Education Perspectives

S2 EP11 From Classroom to Community Impact: Robert Gunn's Journey from Educator to Equity Officer

June 13, 2024 Liza Holland Season 2 Episode 11
S2 EP11 From Classroom to Community Impact: Robert Gunn's Journey from Educator to Equity Officer
Education Perspectives
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Education Perspectives
S2 EP11 From Classroom to Community Impact: Robert Gunn's Journey from Educator to Equity Officer
Jun 13, 2024 Season 2 Episode 11
Liza Holland


Robert Earl Gunn

Metro United Way


Quotes of the Podcast – 

1. Until lions have historians, hunters will never cease to be heroes. 

2. I'd rather be hated for who I am than loved for who I am not.

Introduction of Guest BIO – 

Robert Earl Gunn Jr. was born in South Bend, Indiana and has served the community for the past two decades. He is married to Dr. Lacey Gunn and has two wonderful children. Robert graduated college from Earlham College and joined Teach for America in 2002 where he began his teaching career in St. Louis, Missouri. During his time in education, he served as a classroom teacher, assistant principal, and founding principal of the W.E.B. DuBois Academy in Louisville, KY. Currently, he serves as Chief Equity and Impact Officer at Metro United Way where he leads transformative work across the greater Louisville region. In his new role, he works to provide solutions to root cause challenges that have led to disparate outcomes that negatively impact members of our community. The goal is to ensure our community has thriving kids, strong households, and an equitable community.


Agents of Change: Leaders/Innovators

  • 30,000 Ft. View – Why so we, as a society invest in education?
  • Tell us about your education journey
  • What drew you to moving to Metro United Way?
  • As you moved from education to non-profit, how has your perspective changed on what we need to provide students?
  • What do you love about what you do?
  • Tell us a story or favorite memory about your work?
  • What are the biggest challenges to you?
  • What would you like decision makers to know?

Podcast/book shoutouts

Follow the work of Metro United Way (locally) and United Way's across the country and worldwide for ways to Give, Volunteer, and Advocate.

Support the Show.

Education Perspectives is edited by Shashank P at

Intro and Outro by Dynamix Productions

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Show Notes Transcript


Robert Earl Gunn

Metro United Way


Quotes of the Podcast – 

1. Until lions have historians, hunters will never cease to be heroes. 

2. I'd rather be hated for who I am than loved for who I am not.

Introduction of Guest BIO – 

Robert Earl Gunn Jr. was born in South Bend, Indiana and has served the community for the past two decades. He is married to Dr. Lacey Gunn and has two wonderful children. Robert graduated college from Earlham College and joined Teach for America in 2002 where he began his teaching career in St. Louis, Missouri. During his time in education, he served as a classroom teacher, assistant principal, and founding principal of the W.E.B. DuBois Academy in Louisville, KY. Currently, he serves as Chief Equity and Impact Officer at Metro United Way where he leads transformative work across the greater Louisville region. In his new role, he works to provide solutions to root cause challenges that have led to disparate outcomes that negatively impact members of our community. The goal is to ensure our community has thriving kids, strong households, and an equitable community.


Agents of Change: Leaders/Innovators

  • 30,000 Ft. View – Why so we, as a society invest in education?
  • Tell us about your education journey
  • What drew you to moving to Metro United Way?
  • As you moved from education to non-profit, how has your perspective changed on what we need to provide students?
  • What do you love about what you do?
  • Tell us a story or favorite memory about your work?
  • What are the biggest challenges to you?
  • What would you like decision makers to know?

Podcast/book shoutouts

Follow the work of Metro United Way (locally) and United Way's across the country and worldwide for ways to Give, Volunteer, and Advocate.

Support the Show.

Education Perspectives is edited by Shashank P at

Intro and Outro by Dynamix Productions

Liza Holland [00:00:02]:
Welcome to education perspectives. I am your host, Liza Holland. This is a podcast that explores the role of education in our society from a variety of lenses. Education needs to evolve to meet the needs of today and the future. Solving such huge issues requires understanding. Join me as we begin to explore the many perspectives of education.

Liza Holland [00:00:28]:
Robert Earl Gunn junior was born in South Bend, Indiana and has served the community for the past two decades. He is married to doctor Lacey Gunn and has two wonderful children. Robert graduated college from Earlham College and joined Teach For America in 2002, where he began his teaching career in St. Louis, Missouri. During his time in education, he served as a classroom teacher, assistant principal, and founding principal of the W. E. B. Du Bois Academy in Louisville, Kentucky.

Liza Holland [00:01:01]:
Currently, he serves as the chief equity and impact officer at Metro United Way where he leads transformative work across the greater Louisville region. In his new role, he works to provide solutions to root cause challenges that have led to disparate outcomes that negatively impact members of our community. The goal is to ensure our community has thriving kids, strong households, and an equitable community. We welcome mister Gunn. Mister Gunn, we're so delighted to have you with Education Perspectives. How are you today?

Robert Gunn [00:01:35]:
Oh, again, it's a great day to be alive. And to any of the Spanish speaking brothers and sisters out there, I'm doing incredibly well.

Liza Holland [00:01:44]:
That's fantastic. So our first question is always the 30,000 foot view. Why do you think that we as a society invest in education?

Robert Gunn [00:01:54]:
Yeah. Well, thank you again for having me. And I'll start with somewhat of a long winded answer, but I think I can answer that question about education through a personal story and what is my why as to how I get an education and or how I got an education and how I do and why I do what I do. So again, Robert Earl Gunn Junior is my name. I always introduce myself using my full name because I believe names matter. That was something I learned as a classroom teacher. But even before that, you know, I am junior. My daddy was Robert Earl Gunn Senior.

Robert Gunn [00:02:24]:
My son is Robert Earl Gunn the third and I always start just by talking about a story of my father. So his nickname was Soul. My nickname was Chubb. We were big on nicknames in my family, but a little bit about my father. So for 44 years, he worked in a factory right down the street from the home. I grew up being in south where I was born and raised in south Indiana. And one of the things that was really important in my household was my father. My mother always told me that I was going to college.

