Protecting Black Genius

What could our world accomplish if Black children didn't have to question whether their skin color was a deficit or a source of strength?

Photo of William Jackson
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Founding Story: Share a story about a key experience or spark that helps the network understand why this project got started or a story about how you became inspired about the potential for this project to succeed.

During VOW’s first meeting of families, I asked the children present, “What do you want to learn about Black history?” Many questions were posed, but one stands out: “Who came up with the idea that Black people are less than?” Wesley, a 13 year old, exposed the question all Black children are faced with, which I’d struggled to give voice to in dozens of applications. This was exactly the type of space I’d been hoping to create. We--the families and VOW--tackled the difficult question together.

Which categories describe you? (the answer will not be public)

  • Black or African American (for example: African American, Jamaican, Haitian, Nigerian, Ethiopian, Somalian)


Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [State]

  • North Carolina

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [City]


Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [State]

  • North Carolina

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [City]


Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

We believe the academic achievement gap is due to systemic and historic racial inequality. Racially disproportionate access to resources that support learning in schools has predictably affected achievement outcomes across races. In recognition of this, we embrace an approach that facilitates Black families’ ability to cope with inequity, and we mobilize those families to shift the very institutions and systems that put them at a disadvantage.

Along with the families we work with, we have developed the Black genius profile which serves as the conceptual foundation for our organizational approach. The Black Genius profile gives parents three distinct values. 1) The profile provides a framework to focus on important child development factors called elements: interest awareness, growth mindset, racial identity development, selective trust, and cultural navigation. 2) The profile then allows families to track student development across these areas of focus that are evidenced based predictors of Black children’s optimal development. 3) The profile provides language and a conceptual understanding for families to hold schools accountable to be more responsive to their child’s needs for healthy development.

The Black Genius profile is also the backbone of the Black Genius planning process which provides parents a flexible entry point into the Village of Wisdom community at any time. Through Black Genius planning, we develop deeper relationships with families by connecting them to resources and assisting them with setting goals related to the five elements of Black Genius. During the Black Genius planning process, we also collect essential qualitative and quantitative data on children’s school experiences.

The Black Genius profile not only allows VOW to track how children are developing capacities like growth mindset and cultural navigation, but also assists parents in seeing how schools are either promoting or inhibiting their development in these areas. Through surveys, for example, we learn about students’ experiences in schools: whether their teachers express high expectations, provide a variety of cultural contexts for students to learn in, give opportunities for racial identity affirmation, and maintain other practices related to the Black Genius elements. Collecting this data across several families--and across communities, cities, and states in the near future--will eventually give our parents access to national-level data that can be matched to their individual stories. As an organization, we will provide a secure database and statistical analysis for families to see the commonalities in their experiences, and a staff person to connect their pursuits to protect Black Genius. Over the next 12 months, we will be exploring how to leverage this common experience into a city-wide campaign in Durham, in preparation for the national movement we are looking to inspire. To help with this, we will partner with TandemED, the organization that inspired an education-focused campaign in Pittsburgh called “Black Is Pittsburgh.

Is your model focused on any of the following traditionally underserved communities?

  • Communities of color
  • Low-income communities

Does your model work within any of the following sectors?

  • Child and Family Services
  • Community Development and Empowerment
  • Education
  • Mental Health

Year Founded


Project Stage

  • Growth (the pilot has already launched and is starting to expand)

Example: Walk the network through a specific example of what happens when a person or group engages with your solution.

One of our engagement strategies is to provide families the opportunity to see Black Genius in action through Black Genius Field Trips. On a trip to a renowned architecture firm, a mother watched as her son demonstrated an interest in the construction and structure of buildings. She bought books related to this interest, which helped motivate him in school. When her child experienced mistreatment in school and low teacher expectations, she used the elements of the Black Genius profile to advocate for additional services, also requesting that his teacher develop a greater level of trust with him. This parent has become a strong supporter of VOW, and supports other VOW parents as they work to improve their children’s experiences in school.

Impact: What was the impact of your work last year? Please also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

During our first programming with families we encouraged 12 families to have more racial affirmation conversations with over 40+ children. Racial affirmation conversations have been correlated with greater academic self-efficacy and academic persistence of children. As well, we have hosted 4 Black Genius field trips attracting over 80 families exposing Black children to Black leaders in their community. Parents report that children leave these events with greater self-esteem, greater exposure to new career fields, and better able to envision themselves in professional careers. We’ve also touched many families with the idea of Black Genius. This occurs through large scale events attracting up to 1200 attendees to celebrate blackness and affirm children’s identity. Also, we’re most proud that community members have commented that no other organization treats people like we do.

