Season 3, Episode 10: Kenrya Rankin

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Chris McNutt 0:11

Hello everyone and welcome to Season 3, Episode 10 of Things Fall Apart at the Human Restoration Project. My name is Chris and I'm a digital art and media instructor in Springfield, Ohio. Before we get started, I want to give a brief shout out to three of our Patreon supporters who keep this show going: Michael Hyde, Mary Walls, and Jeremiah Henderson. Thank you for your support. If you'd like to learn more about the Human Restoration Project or would like to support us further, please visit us at and follow us on Twitter at @HumResPro.

Today we're joined by Kenrya Rankin. Kenrya has an extensive CV. She is graduate of Howard University and New York University. She's an award winning author, journalist and speaker. She's the editorial director at Colorlines and has been published in Fast Company, Ebony, and Glamour. Her books include Start It Up: The Complete Teen Business Guide to Turning Your Passions into Pay, Bet on Black: African American Women Celebrate Fatherhood in the Age of Barack Obama, and her recently released How We Fight White Supremacy: A Field Guide to Black Resistance, which is co authored with Akiba Solomon. I contacted Kenrya after reading Start It Up when researching entrepreneurial books for an upcoming class project. And it's awesome that she can join us to speak on the current state of entrepreneurial education as well as greater issues of the education system. So starting off Kenrya, could you talk a little bit about what brought you to write Start It Up?

Kenrya Rankin 1:48

So the short answer is somebody asked me to. The long answer is that I came into this project in a bit of a unusual way. Typically, in book publishing, you have an idea, you pitch it to a publisher, they buy your idea, and you're under contract. But the way that this came about is that I was drafted into the writers pool - an imprint called Zest Books, which is now Lerner Books. And so they had a pool and whenever the editors there had an idea of something that they felt would be in their list, they would reach out to everyone in the pool and say, "Hey, we want to do a book on entrepreneurship, send us your proposal." And then they would pick the proposal that they thought was most closely aligned with what they wanted to do.

At first, I didn't really want to do it. I was kind of scared. I felt like, "What do I have to say about entrepreneurship?" I didn't think of myself as an entrepreneur, which is crazy, because I was literally building my freelance business at the time that happened. But it kept gnawing at me the way that when you have an idea for something creative, the way that it tends to not leave you alone. And I was sitting at the hair salon. I was like, "okay, sure, fine, I'll do it." Like it just kept going through my head. I remember it was a Saturday and the proposal was due Monday. I went home and started writing, it just kind of poured out. And by the end of that day, I had a book - a proposal - it was kind of crazy. So I submitted it and they picked my book. That's where it came from.

But ultimately, I think the reason that it was gnawing on me was because I wanted to do something that was different from what I've seen. I didn't really want to just give folks the nuts and the bolts of creating a business. But I really wanted to get them started from the beginning about feeling not just an external need, which is what we're always taught, right? I was a business administration minor, we were taught that if you start something it needs to be because somebody needs it. And that's true, and great. But I also think it's important to fulfill that internal need. And that's why the the sub head on the book is The Complete Teen Business Guide to Turning Your Passions Into Pay. I wanted to help everyone who read the book figure out what they're passionate about, and connect that with the need that exists out in the world. And I also want to take the view of doing it not just to make money, let's use your business to do good, which is why there's a whole chapter that's about giving back in the book.

Chris McNutt 4:24

Yeah, and to give even more detail in the book. The thing I appreciated the most at least, was that there's all these different examples of teenage entrepreneurs. And it's not just people that made a million dollars, it's just people that are doing small businesses and just doing things that they enjoy doing. A lot of times when you check these books out, it's like stories of Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, or,

Kenrya Rankin 4:48

Yeah, it's the gurus and the people who you can't necessarily see yourself in, and it was really important to me that when people pick the book up, that they would be able to see them, somewhere in there. And that it will inspire them to be able to try to do the same thing.

Chris McNutt 5:05

Do you think that's a skill that every student should be learning? That entrepreneurship is something that is homogenous across our whole culture?

Kenrya Rankin 5:13

I do. I think that it can teach really important lessons. I think that when you learn about entrepreneurship, my goal, at least, is that they can pick up three major things. The first is that they are able to discover their passion. And I say passion for a reason, as opposed to saying purpose, which is what I think is often used in this area. That's because I deeply believe that we have got to rethink this capitalist idea of connecting our self worth with what we can produce. I am not put on this earth to write books. I enjoy it, I love it, I love the people I write them for. But that's not my ultimate purpose. I don't think that's what we should be teaching our kids. But I do think that we have to make money to survive. So I want them to figure out how they can be autonomous while doing something that also they enjoy.

