LDI Grad Lesley Brown Steers Local Education to True North

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Try not to smile when you hear Lesley Brown use the word “kiddos.” I dare you. Try not to feel an immediate rush of care for the children she’s dedicating her career to advancing and engaging.

Brown is director of human capital investments with Memphis Education Fund, a “quarterback organization” created to, as Brown puts it, “call plays and give direction to all the different folks on the field who have specific roles in getting to the goal.”

The field: Memphis education. The folks on the field: the teachers, administrators and many education partners responsible for achieving goals for students. MEF is a grant-making organization designed to enhance educational outcomes in the Memphis community by investing in and inspiring teachers, schools and communities.

Founded in 2014 as Teacher Town Memphis, the organization hired Tosha Downey as director of advocacy in 2015; Brown joined the team in 2016, and was followed soon after by CEO Marcus Robinson. Also in 2016, they rebranded as Memphis Education Fund.

Brown comes from Chicago. She achieved an MBA from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, and worked as a corporate auditor. She modeled herself on strong, successful women like her mother. But she saw her mother pivot midcareer, from IBM engineer to classroom teacher. And in Brown’s own years with auditing firm Ernst & Young, she found herself volunteering as many as 20 hours each week with a small charter school on Chicago’s South Side.

The trouble was, those 20 hours of “very proactive sponsorship” were in addition to her 60-plus hours a week “doing my actual job – and that was not sustainable.”

Nearing completion of her MBA, realizing that “I needed to find a role where I could feel fed by the mission of the work,” Brown applied for and received a Broad Residency in urban education, and in 2012 went to work for the Achievement School District in Nashville. The opportunity to grow MEF held too much promise to pass up.

In 2011, the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative revealed a genuine need in Memphis. Of 85 schools in Tennessee identified on a “priority list” – that is, those schools performing in the bottom 5 percent – 68 were in Memphis.

MEF was designed to address both school growth (helping to fund the creation of new, quality schools or the improvement of existing schools) and human capital (ensuring that excellent teachers are standing in front of every classroom in those schools).

Brown describes the work directionally. She speaks of maps and destinations; course corrections and the importance of knowing “true north.” If the overall goal is college readiness, for example, being guided by true north means not being distracted by incremental wins and challenges, fluctuations in ACT scores or marginal improvements.

One new way MEF plans to advance and align its mission is through a developing partnership with Rhodes College. Rhodes will re-enter the field of teacher preparation in 2018, urged forward by a strong desire among its students and a strong need in the city. Brown’s team has helped fund the launch of Rhodes’ fifth-year master’s program, which will equip new teachers with vital content knowledge and the pedagogical skills to convey that knowledge to students.

Brown disputes the oft-held “notion that there’s an x factor for teaching. We don’t take that approach with other areas. Teaching can be taught.”

The program also will train new teachers in how to recognize and address adverse childhood experiences among their students.

“A kiddo who has been highly exposed to stress,” she says, “will shut down when exposed to too much new information, too fast.”

Brown sees tremendous opportunity in Memphis.

“Memphis is a city where we must all be invested in doing better, for everyone. It doesn’t matter if we’re pulling hard if we’re all pulling in different directions. We have philanthropic investment here like you do not find anywhere else. We have people who are committed to the mission and the work. We have an opportunity that is unique and spectacular.”

Lesley Brown is a graduate of the Leadership Development Intensive at New Memphis. Learn more at newmemphis.org.