Black and white photo of African American organizers protesting with banner text: Balm in Gilead: Collected Stories from Black Organizers

Balm in Gilead: Zakiyah Ansari

December 18, 2014

Zakiyah Ansari is the Advocacy Director with the New York State Alliance for Quality Education (AQE) the leading statewide organization that has been working to fight for educational equity for the last 14 years.

Zakiyah is one of the co-initiators on a recently formed national grassroots movement “Journey for Justice”, an emerging alliance currently comprised of grassroots community-based organizations from 18 cities across the United States representing constituencies of youth, parents, and inter-generational organizations who have been impacted by the closing, turnaround, and charter expansion of schools in communities of color. The goal of the Journey for Justice Alliance is to bring the voice of those directly impacted by discriminatory school actions into the debate about the direction for public education in the 21st century and to promote sustainable, community-driven school reform for all school districts across the country.

Zakiyah resides in the East Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY. She is also the mother of eight children, all of whom have or are currently attending public school. Zakiyah was a parent volunteer with AQE for over 6 years before she became employed by them. She was an active parent volunteer in her children’s PTA and was a founding parent leader with Coalition for Educational Justice. In addition, she was a Learning Leader for five years and served as Co-President of Manhattan High School Presidents’ Council (MHSPC) for two years. As Co-President, one of her responsibilities was sitting on the District Leadership Team of School Districts 1-6.

Kevin Ryan: How did you first get involved in organizing work?

Zakiyah Ansari: As a parent leader with the then Brooklyn Education Collaborative, we were parents, community members, and teachers who came together to push policy changes in four local school districts. These schools are some of the lowest performing districts in Brooklyn. The Collaborative worked with the Community Involvement Program, an effort to bring together community groups to build parent and community-driven collaboratives. We were committed to ensuring every middle school student had access to science equipment and ultimately that every middle school had access to a science lab.

KR: Was community organizing a new concept for you or had you been doing it before without knowing the term?

ZA: It was a totally new concept. I had no idea what organizing was.

We can no longer have folks, however well-intentioned they are, express what our communities need or lack


KR: What were the most important factors for building your interest and skill as an organizer?

ZA: Trainings, understandable data and statistics, along with support and on the ground experience, like facilitating meetings with Department of Education officials, union representatives, and elected officials.


KR: Think about one of the successful organizing campaigns that you worked on. What were the key factors in building that campaign?

ZA: As we galvanized into a citywide powerhouse, the New York City Coalition for Educational Justice, there were a few victories, but I have to acknowledge the most recent work around the 2014 mayoral election in NYC. The key was the coalition building of New Yorkers for Great Public Schools (NYGPS) with labor, clergy, parents, students, civil rights organizations, and community groups. We could not have shifted the education debate to our side without that. We strategized with each other through monthly meetings and weekly phone calls, and we created A+NYC, an invaluable education research space for organizations and groups that weren’t necessarily ready to challenge then Mayor Blooomberg. A+NYC developed a “Policy Hub” that showed national and local organizations examples of good education policy from Black Male achievement initiatives to smaller class size. It was easy to read for parents and youth and framed the type of programs that we want to see in our schools. A+NYC, NYGPS, along with our Blue Bus, a mobile advocacy project that traveled to all five boroughs gathering feedback from parents about our policy recommendations, were the different parts of our recipe for success and required a ton of time, work, and energy from our staff. The icing on the cake was the mayoral debate that we organized. With the exception of Christine Quinn, we were able to get all candidates to participate. I moderated the debate and five women and girls of color posed the questions to the candidates. Wow! It was great!


KR: In your role as the advocacy director of the Alliance for Quality Education, you work with youth, educators, parents, education policy, and organizing groups from a variety of New York City neighborhoods. How do you support these stakeholders – particularly Black youth and parent leaders – in communities that are deeply impacted by education disparities?

