Cyekeia Lee is a little bit like the hub in the middle of the spokes of a bicycle wheel. In her role at The Learning Network of Greater Kalamazoo, she must bring together the many and various educators, organizations and community efforts that are all working to help the area’s most vulnerable students succeed.
It’s a job that’s a bit like herding cats, but the Romulus native says she stays focused on the ultimate goal of helping students.
“I was once one of those students I am trying to help,” says Lee, who is 35. “From my lived experiences of being a low-income student and being a first-generation college student, I know the supports that got me through. That’s why it is so important for me to bring the right people to the table, so somebody else will have the opportunity I had.”
How did you get where you are today?
For the last four years I worked as a consultant for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, working in 17 states to remove education barriers for homeless students, particularly those in college.
While it was an amazing platform, I was in 17 states. I’d be in Georgia for two days and then in Boston for a few days and then somewhere else. And while I learned a lot, I really felt the need to be in one place and one state, so I put my feelers out to see if I could find something in my own backyard of Michigan and lucked upon the job here.
What attracted you to this job?
It’s a cradle-to-career continuum. I had been working to remove education barriers for homeless students primarily at the higher-education level, but I know you just don’t wake up one day and go to college, right? There’s all those formative years on the way and stops along the pipeline you have to make — high school, middle school, elementary school, preschool — and they all have an impact on your success.
So when I saw this job encompassed all those, I knew that was where I needed to be, to work within the whole continuum.
What is The Learning Network?
It’s a network. We don’t do direct service to students, but we are connecting with the educators and the community partners to best support students. We bring folks together who would not regularly be in the same room, and we are going to be the megaphone for what work is being done in the area.
Take literacy efforts, for example. There are tons of folks working on reading initiatives in Kalamazoo, but they are siloed. We’ve been asked to “please be the megaphone on this,” to be the ones saying, “Hey, there’s these literacy initiatives going on with kindergarten” or “There’s this program for the fifth grade.” Unless you’re in the literacy inner circle, you don’t really know all the reading initiatives that are going on in the area.
We need to have people come together. We are working harder, not smarter, if we’re working alone. My goal is to break down those silos and get people to meet regularly, talk about the barriers in different areas and get kids what they need.
Have you found that people are receptive to this goal?
Somewhat. The Learning Network has been around for seven years and has had some reboots and starts and stops, so I think sometimes people are like, “There they go again.” But at the same time, those folks that are really there to help the students tell us, “Give me a seat at the table and I’ll be there.” At the end of the day, those who really care about helping the students want to do whatever they need to.
What kind of student were you?
I was a bit of a nerd. I was one of those kids that read the dictionary for fun. My older siblings would ask, “What’s wrong with her?” They’d be watching Yo MTV Raps and I’d be asking them, “Hey, did you know the word onomatopoeia is one of the longest words in the English language?” And they’d be like, “What?”
What was the most influential experience in your life?
I was in a gifted program when I was in seventh grade and was the only African-American student in the program at the time. I faced some difficulty because students are young and young people will tease you about anything. I had a teacher, Miss Winters, who, when I would say, “I don’t think this is a good program for me” or “I don’t belong here,” really advocated for me to stick the program out. That was an aha moment — I learned that you’re in the places you deserve to be in, you’re there for a reason and people will advocate for you to be there.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
When I worked at Wayne State, I was part of the teachers’ union, so I had a lot of employment security. Literally, I could wear a jogging suit to work and no one could do anything about it, but I gave up that security to be a consultant. It was tough to go from having the right to wear a jogging suit to work to not having health insurance or job security.
Why did you want to do that?
When I was at Wayne State, I had been working with a homeless student who was 19 and had become one of my favorites. One day I went to check on him and when I pulled his name up in the system, it said “Deceased” at the top of the screen. To this day I don’t know what happened to him, but I thought, “This is not OK for us to lose homeless students.” I could not sit comfortably with my job security knowing that students were being failed.