusing on black teachers,” Johnson said. “We made contact and had an amazing conversation. It was a perfect fit.”

“We met at a coffee shop and discussed the research on the low number of black teachers in Kansas City, and the impact it has on the community and student achievement,” said Davis, reflecting on her initial meeting with Johnson. “After we spoke, I knew that he was equally invested in improving the experiences of black students and educators. When we decided to partner, I believed my dream was finally going to become a reality.”

Johnson’s transcontinental walk toward “woke” Born in Scottsbluff, Neb., Johnson knew at a young age that he was destined to take a different path than the rest of his family.

“My parents and my brothers were musicians,” Johnson said, “and my father was also a lifelong educator. I didn’t exactly follow in their footsteps. I was intelligent and capable, but an underachiever. I didn’t like to do homework and developed an anti-establishment mindset at a fairly early age.”

Though Johnson and his father clashed often over his defiance and lack of enthusiasm for school, the two bonded over a common love for working.

“Dad was a renaissance man, and I fashioned myself after him. Working turned my life around,” said Johnson. “I discovered that I have a passion for it.”

While work was an early focus, racial inequity was not. If the social interactions in Johnson’s high school lunchroom were any indication, America’s complicated problem with race relations had been solved in the 1980s.

“There were no all-white or all-black tables. Our school had a strong multicultural mix,” Johnson recalled of Aurora, Colorado’s Gateway High School. “We all interacted with one another. Because there was no tension, I genuinely believed that we were living in a post-racial world.”

Johnson further developed his business acumen as a marketing major at the University of Northern Colorado. After graduating (and dabbling in a few entrepreneurial ventures that didn’t go as planned), he felt pulled into a new direction. Rather than spend the rest of his life striving to make money only for himself, Johnson wanted to achieve something more lasting and meaningful. So, in 1991, he volunteered with the Peace Corps, working with rural credit unions and farming co-operatives in Ghana.

A self-described “feminist, for as long as I can remember,” Johnson counts organizing the women of the town of Nandom and surrounding villages to create Ghana’s first women-only credit union as a significant accomplishment. He also felt more at home interacting with the Ghanaians than with his fellow American Peace Corps volunteers.

“Americans sometimes romanticize African culture, but I can say that I genuinely connected with the people of Ghana. Because they aren’t as rushed as Americans, there was time to sit and talk. I preferred that to having a burger and a beer with the other expats at some bar.”

There were two Ghanaians with whom Johnson enjoyed a particularly strong connection: Jane and her daughter, Emily, who would eventually become his wife and daughter.

Johnson with his daughter Emily in 1996.

After his Peace Corps service ended, Johnson’s evolving career took him to cities all over the U.S. In a short span of time, he served as economic development director for the City of Carthage, Ill.; helped to establish Kansas State University Cooperative Extension Service’s office of local development; founded an online business matching entrepreneurs with angel investors in Dallas, Tex.; served as chief operating officer and director of technology for an online human resources tech company based in Plano, Tex.; and started his own software company with a fellow programmer in Boulder, Colo.

Meanwhile, navigating the unpredictable (and ever-evolving) racial climate of the United States with an African wife and daughter in tow opened his eyes like never before.

"I am very perceptive about people and energy. I noticed the way others looked at us. While we lived in Colorado, I was surprised by the negative reactions that Jane and I received as an interracial couple,” Johnson reflected. “Then, when Emily and I moved to Texas after Jane and I divorced, I received dirty looks from strangers for parenting a black child.”

Sadly, these experiences confirmed for Johnson what he’d come to realize since graduating from Gateway High School:

“We are definitely not a ‘post-racial’ society.”

Top-bottom plans for Teachers Like Me Once Emily graduated high school in Colorado and began studying at the Kansas City Art Institute, Johnson and his new wife, Masako, sold their Boulder home and joined her in Kansas City. As an investment, Johnson bought a rental house (which he eventually sold after the tenant moved) and later, two adjacent rehabs in the historic Manheim Park neighborhood, east of Troost in midtown Kansas City, Mo. Though Johnson intended to restore and sell the houses at affordable prices, he fell in love with the area and kept one of the homes for himself and Masako. From there, momentum built; Johnson’s rehab work sparked the interest of others in the neighborhood. In eight months, four other previously-vacant houses were restored and an entire block was revived.

In addition to the gratification Johnson feels from investing in the community he now calls home, providing healthy, green, affordable housing for tomorrow’s educators has become a significant point of pride. To that end, the working relationship between Davis, Johnson and the organizations they represent continues to grow and evolve. Teachers Like Me and the Manheim Community Land Trust, co-founded by Johnson, have joined forces with Bright Hall Residential LLC, which was established by Johnson in 2017 to develop affordable housing for teachers of color and support equitable redevelopment in the Manheim Park neighborhood. The three entities have formed a new corporation: School Zone LLC.

Johnson (l) and Davis (r), at the site of a future flat.

As part of their cooperation agreement, Bright Hall Residential LLC will provide buildable lots and initial capital for Manheim Community Land Trust to build energy-efficient housing, which will be rented (or sold) exclusively to Teachers Like Me recruits. The top-bottom flats to be leased to education students in the program offer three bedrooms with ensuite bathrooms and communal living spaces. The first flat will be available in July 2021, just in time for the inaugural Teachers Like Me cohort to begin classes in the fall.

“Re-establishing a community where black teachers remain in the area and are engaged beyond the classroom is an integral part of our mission,” said Davis, “so, safe, affordable housing is key. Our targeted recruitment strategy, coupled with a solid housing solution, positions Teachers Like Me to be effective from the beginning,” said Davis.

Johnson, like Davis, is excited about the potential of Teachers Like Me to transform the community—because he has committed his privilege and influence toward dismantling the systems of oppression that hinder black people from achieving prosperity.

“I now look at everything in life through the lens of racial inequity. I believe that the greatest injustice in the history of the human race is the systemic racism that has been imposed on black people in America. I am passionate about creating opportunities for solidarity, empowered communities and healthy, green living spaces for people of color. The time has come for all of us to be assertive, intentional and unapologetic about ensuring equal access for black people in this country.”

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