The second thing is that I want them to learn the skills that make a great entrepreneur. And not just for the sake of being able to run a successful business, but because I think that those skills are super transferable. You can use them all over the place, whether it's at school or in your relationships, learning things like creating a workable plan, and seeing it through, managing your money, communicating well, treating people with respect, dealing with customers and asking for help - will take you really far.

And then the third thing is that I want them to not only learn how to tap into their creativity, but I want them to hold on to this sense that I think we're all born with, but that a lot of times gets beaten out of us along the way, which is that you can do literally everything. My daughter is eight, and if you asked her today, or yesterday, or tomorrow, she's thought about what she wants to be when she grows up, she has this long list. And it's always changing. There's some things that are always on there. She wants to be a singer, she wants to be a top chef, she wants to be a YouTube star, a magician, a veterinarian, and an artist herself. Those things are pretty much mainstays. But I never told her that she couldn't do any of those things, or all of those things. We actually have lots of conversations about how at different phases of your life, you can do different things and how you don't have to be locked into one career. With all of those things, when she talks about them, they are from an entrepreneurial mindset. She's thinking about how she can do those things to make money on her own. And I guess it's because it's modeled. She's never seen me go to work. I always have worked from home since she's been alive. And I want other young entrepreneurs to be able to hold up that spirit, creativity, and innovation, even if they don't know that word yet.

Chris McNutt 8:04

Yeah, and you've already hinted at this, but could you elaborate a little bit more on the counterpoint? [Which] would be that a lot of times entrepreneurship education gets a bad rap in one regard, because it is focused around making money. And a lot of times money can be a very corrupting force. Well, like almost all the time. What would you say to people that are looking at a book about teenage entrepreneurship, and they're saying [that] you're basically going to train kids to be Donald Trump, you're going to train them to be a money seeking sleazeball.

Kenrya Rankin 8:46

I would say that they haven't actually read Start It Up, because while I think that there are a lot of books that are super focused on the money aspect of it, it really is about connecting with your passion and about how you use that to make the world better. Look, capitalism sucks - we all know that, we're living in it. But as I said earlier, we do have to unfortunately. This is the system that we live in, we do not barter services and we do not live in a utopia where we get some use our talents to directly impact folks who we live in close connection with. And so you do have to be able to make money, but my goal is not so much to teach kids how to make money as to connect with what it is that they love to do. And that's all I got.

Chris McNutt 9:37

I think that's perfect. I mean, that sells the book to me.

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Building into a grander scheme of questions... To be honest, before I read this book, I didn't know who you were. And then I Googled you and I was like, "wow, this is not what I expected." Your other work has absolutely really nothing to do with teenage entrepreneurship, you're the editor of Colorlines, you've co written or collected together this book, How We Fight White Supremacy, as well as many other works that I'll put in the show notes. I have to connect together the thoughts of your book with the rest of your background, things that you've written about. And the question that I pose to you is surrounding the education market. Sadly, when I think of entrepreneurship education, to be frank, I think of a bunch of old white guys talking to people about exactly what we were just talking about.

Kenrya Rankin 11:04

And then talking down to them about it.

Chris McNutt 11:07

Yeah! Those books tend to never get political. They never talk about anything that might prevent them from "selling a book." They're scared that if they say anything that might be out of line, that might be a bad thing. What are your thoughts in general about the current state of entrepreneurship education and the education market when it comes to professional development?

Kenrya Rankin 11:31

I think that at this point, any material that claims to promote innovation, but ignore the realities of how white supremacy, which is propped up by things like racism, and sexism, and homophobia, and transphobia, and ableism, and classism... when they ignore those things, I think those books are ineffective at best and dangerous at their worst. I wish I'd had a stronger lens when I wrote Start It Up in 2010. But I do think one thing that I did do very intentionally was include primarily entrepreneurs of color who are from various socio economic backgrounds. It was important to me that there be a lot of different representation, as I was saying earlier.

I think I can speak specifically to young people because that's the arena that I've worked in when it comes to this. Very often we underestimate what they can process and what they can apply, when it comes to topics that some adults label as "difficult", when, if we're being honest, those are just topics that they don't really want to have an honorable - honest, vulnerable conversation about because they don't want to be challenged. And they don't want to have to examine how their privilege bolsters them and their work. That's where those white men come in. But I think that we really need to have more than just the people who are at the top of the white supremacist hierarchy - and I'm talking wealthy, traditionally educated, white, straight, cis gender, Christian, able bodied men, out here doing the work of entrepreneurship education. Because at the point that you bring in folks who represent lots of different diverse backgrounds, that seeps in.