Robert Gunn [00:02:52]:
Now I was the youngest of 4 growing up in my household, but I was the first one to actually graduate from college. 2 of my older siblings went to college on time, but for different reasons, they left college. My sister was pregnant and then my older brother went on a football scholarship and he was actually exited like a week into the program. Great news for both of them. They went back. My sister is now a doctor and my brother received his bachelor's degree as well. But anyway, so back to my story of my daddy. So he told me I was going to college.

Robert Gunn [00:03:22]:
I was about 16 years old and it was time to start filling out applications and trying to find out the process. So I went to him for help. He's like, all right, daddy, it's time for me to, you know, get this done. Like where did you go to college? And it was at that point, lies where my father told me, well, I didn't go to college, son. Actually, I didn't even graduate from high school, which I did not know at the time. And I was really surprised by that. And he was like, well, your mother didn't graduate from high school either. So this was all news to me.

Robert Gunn [00:03:48]:
So I wanted to ask him, like, why didn't you graduate from high school? Because for me, my father was always my hero. He was my idol. His legacy is what I want to carry on. And I'll talk more about that later, but it was really like, okay, you could have been anything that you wanted to be in the world. Didn't go to high school, but you're making me go to college. You're telling me I'm going to college. Like what's up with that? And essentially, he told me 4 things. He said, first, he didn't have anyone at his high school that looked like him.

Robert Gunn [00:04:14]:
2nd, he said he didn't believe that anyone at his high school school truly believed in him or his abilities. No one was there to invest in him. 3rd, he talked about what he was learning, which we know as curriculum, right? And instruction, and it just was not relevant. He didn't see the point in it. But the fourth thing that he said that was really important to me was he could have made a better living hustling out on the streets than he could go into school. And I'll never forget. I told him that day, daddy, I should have been your teacher. And that's when Robert Gun, the educator was born.

Robert Gunn [00:04:42]:
I wanted to make sure that for the rest of my being on this earth, that there would not be individuals who looked like my father and those who didn't, but who did not feel that they had a place in education and they could much rather do things out on the streets than they could go into school. So I believe education is so important because at least in this country lies at the thing that I often talk about. If you're an educator, I believe that you're a saint. I believe that you're doing God's work. I believe that it is the most noble and worthy profession that exists. And that is above all other professions. And people often say, well, why do you say that Robert? And in this country, you're going to go to school. You're going to have experiences.

Robert Gunn [00:05:20]:
That's going to be something that's mandated. Now we know that as you get older, you can decide like my daddy not to go to school anymore, but you're going to get the opportunity to get an education. And I firmly believe the individuals in classrooms and in schools have the opportunity to either make your educational experience and make you feel education is for you and it could be a gateway to greatness. Or in the case of my daddy, you can have individuals in a school building that turn individuals off to education and make them think that it's either not for you. You're not welcome here. You're not meant to do anything in your life that is in the academic arena. So that is how my educational path, you know, got started and why I believe in the power of education. I don't think that we should throw away anyone.

Robert Gunn [00:06:03]:
I think that everyone in our community can be an asset. Everyone has value. And I think that education, we have a really unique opportunity to instill in the students, pour into students and really start to show them what opportunities and what dreams, can exist for them and how to fulfill them through the work that we do in school buildings.

Liza Holland [00:06:23]:
You're right. The story was a wonderful way to address that issue. Absolutely. Absolutely. You know, in speaking with our mutual friend, Jay, he was talking about the really unique educational experience that you all were able to create at the W. E. B. Du Bois Academy in Louisville.

Liza Holland [00:06:42]:
Can you tell us a little bit about why that was special and how you were able to kind of infuse some of that wish for all students into that experience?

Robert Gunn [00:06:53]:
Absolutely. And I'm glad that you asked that. I could have gone into that right after my last story, but I was hoping that this would be the next question. So, yeah, so W. E. B. Du Bois Academy, Louisville, Kentucky. It was the love of my educational life through and through.

Robert Gunn [00:07:06]:
So our mission was really simple. It was to engage, eliminate barriers and empower each young man that we serve to achieve excellence. Period. Point blank. And if you listened to the story that I shared about my father, what we did at the Du Bois Academy makes complete sense because for me it was a full circle moment. But lies often start to like to start and tell the story about Du Bois. The first question that was asked of me when I wanted to start the school. So a little bit of background information.

Robert Gunn [00:07:34]:
So Du Bois, I was allowed a year to kind of really prepare. I was able to travel the country. I went to Chicago, I went to Dallas, went to several different cities that had schools that were set up for young men of color for academic excellence, not schools for behavior, not schools where, you know, students were in trouble, but true institutions of academic excellence and greatness for young men of color. So starting to do that work, it was really interesting. I came back and I was really inspired by some of the things that I was seeing, but the district, which I love JCPS and will love JCPS to this day for this gave me the opportunity to literally build things from the ground up. So the first thing that I wanted to do, I met with who was hired as one of our first assistant assistant principals. Her name is Amy Wells, and she is a curriculum guru, but I wanted to find someone that can truly help me capture the experience that I wanted these young men to have. So the very first question that Amy asked me was Robert at the end of these young men's time at Du Bois, what do you want them to be like? That question blew my mind because that was the first time in education that I was in a position of I would call absolute power over an entire school that I could start with that question.

Robert Gunn [00:08:45]:
And when she asked me that it kinda gave me chills. Because I'm like, what do I want them to be like? Why? We don't wanna talk about test scores. We don't talk about. She said, I don't wanna talk about any of that. What do we want them to be like? So from that question, I really started to dig in and I'm like, okay, well, I want these young men to be leaders. I want them to be assets in their community. I want them to have a strong sense of self value and self worth. I want them to be able to be accountable.

Robert Gunn [00:09:09]:
I want them to be able to take flight for themselves in life. And I want to do that through the school building. So from there, we didn't even talk about test scores. We didn't even talk about how to improve academic achievement. We started talking about what we call our pride values and those were perseverance, resilience, initiative, discipline and empathy. So we said that if we can get young men to to embody all of these characteristics, all of these dispositions and on a daily basis, through our curriculum, through our interactions, we pretty much made them aware of what these things meant, how they were displaying them in their lives, and how these dispositions would help them become better young men. That's what Du Bois was about. And that's how we started.

