Visioning for Justice: Malika Ali Named Chief Innovation Officer of Highlander Institute

Malika Ali Named Chief Innovation Officer of Highlander Institute

Malika Ali, Chief Innovation Officer

It has been said that our beliefs create reality, that our actions are shaped by our vision of the future, and that our words create worlds.

From my parents I have learned that the most historically oppressed people are often the greatest dreamers and visionaries. It is only because my parents dared to envision a path of liberation through education that I am alive. As East African refugees in search of peace and opportunity, each fled their small village with little more than the power of their respective visions.

At fourteen, my mother made her way to Sudan on foot and by camel. But, because she feared a limiting life in a refugee camp with little access to the kind of learning spaces that inspire curiosity and wonder, she found her way to a local school without identification or family. My father made a similar journey to Ethiopia and then across the Red Sea as an orphaned teenager. A book he read as a child inspired his vision, painting a picture of the life he planned to manifest. There was a house, a green field, and animals roaming about.

Both parents eventually earned degrees while raising four children. Through the vision they constructed for our family, they taught us that education would not just provide access to college, career, social mobility, or financial security, but would be the pathway to freedom and self-actualization. As a Black child growing up in a former sundown town in Oklahoma, the lessons I learned about the transformational power of education were quickly situated in the context of systemic inequity. As a young person I would daydream a different reality, not realizing at the time the great power of children’s instinctual visioning.

As I have learned my place and power in the world, I have been called to engage in educational equity work by visions of what is possible when education realizes its promise. From the journeys of my family as well as my own path, education has provided us a reason to fight for survival, offered us a new reality, and empowered us with the ability to positively impact the world around us.

Students need inspiration to envision and manifest their own path in the world. They deserve an educational experience that encourages them to see themselves as learners; that affirms, sustains, and leverages their identities as strengths; that develops their academic mindsets and cognitive skills; that challenges them to think critically about the world; and that nurtures their motivation to work toward justice.

This is my purpose at Highlander Institute. As Chief Innovation Officer, I lead visioning and develop strategy to create education spaces in which students are self-directed learners and empowered leaders who can transform their lives, communities, and ultimately, society.

At Highlander Institute, we convene design teams comprised of students, educators, families, and school and system leaders to examine data and collectively establish a vision. Our goal is to empower schools and districts around the country to scale and sustain culturally responsive practices by delivering professional learning aligned to community-driven design work. When I look at the visions established by various design teams, I am hopeful for the future. I think about:

  • The mother of a fourth grader who pushed her team to prioritize independent thinking so her daughter would develop the tools to navigate learning challenges on her own;
  • The teacher who encouraged her team to leverage student voice to define some of the education terms in their vision;
  • The school leader whose student shadow experience caused her to emphasize the joy in learning;
  • And, the students who give us all so much grace while guiding our visioning processes toward a more just, equitable reality.

Within our education system, it is time to think critically about what to keep, what to change, and what to build anew. Even with the growing challenges facing schools during a third year of pandemic schooling, the work of visioning for justice cannot wait. When we pick up that piece of chalk, that marker, that pen, that computer keyboard — when we step into spaces of learning — we change the trajectory of students' lives forever. We help them become either more free or less: there is no neutral.

“To educate as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn.” - bell hooks

In tribute to the words above from a beloved ancestor, I invite you, in whatever capacity you serve, to think about how you can engage students and school communities in creating more equitable and inspiring learning environments — spaces that would keep a fourteen-year-old refugee’s hope alive, motivate a child to manifest a future befitting of him, or inspire a young person to dare to work toward a more just society. Our students deserve the opportunity to envision a better world and we require the persistence and courage to fight for a system that realizes their dreams. Our combined liberation is deeply connected. This is sacred, essential work, and I am grateful to do my part alongside my incredible team at Highlander Institute.