Organization Type

  • nonprofit/NGO/citizen sector

Annual Budget

  • $100k - $250k

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is your solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

We project that VOW will go through 3 phases of financial sustainability. Our current funding is mainly provided by institutional and individual philanthropy. In 3 years, 30-40% of our revenue will come from consulting and corporate sponsors. Eventually, we will implement a membership model that will comprise about 80% of our budget, and we will deliver a high need service for members aligned with our organizational mission.

Unique Value Proposition: How else is this problem being addressed? Are there other organizations working in the same field, and how does your project differ from these other approaches?

While many programs seek to staunch the effects of systemic racism, few address and disrupt racial bias directly. We must also prepare Black youth for racial bias and aid them in developing the resilience and self-esteem to reject the messages of anti-Black racism. VOW fills a void in the parent organizing space by creating a place where families can be prepared to advocate in the best interest of their communities. VOW puts parents in an environment where they can learn from their peers those messages that make youth most resilient.

Reflect on the Field and its Future: Stepping outside of your project, what do you see as the most important or promising shifts that can advance children’s wellbeing?

Technology will help maintain personalized information on children that is easily shared across agencies and stakeholders. However, technology will only benefit all children if current trajectories to increase equity are maintained. Unfortunately, Caretaker instability significantly impacts child socio-emotional health. Because economic disenfranchisement predicts instability, child wellbeing advocates must become intentional about disrupting systems of inequity so that children can benefit from parents who have access to equitable and adequate resources.

Source: How did you hear about the Children’s Wellbeing Challenge? (the answer will not be public)

  • Email
  • Word of mouth

Program Design Clarity

Black families with children ages 4-13 are the primary beneficiaries of our work. We hold outreach events to meet families and build trust with the community through continuously offering Black Genius planning. We also offer caregiver training that provides time, space, and information to explore their own ideas about race, challenge internalized racism, and develop strategies for discussing race and promoting positive identity formation with their peers. Our community engagement team (experienced parents, community organizers, and social work interns) delivers programming

Community Leadership

Working with families, we learn about their greatest challenges and then codify their most innovative self-invented solutions. For example, the term Black Genius and related concepts emerged after our pilot, when parents stated they knew that they needed to affirm their child’s racial identity, but struggled to do so without a clear framework. We host our events in low-income areas which increases the economic diversity of attendees.

Age of Children Impacted

  • 3 - 5
  • 6 - 12
  • 12+

Spread Strategies

We plan to spread the concept of protecting Black Genius by initial expansion through 10 southeastern US states, where 43% of the Black student population in the nation lives. We are currently working with legal counsel to set up an open-source copyright on Black Genius profile materials. We will create an online platform that allows families anywhere to create a profile. We will hire and train active VOW parents to support the platform.

Reflect on how your work helps children to thrive. How are you cultivating children’s sense of self, belonging, and purpose through your model?

The Black Genius profile focuses on 5 elements, including positive racial identity development, which not only helps youth find a strong sense of self but also has been shown to be an effective antidote to the negative mental health effects of experiencing racial bias. We also challenge families to focus on their child’s interests and talents so they can become more attuned to their purpose. We organize inter-family dialogue to promote belonging.

Leadership Story

Givonte told me that the reason why he didn’t trust most teachers is because we didn’t come to his neighborhood. And, that we as his teachers weren’t willing to meet his family where they were. Obviously, I was struck by Givonte’s words and in many ways his poignant and accurate analysis drives my work even to this day some 7 years after this conversation took place. VOW is undoubtedly about creating more equitable schools for Black children, but it’s also about meeting all families where they are at and bringing trust back to communities who’ve been giving so many reasons to distrust.

What awards or honors has the project received? (Optional)

Echoing Green Fellowship Camelback Ventures Fellowship Durham Rotary Club Innovation Fellow 2016 United Way of the Triangle Idea Generation/Next Entrepreneur

Organization's Twitter Handle


Organization’s Facebook Page (URL)

Leader's LinkedIn Profile (URL)


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Photo of Tesfaye Ayalew

Mr. Jackson, Great Idea! man

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