Robert Gunn [00:09:52]:
So through our curriculum, of course, we wanted our young men to be reflected in the curriculum. Our job was never to tell folks what was right or what was wrong, but like so many things in life, there's always more than one side to the story. So we wanted to talk about perspective. So, you know, we, we look to capture a multicultural and Afrocentric lens when it came down to our instruction, but more so than any of that, We wanted to point to these young men and again, make them feel that they did belong in an academic setting. They were going to be held to high expectations, but also with high expectations, we're going to come really, really, really high levels of support. Because I'm a firm believer that you couldn't work at the Du Bois Academy if you felt bad for students. We didn't want this poor baby syndrome. We didn't want people who wanted to feel like they were saving these young men.

Robert Gunn [00:10:38]:
We did want individuals who could see the value and the worth in these young men and hold them accountable and push them forward to be excellent through again, high levels of support. So I would always be, you know, I was famous for saying if you come to the new boys Academy and you're hungry, we're gonna feed you. If you're crying, I'm gonna dry your eyes. If you need clothes because your clothes might be dirty or soil. Don't worry about it. We're going to get you new clothes and all those things are gonna happen before you set foot in the building because make no mistake. Education could be your pathway to success for the rest of your life. So I want any excuse or any barrier to your learning on that specific day.

Robert Gunn [00:11:15]:
I wanted to be left at the door. So before you walk into the door, let's get all those things solved. So once you come in, you're at home, you're at a place where you're gonna be loved, respected, taken care of, held accountable and pushed to be the best version of yourself.

Liza Holland [00:11:29]:
Oh, that's tremendous. And, you know, all of those things are exactly what community wants. It's what these portrait of a graduates are really elevating, and yet none of it is measured in a test score.

Robert Gunn [00:11:40]:

Liza Holland [00:11:41]:
Yeah. That's really powerful. I am curious. I've had been having a number of conversations lately about scaffolding, and I'll be interested to hear your take because I think to some extent, we as a a teaching profession I'm actually not coming from the teaching profession, but I see lots and lots of scaffolding and supports for students when sometimes there is a need for productive struggle and really making them think. And I'd just be curious to hear what your take on that is.

Robert Gunn [00:12:18]:
Yes, ma'am. So I like the term that you use in, in, in the sense of productive struggle. So I don't think learning can occur if there isn't some type of struggle. Otherwise, it's just disseminating information and expecting folks to receive information. So as I shared, when we talked about our pride values, you know, we talk about perseverance, we talk about resilience, quite a bit. So it was not uncommon, you know, in a classroom to hear a teacher, you know, mentioning, hey, this today you're going to need to persevere. In fact, same way that you walk into a classroom lies and you see a learning target. Today, I will be able to identify the 3 branches of government.

Robert Gunn [00:12:52]:
You would also see another target that would mention one of our pride values. It might be perseverance that's up there and it might tell students, you know, today as a teacher, I'm going to communicate very little information because I want you to come to understanding on your own of these topics. So I really appreciate that. And again, I think that scaffolding piece goes back to what I mentioned earlier in terms of that poor baby syndrome. If you think about what we do with our own children, Liza, that there's no better analogy than me than riding a bike. Any parent, any older person that has a younger person or teaching them to ride a bike, you know, going into that, the young person is going to fall at some point in time. And if they want to ride the bike, then falling down is going to be a byproduct of learning to ride the bike independently. Now, if you want to hold that bike and hold onto it the entire way, that's absolutely fine.

Robert Gunn [00:13:38]:
But that student, that young person is never going to learn how to ride the bike. So So similarly, when it came down to instruction at Du Bois, we understood that, but we also understood that that traditionally and historically, and I'm not saying in all schools, but in a lot of school settings, the outcomes that we see for black and brown young males are a byproduct of, I wouldn't call it miseducation or a lack of education, but I think a lot of it may be a lack of understanding and a lack of that willingness to allow students to struggle that might be rooted in. I don't think that you can because of what you look like. I don't think you deserve to because what you look like and well, let me back up on that second one because I truly feel anybody that's in the classroom. I've seen great teachers. I've seen teachers who are not as effective. I don't think anyone who gets an education goes in with that mind set that I don't think you deserve to. I think sometimes it is.

Robert Gunn [00:14:26]:
I don't think that you may be able to, but again, going back to the experience at Du Bois, a lot of that was, you know, rooted in. We are going to make sure that what we're teaching you is coming from a standpoint that we're trying to get at your level of understanding or your level of interest in order to introduce you the subject matter that we love and that we care about. So I think our instructional strategies made scaffolding a lot different because the entrance into the lesson was exciting to our young men. And then once you had that excitement, it was easier to make sure that you were challenging them. And as a principal, as an individual, as a human being, I'm highly competitive. Right? So I wanted to foster that culture within our students. And a lot of times it was not a culture of students competing against one another, but it was a constant reminder that you are competing against yourself. Quick example of that.

Robert Gunn [00:15:18]:
Every time before our students took the map assessment, I would do a push up challenge. Cafeteria kids are like cheering, and I would promise them at the beginning of the year, however, many push ups I do on this day. I'm gonna make sure that I'm working every single day because the next time you all take the map assessment, I'm gonna do more push ups. It might be a half more. It might be one more. It might be 10 more, but that was just a little way for me to try to motivate students. So when they were taking the map set test and I would tell them like Amy Wells again, who's my assistant principal. I can do more push ups than Amy Wells.

Robert Gunn [00:15:48]:
I'm not in a competition with her, but Amy is in a competition with herself. I'm in a competition with myself. So when the math scores came out, we would sit down, we would talk to students, we would show them those scores. We would give them a pathway to say, okay, next time you take the map, this is what we want to see you improve the same way that I'll improve, you know, on, on push ups. So that was again, just something else that we would do just to continue to push students forward and just to continue to instill in them and believe in them that they can, they should. And at Du Bois, they will.

Liza Holland [00:16:18]:
Boy, that's brilliant. And what a wonderful way to model that for them to show that you're doing the same thing that that kind of installation of being a lifelong learner and a lifelong, you know, looking for better and better iterations of yourself.

