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Life & Work with Koedy Harper

Today we’d like to introduce you to Koedy Harper.

Alright, so thank you so much for sharing your story and insight with our readers. To kick things off, can you tell us a bit about how you got started?
I moved to Memphis nearly six years ago, in 2017. Like many have done, I’ve chosen to make Memphis home because that’s what it feels like. I grew up in rural South Mississippi with faith and family being the center of my community.

I learned to love my community through service and through meaningful work. Those same values are what led me to Memphis as an educator and still drive me today as someone still working in education.

That said, growing up, I didn’t anticipate doing the work I’ve done or the work I’m doing now. When I turned sixteen, I started working at a local grocery store. Again, tapping into my foundational values, I quickly gained more responsibilities and eventually became a store manager at the age of 21. I worked full-time throughout college to support myself and to help finance my tuition. Honestly, my grades suffered because of that, working 50, sometimes 60-hour weeks as a full-time college student was miserable. But, I had friends, family, and passion to sustain me.

It was in college that I developed an interest in government and public service. I began to see service and meaningful work being applied as a way to promote justice, meet people’s needs, and address systemic barriers faced by so many people. Eventually, I had to step back from my management job to follow the passions I was developing, and right before graduation, I got a research fellowship on an education-based campaign focused on Mississippi’s school funding formula. This was my first experience in local and state politics – it was captivating.

Shortly after graduation, I volunteered on a few other local campaigns and eventually, on a whim, applied to work on the Hillary for America campaign. A few days later, I got an offer as a Regional Field Director in New Hampshire. There were so many emotions rushing through me with this heavy decision. But, I took it, and two days later, I drove from Mississippi to New Hampshire. The experience in New Hampshire was deeply challenging, and in the end, so disappointing but I walked away with invaluable experiences and precious memories.

Shortly after the election, I came back home to Mississippi and took back my job as a grocery store manager. This was no doubt a period of disillusionment until one day, I got an email from one of my contacts on the Hillary campaign who suggested, given my background in education, I look into Teach for America. So, I did, and I applied. Soon I found out I was placed in Memphis and once again, I found an incredible way to express my values of service and meaningful work as an educator. I taught 3rd grade, English as a second language, and reading for five years.

Throughout this time, I served as the reading lead and mentor for our school, I completed several education policy fellowships, and in 2020, earned my Master’s in Education Policy and Leadership. The brightest moment of my time as an educator was meeting my wife who still teaches with a masterful level of expertise and love. In my second year, I made a commitment to myself to stay in the classroom for at least five years because too often policymakers, district leaders, and those influencing policies have very little to no experience in a school.

While having classroom experience isn’t necessarily required for good policymaking, and having a diversity of experience and thought should be prioritized, having that lived experience provides a lens that is unmatchable when looking to thoroughly plan for and implement a number of policies or initiatives that impact students, families, educators, and school leaders. Education is my passion. Education in Memphis and Shelby County has such a complex and frustrating story, but one that is still unfolding.

It’s my hope, in the role I serve now, as the Coordinator of Education Initiatives in the Shebly County Mayor’s Office of Education, to expand high-quality services to all students, families, and educators in our county and city. Whether that is equitable broadband services so students and families can stay engaged, high-quality out-of-school opportunities, or supporting holistic initiatives that aim to not only address but eliminate barriers within our community.

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way? Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
Overall, the road has not been smooth, no. I’ve had my fair share of struggles, anxieties, and deep disappointments. That said, I no doubt have been supported by privilege – I mean, I’m a cis-white man from South Mississippi so there’s both historical and present privilege in that. I will say, working full-time through college was extremely hard and exhausting.

My grades and college life suffered, I was placed on academic probation, and had to give up some of my college experiences to ensure I had sustainable grades and finances. That used to be a shameful point for me to discuss but without that struggle, I don’t think I’d have the leadership and resiliency capacities that I do today.

And like a lot of people, I’ve had family struggles. People in my family have suffered from addiction and mental illness which has caused deep hurt in me and throughout my family – but again, I believe some of these experiences have helped shape who I am today and inform my thinking.

They help me operate in the world and in my community by considering the whole person, listening closely, and loving my neighbor fully. One of my favorite guiding questions that read once, is this, “Can you truly know the world as it is, and still love it?” My answer is, that I want to.

Thanks – so what else should our readers know about your work and what you’re currently focused on?
I recently transitioned positions and doing so was one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make. As an educator for five years, I felt valued, skillful, and knowledgeable in my role. I met my brilliant and beautiful wife, who still teaches at our school, and developed wonderful relationships with students and families.

Beyond that, I was given the opportunity to serve as the reading lead for our school to support and mentor other educators in reading instruction and evidence-based lessons. All of that and more, I am proud and blessed. That said, my proudest moment comes from working with student leaders. In 2018, I started a Student Senate, which is common in middle and high school grades, but somewhat rare for elementary students.

But I noticed that my students had strong and well-reasoned opinions, and too often students are not included in decision-making so I decided to start a Student Senate. Students ran campaigns, sought out votes, and voted on our designated election day. After the Senators were elected, we began after-school meetings about education policy issues, civic leadership lessons, and advocacy training. In 2019, the Student Senators traveled to the Capitol in Nashville to meet with state leaders to discuss some of their education issues and solutions.

We revamped it in 2022, to invite state and local leaders to visit the Senators at their school, and had a town hall-style event regarding some of their issues which focused on school infrastructure and special class expansion in-school, specifically for elementary students. The Student Senators did the hard work of speaking, engaging, and advocating for their specific change but it was such a proud moment to watch these young leaders answer questions and speak confidently about the change they sought.

That was one of the highlights of my time as an educator, but now I serve in the Shelby County Mayor’s Office of Education. I help to lead and support initiatives that will impact students and families on a broader level. I miss my students, classroom, and colleagues dearly. But if I am able to give back even a fraction of what they blessed me with then I will be happy.

What was your favorite childhood memory?
Such a good question. The first memory that comes to my mind when I think about my childhood is the smell of my mamaw’s kitchen on Sunday morning after church.

There is this distinct smell of peas simmering on the stove, cornbread baking in the oven, and pot roast circulating in the air that makes a perfect combination that hits you right when you open the door. That’s one of the happy memories I usually go to on a rough day or trying time.

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