Most of us don’t start life in the midst of a revolution with a family member in prison for dissent, the daily threat of a despotic ruler, and fear of additional family imprisonment unless they leave the country. Yet, that was the experience of Jean-Claude Brizard, the newly appointed president and CEO of Digital Promise.
With his grandfather imprisoned as a dissident, Brizard’s parents escaped Haiti—his mother went to the U.S. and his father to northern Africa. Eventually reuniting in the U.S., his parents overstayed their visas and were undocumented until the birth of a younger child opened a pathway to citizenship for the family. Because of their experience, his parents, both educators, taught him to view the world through a social justice lens.
Brizard began his career as a high school chemistry teacher in New York City schools and then rose through the ranks to superintendent, first in Rochester, New York, and then Chicago, Illinois. His origin story and his early teaching experience at Rikers Island were formative experiences that gave him a different lens on educational possibilities for Black and brown children.
Learning About Racism
Since his initial assignments were at largely minority schools, the only discrimination Brizard felt was due to his accent. “People make assumptions about who you are because you speak English with an accent,” he says.
Brizard’s first professional experience of racism was when he was appointed assistant principal at a Brooklyn high school. His principal was progressive and understood that the school’s cabinet should reflect the student population. “But some of my colleagues were upset and had issues with an Afro-Caribbean being appointed and were openly antagonistic to me,” he says.
Brizard feels that he was initially less sensitive to racism because he grew up outside the U.S. “As a kid, growing up in Haiti, when you see your mentors, your teachers, and your president look like you, you develop a North Star that is not impacted by psychological oppression,” he says. “But I have now lived in this country for 45 years, so I have learned now to internalize some of the microaggressions, and I’m much more aware of racism now.”
“Sometimes, it’s nuanced and you have to pay attention. If you’re not observant, you might miss it,” he says. “But if I’m going to try to elevate the voices and outcomes for kids who are under-represented, those kinds of things will happen, and often, you have to keep fighting to prove that you’re able to do the job.”
Tangling with Teachers’ Unions
Adam Urbanski, president of the teacher union in Rochester, recruited Brizard as superintendent to that district. As Brizard uncovered cultural and structural issues that did not serve students and moved to address these issues, Urbanski changed from friend to foe. “Adam was used to dictating what happened in the city’s schools, and when I began to question some of their historical practices, Adam turned against me,” says Brizard. “Frankly, he was not willing to work together because this was less about philosophical differences and more about power.”
Brizard recounts that a similar thing happened in Chicago. Mayor Rahm Emanuel recruited him to lead education reform as Chicago Public Schools’ superintendent. “Karen Lewis, the head of the Chicago teachers’ union and I got along famously,” says Brizard. “We were both chemistry teachers and had breakfast together every month.” Eventually, the relationship between the city and union turned sour.
“That fight with the union was not about me,” says Brizard. “The fight was between the mayor and the union—if you read the news coverage of the time, you’ll see that I am hardly mentioned.” Likening the situation to getting caught in the middle of a food fight, Brizard acknowledges larger issues were at play. “It wasn’t just a city fight, actually, it was a national push to attack teachers across the country; so the union carried the flag not just for the city but for the nation.”
Brizard reiterates his support for teachers. “When I was in New York City pushing for reforms in my high school and beyond, the union was side by side with me,” he says. “I also have a long history of working with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) in New York City with no issues whatsoever. I believe teachers’ unions are needed and should exist.”
Working on Systemic Societal Issues
Brizard has spent the last three-and-a-half years at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where he learned how to take complex societal issues and break each one into component parts to create the kind of leverage you need to make a difference. “I learned how to work with leaders across the P-16 continuum, co-create with communities as a major funder to actually get work to happen,” says Brizard. “I worked with leaders to understand the logic models needed for strategy and how the Gates foundation could be an amazing catalyst to move the work forward.”
Some of the most valuable work at the foundation for Brizard has been learning how to understand data strategies and how to work across systems. “As a result of this systems change orientation, the elevation from which I see the world now is wholly different,” he says. “The work took me beyond the traditional K-12 academic world to redefining what success looks like for children and learning.”
Vision for Digital Promise
“When you look at the education spectrum, Pre-K to workforce and economic mobility, you see kids of color falling off the pipeline,” says Brizard. “In one state, we go from 70% proficiency in third grade to 8% college graduation. Of course, COVID makes change more difficult. So, the narrative needs to be changed about how we leapfrog inequality.” Brizard plans to push Digital Promise partners to think about how to make this happen.
“Digital Promise is well-positioned to help with this effort,” he says. “It lives at the intersection of research, practice, and innovation. We can leapfrog inequality to change the narrative for poor black and brown kids in this country.”