Robert Gunn [00:16:34]:
Yes, ma'am.

Liza Holland [00:16:34]:
It's really neat. I would love to ask you from a leadership perspective, how did you go about empowering your teachers to feel like they had the agency to kind of make this shift in how they approached education?

Robert Gunn [00:16:50]:
Yeah, that is a great question. So Kathy Chanel Gunn, who is still at the Du Bois Academy right now would tell you that one of my favorite sayings was there does not have to be a box here at Du Bois. So one of the thing lies at that in starting the Du Bois Academy, not only was I able to, you know, help shift and shape what the curriculum would be and bring students in. I was also able to hire every staff member from the time that I started. Right? So the 1st year, we only had 6 grades. That year, I think I hired 7 teachers and that 6th grade class, they are now juniors at Du Bois, but we added 1 year or one class each year. So our 6th graders was our 1st year. They became 7th, then we had 7 and 6.

Robert Gunn [00:17:32]:
Next year they became 8th, we had 8, 7, 6, so on and so forth. But I created interview questions, you know, part of them, I mentioned the pride values earlier. There was a question about every pride value where the teacher had to let us know what does perseverance mean to you? Give us an example in your life of when you've persevered. But then also, you know, I wanted to talk to them and the final question was about sense of belonging. Why do you feel that you belong here? And if you were to come to the Du Bois Academy, like, talk to me about things in your educational path or journey that someone has told you no, or that's a bad idea or you can't do x y or z because because here what I'm gonna tell you is as long as students are safe, as long as you have positive intent, as long as you're putting your best thinking forward, I'm not going to say no to ideas. I think what I had seen based on other schools that I've been at and other teachers that I had experienced, there became a sense of burnout because schools were all about academic achievement and test scores. And if you did not meet an academic test score or benchmark, then your school was deemed quote, unquote failing. Right? So what I promised teachers is you're never going to hear me talk about test scores, and teachers used to tell me, like, gun, you need to stop saying that you can't say that when the superintendent is here.

Robert Gunn [00:18:48]:
I'm like, I'm absolutely gonna say that because I believe that again, when I started this school, when I was chosen, when I got the privilege to and the honor to lead this school from its inception, the question is what do we want students to be like? Not what we want them to test like. I know some distinguished disasters in the world, like who are wonderful on paper, and that doesn't mean everybody who scores distinguish as a as a disaster. But also to me, there's no correlation that if you score distinguish on a test, that means that you're any better than anyone else. And I also understand, Liza, that I wanted to elevate for our teachers that here we want well rounded young men who are going to be like this when they end and yes, we want them to score as well as they can on an academic test. But I'm also I'd be darned if I'm going to as a principal lead a school building to where there's 36 weeks in the school year and 1 week will determine whether or not we are successful. Test scores will come, which they did if we're doing right by these young men and we're giving them giving them all these other opportunities. So that to me was one of the things that was most important. So empowering teachers was you need to make sure that there are learning targets that are posted because students need to know what that target is.

Robert Gunn [00:20:03]:
We need to make sure that we're assessing whether or not students are meeting those targets because someone can sit there and nod and smile their heads. But if they don't write it down or they don't communicate to you, that they have that knowledge and understanding as a teacher, you're doing yourself and your students a disservice because you are assuming that they are capturing what it is that you're giving them. So outside of those two things, there wasn't a lot that I asked for. I wanted teachers to be creative. I wanted that lesson that someone told them no that they could not do. I wanted them to do it. I wanted that clip that they wanted to show that they thought was compelling, but they weren't allowed to do it. I wanted them to show it.

Robert Gunn [00:20:41]:
I wanted them to be the best version of themselves. And I wanted them to eliminate any excuses that they had as to why they could not be the best teacher that they wanted to be. Because at Du Bois, you can be the teacher that you were supposed to be. You can be the individual that's meant to inspire and more so than anything else. You can get back to your why You can get back to that glimmer in your eyes when you got an education because you wanted to change the world. This is your opportunity to do it in a place that is going to be safe. It's going to be supportive. I mentioned to you earlier, we wanted students to have high levels of support.

Robert Gunn [00:21:15]:
Also wanted that for adults. No one is perfect. We had teachers that made mistakes, but for me it is as long as you're willing to learn and grow. And again, I mean, if you've done something that is inexcusable and you know, there's nothing that could be done about that, That's different. But otherwise, wanted to support teachers the exact same way that we support a student. So that was our culture of belonging and pushing to be the very best version of yourself.

Liza Holland [00:21:39]:
That kind of symmetry is so important. And I think that to some extent, districts have been guilty of over scaffolding teachers. You know? Oh, we're just gonna help them. We're gonna give them a day by day exactly what you need to do. No. That's not really helpful after all.

Robert Gunn [00:21:57]:
Yes, ma'am.

Liza Holland [00:21:58]:
Goodness. Wow. That is so inspirational. I'm also curious, and it may be coming out of elementary, they were still not jaded. But how did the students respond? Did it take a little while before they could trust this new environment and this new way of doing school?

Robert Gunn [00:22:19]:
It did. It took a while and I'll tell you a little bit Liza about my journey. So I actually had to write an op ed in the courier journal when we started the school because there were 2 prevailing thoughts. The first was the only way that Du Bois was going to be successful is if I handpicked all of the good ones. Right? And for me, my pushback was well, they're all good ones, but what specifically do you mean? Let's not use coded language. Like, what do you mean? Well, you need to pick the students that are the highest performers, have the best attendance, don't have any behavior problems and come to school, you know, from a background of 2 parents, kids who are just gonna come in and do exactly what they're supposed to be doing. So that was the first thought. The second thought was, well, aren't you just resegregating schools by opening a school that is unapologetically, you know, catering to black and brown young men.

Robert Gunn [00:23:10]:
So I'll talk to you through both of those points. So the first to really push back against that narrative and there were some people even internally, right? And when I say internally, I mean within the circle of education and and district and JCPS who did think that we needed to select students in that manner. Liza, if anyone knows anything about me, I showed my 6th graders, my 6th grade report card. I showed them the d's that I had. I showed them the negative comments that were written by some of my teachers. So for me, it didn't sit well with me to only select high performing students that meet those criteria because for me it's like other schools across the nation that if you select the best and the brightest, you should be the highest performing school, right? So if Robert Gun, the student couldn't get into Du Bois, if our a 6th grader, then we're gonna open it up for everyone. And see even push back further. So we were able to accept a 150 students each year.