ZA: We provide on-going trainings to parents, community groups, and any other education stakeholders who are interested in learning about these issues. We engage them in our campaigns by ensuring they have all the answers they need: How does the state legislature work? How do you lobby your elected official? What is Campaign for Fiscal Equity?

We speak at youth press events to help lend supportive voice to their issues from school discipline to college-readiness. We also encourage them to join us for actions in Albany and tell their stories to state legislators.


KR: The trainings you provide to parents and students cover a lot of information about government structures and how to navigate the political system. Beyond the training, how do you help parents and students master this information?

ZA: We provide parents and students with easy-to-read and digestible educational materials, and we bring them to Albany so they can put what they learned about lobbying their legislators to practice. We also encourage them to take on leadership roles locally and citywide. The key was the coalition building with labor, clergy, parents, students, civil rights organizations, and community groups. We could not have shifted the education debate to our side without thatWe give them tangible activities to participate in from the beginning of the legislative process to the end, and we make sure that if they aren’t involved on the community level that we plug them into local campaigns.


KR: You are also a leader within a statewide alliance. What is the importance of having Black leadership at the table when strategy and tactics are being determined?

ZA: I’m a leader with a national alliance, Journey for Justice, which is a part of Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools on the state level. When we are at the table it is clear as day why it’s crucial for Black leadership, both adults and youth, to be there. We can no longer have folks, however well-intentioned they are, express what our communities need or lack. We live and breathe these experiences every day so who better to talk about them and the solutions.

KR: There are a number of conversations that have been happening around the country about the decline in Black-led organizing work. What do you think has led to this perception?

ZA: I haven’t heard that before but it’s probably as a result of the decline in funders supporting our work. A number of grantmakers are tightening their belts and have to choose where and what organizations and issues to support. The passion and commitment isn’t declining but that alone will not push the movement. We need folks who are willing to not just talk about social justice but who are also willing to invest in our issues and communities.


KR: What can we do to increase and sustain Black-led organizing work in the future?

ZA: Money, money, money, and capacity support. We need trainings on how to use social media, how to lobby, and other organization building issues. We can’t just have Black faces at a meeting or a rally where the leadership is white and speaking for us. We have to encourage and ensure that there is a youth and parent pipeline to leadership.

I am so proud of the young people in Ferguson who began this revolution on the ground, and by using social media, got out the truth when regular media was not


KR: What are your thoughts about the grand jury verdicts in Ferguson and New York?

ZA: My thoughts are that I shouldn’t have been surprised but there was, at least for me, this sliver of hope that we would see some semblance of “justice”, whatever that even looks like for us. It was also a learning experience in understanding how unjust even the grand jury process is and made me think how many other cases went through this same charade. I am so proud of the young people in Ferguson who began this revolution on the ground and by using social media to get out the truth when regular media was not. If it wasn’t for the NO indictment on Eric Garner case, I don’t know if there would be as much worldwide or sustained solidarity around #BlackLivesMatter or if we would have garnered as much of a diverse group of protesters specifically as many white folks as we have now. The image of Eric Garner saying “I can’t breathe” 11 times on that video should have been enough for, at the minimum, an indictment to anyone who wasn’t blind. The verdict showed the world what Black and Brown communities already knew. Police officers are above the law, shooting us when we are unarmed, without warning, and using fear as a justifiable excuse. No Justice, No Peace!


KR: How can Black communities address the continuing loss of lives at the hands of police?

ZA: I believe by bringing solutions to, and demands on, the system. I know the Justice League has some concrete, realistic demands that we can all get behind and raise up. Also, never forgetting the names of those who have been killed, otherwise we will continue to be desensitized by the violence and murder in our communities.

There is something really sobering about hearing the names of our brothers and sisters and their senseless loss of life at the hands of those whose mission is supposed to be to protect and serve. Color of Change has a twitter feed, “Killed by Cops”, that tweets out the names of those who died at the hands of police. When you hear it, you are forced to never forget those who have been killed.


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