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Blog: Paying Tribute to African American Women Advocating for Education

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Secretary Arne Duncan and DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson celebrated Black History Month at the Department of Education on Tuesday by paying tribute to past, present and future African American women who are advocates for education.

The panel discussion included remarks from parents, teachers and students who are making a difference in their communities, and was moderated by Rev. Brenda Girton-Mitchell, director of the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

Duncan emphasized the importance of honoring women who might not always get the recognition, but who continue to inspire young people day in and day out with their service as crossing guards, truancy officers and school office workers.

"They are literally the face of public education," Duncan said. "Their cumulative impact is extraordinary."

In celebrating the past, Henderson talked about one of her heroes, Nannie Helen Burroughs, an educator and businesswoman who started a school that taught women how to get jobs in the early 20th century. Henderson also reflected on her own childhood when her mother and grandmother would take her to black history events at their church, the library or other community organizations. Those experiences taught her how to understand the responsibility of knowing the legacy that was left to her.

"I think about the three key traditions that black women share," she said. "We have a legacy of perseverance, service and leadership. In spite of obstacles that come our way, we know what the goal is and we make sure that we meet it. We've seen that time and time again."

Panel member Donae Owens is honoring that legacy every day as an exemplary senior at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School. She is an honors student and devoted volunteer in her community. As president of the student government, she was chosen to introduce President Obama when he visited the high school last fall.

Owens spoke about the legacy her mother has left to her.

"My mom inspires me. She raised my older brother and she finished high school, college and got an MBA in accounting. She did what she had to do so her children wouldn't have to suffer or go through negative things she did as a child."

Darla Bunting, a panelist and founding teacher at DC Scholar's Stanton Elementary who teaches third grade literacy, spoke about instilling a love for learning and ambition in her students.

"When I was a kid, I said when I grew up I wanted to be the first female president or the next Oprah," Bunting said. "I realize that somewhere down the line, someone helped me understand how much I could accomplish. A lot of kids don't have that exposure. We need to make sure we're constantly exposing our children to places outside their neighborhoods."

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