Robert Gunn [00:24:05]:
The 1st year I went to all of the underperforming, low performing elementary schools to speak to students. Any student that was deemed failing or any student that came from a school that was deemed failing automatically got into the Du Bois Academy. So in year 1, that meant that a 144 out of a 157 students that we accepted met that criteria. So that immediately shut people up. Like you can't say that we're going to be successful because we select the the best and the brightest. The second piece when it came to the segregation, it just took me maybe a couple of minutes to address that because my pushback to that was, well, schools are already segregated. And especially if you look at schools when it comes to african American males, if you look at our behavior schools where students go because they've received discipline and they are no longer welcome at their school or students have been arrested and they're no longer welcome at their home school. If you look at the populations of the schools that we have in Jefferson County, those schools are well above 90% African American males.

Robert Gunn [00:25:07]:
But I've never heard anyone question why that isn't segregating schools. Because people in my opinion felt like, well, oh, that's where they need to go. That's where they deserve to be. Forget the fact that again, over 90% of the students at that school are black and brown males. So why is it that we're being questioned when we want to start a school that is about excellence for young black males. So those were the 2 the 2 big arguments that happened, you know, when we started. But fast forward the 5 years that I was at new boys, things that were a fact. We had with those students that I mentioned because we continue to select students in that manner.

Robert Gunn [00:25:43]:
At one point, we were over accused of over identifying students as gifted and talented because we thought gifted and talented lies and just didn't mean reading and math. We also felt that students should be identified for their creativity, leadership, visual and performing arts. One quick story that I'll tell you, I'll just use the initials a b. I'll never forget one of the most powerful conversations a b was a c student through and through, really didn't care too much for school. Thinking like you boys, he liked being there, but his entire elementary experience wasn't so great. And he went to one of those quote unquote failing schools. But I'll never forget, I called his father who has the same initials and I was like, you know, mister so and so, I just wanted to call and tell you that your son is gifted and talented. He's been identified.

Robert Gunn [00:26:27]:
The dad literally say it. Hey, mister Gun, you know you're talking to so and so. Say yes, sir. And I'm calling you about junior. He is gifted and talented so much so he's been identified. Some of his artwork is going to be displayed at the Speed Art Museum. They're going to allow the new boys academy to have an exhibit there and some of his artwork is going to be displayed. He was like, oh, I knew he could draw.

Robert Gunn [00:26:50]:
He could be talented as an artist. I said absolutely here again what I promised you all when we started. This is not gonna be a school that is just focused on academic achievement. Again, I want students to be the best academic student that they can be, which I pushed that I wanted all of our students to have a scholarly identity. If you read research from Pedro Noguera, UCLA, he talks a lot about the need for that and the need to push back against this narrative for black and brown, especially males of what it means to be a man and to have an identity. So often scholarly or scholarship is not tied into that. But this was just another way for us to identify students. So regardless of what your gifts, your talents, your desires, your thoughts were when you came into 3307 East Indian Trail, we were going to do everything that we could in our power to tap into your talents and to show you again, you may not be the best mathematician.

Robert Gunn [00:27:44]:
That's okay. Be the best mathematician you can be and we're going to support you with that. But we're also gonna support you just in an encompassing way to make sure that you can be the best, you know, the best version of yourself.

Liza Holland [00:27:55]:
What a magical thing. Wow. You must be incredibly proud of that that school that you've built. Yeah. That just goes straight to the heart. So what in the world could draw you away from that? I understand that you're now with Metro United Way.

Robert Gunn [00:28:15]:
Liza, you were good. You're good. Like I I could have given you a 30 minute, you know, speech about my life, this, that and the other, but you're I mean, the way you're setting these questions up are absolutely perfect. So great question. So I often like telling stories. So let me walk you through a little journey of how I got to where I am now To my official title right now is chief equity and impact officer with Metro United Way here in Louisville, Kentucky, but we serve a 7 county region and our goals or our pillars are to ensure we have thriving kids, strong households, and an equitable community. Let me walk you back to my journey, of how I got here. So I mentioned to you that 16 years old, I mentioned the soul daddy, I should have been your teacher.

Robert Gunn [00:28:55]:
So let me talk, let me walk you through. I was not an education major. I went to Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana, graduated and luckily I knew I wanted to teach, but I didn't have a degree to teach. So luckily I was accepted into teach for America in 2,002 was sent to Houston, Texas for 6 weeks to learn how to teach. From there, went to St. Louis, Missouri, blew it middle school, 1927 Cass Avenue, St. Louis, Missouri. And that's where I learned how to become an effective educator.

Robert Gunn [00:29:26]:
So quick story about getting to Blewett. So one of the things that my granny told me I needed to dress different than I did in college. She was like, Shub, you know, you don't need to be wearing all those baggy clothes. You won't be a teacher. You need to look the part. So she gave me a credit card, gave me $500 to go to JCPenney and she said, you need to get you a new wardrobe. So the first day lies that I am walking up to the school building. I mean, I will use the term suited and booted.

Robert Gunn [00:29:50]:
I have on a nice suit. I have my tie on. I'm walking up to the building. I have a little bag, a briefcase looking bag that was gifted to me by a family member. And as I'm walking up to the school, my principal at the time, her name was Annie j Chambers, phenomenal principal. And in the front of Blewett, there were some steps and she called that the front porch and it was not uncommon for our students to be sitting on the front porch. So again, this is my first day, I'm walking up, I have my briefcase in my hand and there's a group of students that are sitting on the front porch. 1 young lady looks up and I won't use the language.

Robert Gunn [00:30:21]:
I'll just use a letter. Blewett was a 100% african american students. In the 3 years that I talked there, I never saw any student that did not identify as black or african american. But I'm walking up, so a young lady sees me and she says, look at this in. She was like, now he's he's he's he's he's a bigger fella, so but he's in a suit. So he's definitely not our security guard, and he's not our gym teacher. I wonder what this end is gonna be teaching this year. So I don't know what to say that.

