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Who Joins Teach for America? The Answer May Surprise You

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Kiva Sam is a Dartmouth graduate and member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe who will return to teach in her native Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota this fall. Kaitlin Anderson recently left her job at Bank of America to become a corps member in the Mississippi Delta. LaDerrick Collins is a 10-year veteran of the armed forces who joined Teach For America after serving three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. In a couple of months he'll be tackling a whole new challenge as a fourth grade math and science teacher in Kansas City.

Kiva, Kaitlin and LaDerrick represent the face of Teach For America's new corps, the largest and among the most diverse in our history. Last week we were proud to announce a major milestone: this coming school year more than 10,000 first- and second-year corps members will be teaching in urban and rural classrooms across the country.

Together, they will reach some 750,000 students in 46 communities. The 497 brave souls who formed our charter corps in 1990 could not have imagined they were paving the way for such a large and vibrant group of young leaders. I couldn't have imagined it myself when I started Teach For America 23 years ago.

At least as important as the size of our new corps is its makeup: 38% identify as people of color, 35% come from low-income backgrounds, and 23% are the first in their families to earn a college degree. In the past two years, Teach For America has nearly doubled the number of African American corps members from 390 to 720, and has increased the number of Latino corps members from 300 to 550.

Because they come from the same neighborhoods as the kids they teach, and have overcome the same obstacles they face, corps members like Lanette Suarez are living examples for their students of what's possible. Lanette grew up in a low-income family in Miami with English as her second language and beat the odds to excel in college. This fall she'll be teaching in Miami, where she lives at home and helps support her family.

Our new corps members also bring a diverse range of professional and life experiences. They were Capitol Hill staffers, bankers, consultants, and members of non-profits. LaDerrick is one of nearly 100 veterans in our 2012 corps -- a number that will grow in coming years as we expand our outreach efforts. Kerri Martin is leaving her job as an engineer at Procter & Gamble to teach in Newark, determined to instill a love of science in more black men and women like herself. More corps members than ever before come from unconventional backgrounds, and many have given up lucrative jobs at top companies to make a meaningful impact on the lives of children and their families.

When you think of the typical Teach For America corps member, soldiers and ex-bankers are probably not the people who come to mind. In fact, there is no such thing as a typical corps member. They can't be neatly pigeonholed or painted with a broad brush. The one thing they share in common is a belief that the staggering number of kids in our country who aren't getting the education they deserve is an intolerable problem -- and a solvable one.

As a white woman with a privileged education, I'm keenly aware that I founded an organization that can only realize its goal if it enlists many more leaders who share the backgrounds of the students and families we work with.

While I started out with a vague understanding that diversity would be important, my own observations have led me to realize that achieving greater levels of diversity is in fact vital to our long-term success.

To close the opportunity gap, we need the energy and talent of every last person who is willing to join us, and all of us who are engaged in this work have a responsibility to deepen our understanding of the circumstances we're addressing. But over and over I have seen an undeniable reality: we move further faster when our decision-makers include individuals with the perspective and credibility that comes from sharing the background of our students.

In the long-run we will need many more African-American, Latino, and Native American leaders, and leaders from low-income communities, who can bring additional insight and a deeply grounded sense of urgency, and who are the most likely to inspire the necessary trust and engagement among students' parents and community leaders.

There's a reason that every successful civil rights and social justice movement in our nation's history has had significant representation and leadership from the disenfranchised group they were fighting for. This was true of the women's rights movement, the civil rights movement, the Chicano movement, and the gay rights movement.

It must also be true for the movement for educational equality. Meeting our new corps members and hearing their stories makes me more optimistic than ever that it can be.

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