Robert Gunn [00:30:48]:
A lot of the I just kinda not walk around, go into the building, go through the metal detectors that we had at the time. I'm making up to my classroom. Now my classroom is decorated. Again, I made this promise to soul daddy. I should have been your teacher. So any student that walks through my doors, they're gonna get this wonderful experience. I'm gonna give them all that I can. I was teaching 7th grade social studies.

Robert Gunn [00:31:08]:
So I'm in the classroom. I have 36 desks. Start a class, student 36 walks in. 37, 38, 39, 40, 41. There's 41 students. I'm like, hey, I'm not gonna be this is good. Hey, you can sit here. Don't worry about it.

Robert Gunn [00:31:22]:
You sit right there. Don't stand on the desk, but you put your bottom down, sit on the desk. Don't worry about it. I'm mister Gunn, Robert l Gunn junior. I'm here. We're gonna set the world on fire in our social studies class. So I'm into it. I'm telling the students who I am, what I'm about, what I wanna bring to the table about 10 minutes into class here, knock on the door.

Robert Gunn [00:31:41]:
I go to the door and I open it up and it's the same young lady who had choice words for me out in the front. Look at my watch. I'm like, well, class is 10 minutes in. Are you lost? How can I help you? She's like, are you mister gun? I was like, yes, ma'am. I am. She's like, I'm supposed to be in your class. I was like, okay. We can talk about you being later.

Robert Gunn [00:31:57]:
But hello. What is your name? And she looked. She said, you can call me OG Linda Lee. And then she said, you probably don't know what OG stand for. Do you? I've been down. I said, young lady, don't let this shirt in this tie fool you. Get your butt on into this class so you can learn. I do know what o g means and you don't know anything about me.

Robert Gunn [00:32:15]:
So let's not assume anything about each other's. Let's go. And I share that story because a couple months into the school year, Lyndon Lee and I, we bumped heads quite a bit at the beginning of the year, but a couple of months in, we had a groundbreaking moment. I got to school early as I often did. I worked from 6 AM to 6 PM every night, but I got to class and sitting outside my classroom was OG Linda Lee. She was sitting there. She had her head down in her arms and sitting with her backs up against the locker. So as often do, like, I would go and I would sit down next to her.

Robert Gunn [00:32:48]:
I'm like, what's going on OG? And she's like, well, my mom didn't come home last night. And I was like, oh man, she's like, but that's not uncommon. She's like, that happens. I'm not worried about anything, but she's like, mister Gunn, today is my birthday. My mama was supposed to take me to get my hair done yesterday. So at the time I'm 21 years old. I don't have children currently. I have a daughter who's 16 and a 12 year old son, but I'm sitting there, I'm like, well, I can do your hair, right? So she looks up kinda like you just did and she smiled a little bit.

Robert Gunn [00:33:15]:
So I'm like, okay, just hold on one second. So I run across the hall, miss Banks is across the hall. I'm like, miss Banks, hey, I need a red rubber band. She's like, good, What you doing? I was like, oh, geez out here. She wants me to do her hair. She's like, send that girl in here. I'll take care of it. You probably don't know what you're doing.

Robert Gunn [00:33:31]:
I was like, I don't, but she said that I can do it. So let me get a rubber band. So she gave me a rubber band right across the hallway from, my classroom was a water fountain. I might come on over here OG. So live, I start getting water on my hands, starts, you know, trying to smooth back as much as I can her hair. Put that rubber band on that thing. I gave her the most untidy, untight ponytail that you'll ever see in your life. But she walked around that entire day telling everyone who would listen.

Robert Gunn [00:33:59]:
Mr. Gun did my hair. I understood right then and right there that again as an educator, the ability that I had to a form a meaningful relationship with a student that would last and transcend anything that I ever taught her in social studies, but that relationships really matter and you truly cared about people. You would take the time to see them as individuals to know them well enough to know when they needed something and to do all you could to support them. That's who I am through and through. So you fast forward, we left St. Louis. My wife got to medical school here, so I taught for another 3 years.

Robert Gunn [00:34:34]:
So I'm taking you from Robert Gunn, the teacher to Robert Gunn, the administrator. So I was at Conway Middle School and had a teacher or an assistant principal. Her name was Donna Birkhead and it was not uncommon for miss Birkhead or any administrator in the building to bring to my room all the students that were misbehaving. Right? Hey, mister gun, we got 3. Can we bring them here this period? Absolutely. Who is it? Oh, it's Liza is j a y'all come on in here. Y'all know what to do. Don't bring that foolishness in here.

Robert Gunn [00:34:59]:
You know where to sit, come on in here, let's have some fun. I don't know what you did, don't care, doesn't matter to me, you're gonna get another social studies lesson in today. So we would do our thing and one day after school, miss Birkhead came up. She's like, Robert, you really ought to be an administrator and I pushed back and I was like, well, miss Birkhead, I don't think you like your job. She kinda chuckled. She was like, well, why not? I said, well, on a daily basis, you bring me students. You don't seem like you're enjoying it. Like, it seems like you just deal with bad behavior, like, all day long.

Robert Gunn [00:35:28]:
At least as a teacher, I can close my door. I can shut my students off to everything that's going on outside the classroom. And I know for that 90 minutes, I can give them an experience where they're learning, they're safe, and they're successful. She's like, that is exactly the point. Imagine if you could do that for a school building, not just a classroom. She made me think and I was like, okay, let's do it. So I became a principal foster elementary 5 years. I was there.

Robert Gunn [00:35:54]:
And this is before Du Bois Foster was the the 2nd lowest performing elementary school in the state at the time, or maybe it was, we were 634 out of 734 schools in the state, something like that. But again, relationships matter, culture matters, got to foster, realize there was a lot of things that needed assistance. 1, you know, we needed an expectation shift in the adults. We needed to make sure that students understood that there was order in the building. So the funny thing about Foster as a principal, my first year there, our test scores went down in all 5 assessed areas. However, I had a leader at the time, Mr. Kirk Lattimore, who pulled me to the side. He said, Robert, don't pay attention to test scores this year.

Robert Gunn [00:36:35]:
I wanna show you these numbers about school culture. Look at the approval ratings of parents, look at the approval ratings of students, look at the approval rating of the overall community test scores will come right next year. Exactly what he said the following 4 years, we had tremendous growth, double digit gains in reading and math, number of proficient and distinguished double digit decreases in the number of students that were performing novice. But that lesson taught me what I needed to know for Du Bois is that culture matters and expectations and relationships have to predate anything that's gonna happen academically. So again, I've already shared with you about the new boys academy, 5 years of being there. If you compare our students with our peers in the district, we outperform 5 straight years in reading and in math. In math, that was both academic growth and academic achievement. I told you that we increased the number of students that were being identified as gifted and talented.

Robert Gunn [00:37:27]:
We had the 3rd highest attendance rate in JCPS. We had the highest level of sense of belonging in the entire district for students. And when it was all said and done, so 5 years of doing that work, Liza, I felt that I was at a point where Du Bois was going to be sustainable. It didn't matter if I were to leave and that's, you know, Jim Collins, good to great talks about the difference between level 4 and level 5 leaders and level 4 leaders. The show is all about them. Everything is great. When they leave, stuff just crumbles and falls apart. Level 5 leaders leave a legacy that continue to be carried on.

Robert Gunn [00:38:04]:
So the thing that really changed for me, I share with you that 1st year, we only had 211 applicants for Du Bois. By the time year 5 rolled around, we were the 3rd most popular magnet school in JCPS behind only manual high school and central high school. So that meant that instead of getting about 200 applicants, we were getting well over 600 applicants and these were young men of color that wanted to come to DuBois for 6th grade. Right? So I don't even know what percentage that was of the total population, but it became increasingly difficult for me to have conversations with parents. Hey, Mr. Gun, my son really needs your school. Like why didn't he get in? I'm like, well, it's a lottery. He didn't get in.

Robert Gunn [00:38:45]:
I mean, it's not anything that I did, not anything that I could do, but there really started to be a calling within me that said, is this enough similar to me being a classroom teacher, I could close my door. Me being a principal, I was certain that any young man that walked into 3307 East Indian Trail, we were gonna make him successful. But what about the rest of the community? What about the moms? What about the dads? What about the uncles, the aunts, the grannies, the granddaddies? What about these systems that we were able to block our students from within the walls of Du Bois? But once they leave Du Bois, they're still going to go out and work and live in this ecosystem that isn't quite right. So this opportunity a row arose where again, I'm able to do work across the community in so many different facets, including education. But I'll tell you, Liza, before I made the decision to transition from the Du Bois Academy, called a school meeting, and I asked the school for permission. That was very important to me because I also know that, you know, in our community at times, there is a sense of abandonment, especially for young males of color, sometimes by males of color. So I wanted to be crystal clear to the young man at our school, like, you all have done absolutely nothing wrong. Like this is an opportunity for me to do what we've done here, but for me to be able to do it at a bigger scale.

Robert Gunn [00:40:08]:
And every day we would say to do boys Academy creed, and it is I was born to achieve greatness. I will not be defined by my mistakes, but my willingness to accept correction to learn and grow. My greatness will be a result of my work ethic, mentorship, and support. I will achieve all of my goals. I will be accountable for my actions and responsible to positively impact my community. I was born to achieve greatness and I will determine the king that I will become. So I recited the creed and I asked the young man if I go and I do this work, the work that I would be leading with education, the work that I will be leading with basic needs, the work that I will be leading, you know, with the community and make sure that we have equitable outcomes for everyone. Do you all think that I would be living out the creed? Students told me yes.

Robert Gunn [00:40:57]:
I cried. I cried when I talked to our staff. That was about 3 months before the school year ended. Their biggest question was, are you leaving right now? I'm like, absolutely not. I'm gonna finish this school year out with you all. And furthermore, I'll make sure that any work that I'm leading in my next role directly benefits the Du Bois Academy and schools across our entire district. So I've been able to do all those things, but a very long answer to a short question that you asked me. But I like to tell that story of for me, it's just continued and increased impact.

Robert Gunn [00:41:30]:
I love what I was doing as a teacher, and if you asked me 2 years in my career, I never wanted to do anything else. I love being an assistant principal and a principal. If you asked me, I never thought that there was anything else. And now the role that I'm in is, again, it's I consider myself a force multiplier, and I will always seek to be in positions to where I have the greatest opportunity to impact what I care about. And that's people and that's outcomes for people. Because I believe everybody deserves to have an opportunity to be great.

Liza Holland [00:42:01]:
Horse multiplier. I love that. I love that. What, if anything, coming at looking at education now from the outside, have there been any types of kind of revelations to you or change in your perspective from working in from the United Way standpoint?

Robert Gunn [00:42:22]:
Yes, ma'am. I would say the biggest revelation that I've had is I was really and truly hopeful that for a moment in time, especially when the pandemic hit, we were living through COVID. There was a moment there where I truly hoped that our society as a whole would really be able to understand the importance of educators, the importance of school buildings, the importance of teachers, principals, office staff, bus drivers, everyone who is in the ecosystem of education. I was really, really, really hoping after being forced to be home with your children and forced to really understand what the dynamics are like or what teachers may go through on a day to day basis. I was really hopeful that our society would look to elevate the status of educational professionals. Right? That did not happen. I think for me, it kind of went a little bit backward. It was like, okay, now the kids are going back to school, adults, teachers, principals, we know this, you haven't had kids.

Robert Gunn [00:43:25]:
So now you have more work to do because now we're not just expecting you to take care of the teaching and learning. We're expecting you all to have resources for mental health. We're expecting you to have resources for all of these things that education was not meant to solve. Right? Now education is meant to solve all of these things, but the biggest revelation for me has been, I think, how willing we are as a community to put all that onus on education and when things aren't successful to point the fingers directly at schools. So in my role now, I think it's really helpful for me to be able to have those conversations with folks who are saying, well, for us, our district JCPS is is wrong for this. They're wrong for that. The one thing that I know is regardless of a school's academic standing, every single school building, I would say in our country and in the world for that matter as adults who care about kids and who wanna do what's best for kids. And they have a an incredibly difficult job to do that with everything that they're facing.

Robert Gunn [00:44:29]:
Right? So the thing that I often ask people to do is lead with grace. It's fine to have questions. It's fine to even be critical, but also understand folks are doing the best that they can do. They're being asked to do more now than they've ever been asked to do in the history of education. And as a community, we're doing less because we don't see it as being our issue or our problem. So in my role now, it's beautiful for me to be able to say, okay. Yep. We can point our fingers at JCPS.

Robert Gunn [00:44:56]:
We can say this, we can say that, but as a community, how can we help? Because those kids are only gonna be at school from the time they get there to the time that they leave. Where do they go after school? What kind of programs do we have for them? What kind of supports do we have for them? What kind of ecosystem have we built to where what is being taught or skills that are being instilled in students in school buildings aren't lost and they don't go away when they leave the school building. So from the former principal standpoint, I could say from 6 AM to 6 PM lies, I've never worried about anyone at 33070 Sydney Trail. When you're with me, I got it. What I worried about is what happens when they're released to you. And the you that I'm talking about is the collective community. So a huge part of the work right now that I'm trying to lead is making sure there's this out of school time ecosystem of support for students. So when they are not at school, similar things that they're learning at school, whether academically or as Jay Cloud would talk about employee employability skills, things like that, that they are also getting opportunities to engage in that type of environment when they're not in school.

Robert Gunn [00:45:57]:
So when you talk about revelation, that's been it. There needs to be a stronger communal commitment to our kids because if we don't reach these kids now, they will become adults. And if we don't meet their needs now, my saying is they're gonna eat. They're gonna find ways to eat. And, you know, it's best if we teach them ways to be fed in ways that will only positively impact their lives and the lives of those around them. If we continue to fail to do that, then the issues that we have now will come back to bite us as these young people, you know, continue to grow older.

Liza Holland [00:46:37]:
Why isn't that the truth? That's exactly why I kinda pivoted. My background is mostly in nonprofit management. I've executive director of multiple associations over time and whatnot, and I came to education as a very involved parent through the PTA route. And I have decided that this is where I need to be for that exact reason that we need to that whole piece of it takes a village really resonates with me. And so my whole focus is going to be I feel like there's so much good work. I actually was a I worked with the United Way of the Bluegrass as a consultant in the Pritchard Committee, and there's so much good work happening in the community and with families. And so, my target is businesses, is to try to beat that bridge to stop the finger pointing where you're not bringing us employees with the skills that they need. And, okay, fine.

Liza Holland [00:47:32]:
Tell us about it. Help us make that happen. Let's get a a communication superhighway going back and forth. So oh, it's just so inspiring. So inspiring. I have taken a lot of your time here. So let me find finish with this question. What would you like for decision makers to know? And you can define who the decision makers are.

Robert Gunn [00:47:52]:
That is a great question. So decision makers, what I would like for every decision maker to know, and again, this for me is going like we talked about from that 30,000 foot view earlier in this role. One thing that I've learned is things are connected. And sometimes I feel that decision makers are either disconnected from those who they aim to serve, or there's a disconnect in understanding to how previous decisions have led us to where we currently are. So one of the things that we do here at Metro United Way is we do something to call it a racial wealth gap simulation lies. And essentially what that is, we walk folks through 13 historical policies, right, that have been enacted here in the United States of America. And through the simulation, you are either a person of color or you're a white individual. Right? So we take you through 13 historical policies and at the end of each policy, you're either given what we call a card or a token of opportunity.

Robert Gunn [00:48:54]:
It might be land. It might be money. It might be some other resource. Right? And we walk you through this simulation and maybe you'll participate it. Maybe someone who listened in, so I won't wanna ruin it for them. But at the end of this, you'll see these 13 policies that were enacted here in the United States of America led certain individuals and groups to have many, many, many more opportunities that led to increased wealth, increased educational opportunities, increased generational opportunities, and then you'll see another group that these same policies negatively impacted. So for me, for decision makers, what I want them to know is I never would fault an individual who had no say in previous decisions. That's not your fault.

Robert Gunn [00:49:41]:
You weren't around, but I also would want decision makers to be able to understand and make the connections that things sometimes aren't what they seem. Certain individuals, certain groups aren't doing worse because they're lazy, because they're genetically predisposed to bad things. Like, if you literally just walk through and you look at these policies and you look at systems that have been in place, you can literally see how and why certain outcomes have been what they are. So I don't blame any decision makers for those decisions, but I will look to ask for accountability and onus and how do we undo these things. But you have to see that that connection is there. So that's what I would want them to know. I will want every decision maker to truly understand that any decision that you make will not just impact folks. Now it could have implications in the future, but in order to, you know, kind of try to get back to understanding equity and understanding why certain outcomes have been what they what they are.

Robert Gunn [00:50:45]:
I would just ask decision makers to be historians as well because we cannot continue to repeat mistakes that we've made time and time again. So, again, not your fault that decisions were made, but understand how those decisions impacted and understand how decisions that you make now could have lasting implications, whether that's positive or negative for individuals. The last thing I would say about decision makers, make sure those who are closest to the problem or the issue oftentimes can be closest to the solution if you simply ask. Don't assume that as a decision maker that you understand what people want or even what people need or how they want it or how they need it. So I would say, you know, be understand historical happenings and how they've led things. And then also ask the people that you aim to assist, the people that you aim to not give a handout, but a hand up, ask them their opinions and their ideas. Because sometimes oftentimes they have the best ones.

Liza Holland [00:51:46]:
Excellent. Excellent. Excellent. Thank you so much for this incredible conversation, just an amazing time to spend together and so enlightening. Thank you so much.

Robert Gunn [00:51:57]:
Yeah. Thank you for the opportunity. It's been wonderful. Just see you on screen and to have a conversation and I'm honored. Thank you for the time. And if there's any way that I can support in the future, please don't hesitate to, to let me know, but it's been a pleasure.

Liza Holland [00:52:09]:
Thank you so much.

Liza Holland [00:52:12]:
Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Education Perspectives. Feel free to share your thoughts on our Facebook page. Let us know which education perspectives you would like to hear or share. Please subscribe and share with your friends.