You were saying, you have to [think] what's the through line of my work? And the through line is that I'm a black woman. That is my lens on everything that I do. And while my politics have definitely come through stronger, I mean, I wrote a book for God's sake called How We Fight White Supremacy, that lens is always there. I think that's why it's important that they are not the only ones who are doing this work.

Chris McNutt 13:45

And speaking of How We Fight White Supremacy, something that you bring up multiple times is your work in schools as a parent, and advocating for anti bias training, bringing in that perspective. And full disclosure, I work in a fairly rural school, it's very difficult to bring up that conversation in that community. And I hate to say that, but it's true. Did you run into any issues when you're trying to bring in anti bias training as a parent, I'm suspecting that's a yes.

Kenrya Rankin 14:21


Chris McNutt 14:22

Do you have any suggestions for someone who really wants that, but they're really just not sure of the route of doing that?

Kenrya Rankin 14:31

Yeah. I mean, it's difficult because I don't think that there's one specific best course of action. One of the most important things that you have to consider when you're organizing is the way you are starting. What are the local conditions? The folks who want to do it, whether it be the entire administration or a couple of rogue teachers within the school? What's their true intention for doing this work? And who's in place and able to carry the burden? What privilege are they willing to give up or use in order to support the folks within their system who don't have it?

As you said, I have worked with educators. And what I have encountered in some places is that they say that they want to make their schools "welcoming", and I'm doing air quotes y'all, for folks of color, which doesn't really mean anything. But they thought that the one thing that they had to do was an anti bias training, and then that would be enough to move the needle. They didn't really give any thought to the values that they wanted to establish and then live into. They didn't create any guidelines for policy or for implementing that policy. They didn't do any evaluation of how they were recruiting and also treating their employees of color. There was no real willingness to do any work beyond saying, "Hey, y'all are welcome." So they weren't doing anything that really created an environment where children of color weren't forced to give up little pieces of themselves every day just to keep the peace.

And that in my case resulted in me moving my child to another school, because it was ultimately harmful for her. But that said, I think that many places and folks who want to do this kind of work within their schools, a good way to start is by investing resources and bringing in a third party organization to [come into] the environment where you work. And thinking that you can do a massive overhaul of an inherently racist institution, which in a lot of ways we know that education is an institution that is steeped in white supremacy and anti blackness in the same way that politics are, and entertainment is and all of these things. I think it's unviably often to think that we can do it from inside but bringing in a third party, which involves investing extra resources. But oftentimes, when we have to put our money into something, that's when we begin to take it seriously. It's not just a couple of folks having a meeting one day and saying, "okay, we want to make everyone feel welcome here", which is what I have experienced.

Chris McNutt 17:14

Yeah, yeah. And I like the idea to have local organization, as opposed to waiting for a nonprofit. In fact, one of your authors wrote about this in this book, her name is Bianca Xunise?

Kenrya Rankin 17:28

Yep. She's an artist.

Chris McNutt 17:30

I liked what she had to say surrounding this idea of local coalitions as opposed to donating to a nonprofit or waiting for the nonprofit to come in, because that's a really good point. I mean, if nonprofits were doing fantastic everywhere, we wouldn't have these problems. [They're] pervasive. I'm sure anyone listening to this would connect and relate, that's just the way things are. And it's going to rely on people taking the reins and going rogue, to use that terminology. It's true in order to make that happen.

Speaking of local organization, something that we talked a lot about on this podcast, is that it's one thing to say we can transform our classroom and be a more welcoming classroom and have an anti bias education, etc, etc., and all those things are really good things. But there are underlying inequities in the United States such as poverty, such as the community that one lives in, such as the money and how it's being distributed, those have a huge place inside the classroom that makes it very difficult to teach. Do you think that there's a place for educators to enter the space of public policy? And do you have any suggestions for educators who maybe are hesitant to take that step into the political arena, or to talk more openly about their beliefs on community activism?

Kenrya Rankin 18:54

There's room for educators in every space, we need you all. One thing that I think is really important, and Ella Baker, she was a black woman organizer who helped found SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, she always encouraged people to start fighting right where they are. And I think that's probably my best advice for folks. So you know, to run with that idea of poverty, I'm not an educator, but I do know that there are lots of times where it bears its head inside our schools, right? There's so many opportunities for us. As for folks who are educators to start their fight right there, more than 20% of our kids in the United States are living in poverty and another 20% are living at homes that are deemed low income.

What can you do about things like unpaid lunch debt in your district that aren't just that you've paid one debt? But what can you do to organize at-large across your district? How can you close the achievement gap between the haves and the have nots in your classroom? Do you have lesson plans that break down classism and food deserts and redlining? Do you keep snacks in an inconspicuous place for the kids who come to school who are too hungry to be able to concentrate? What programming can you implement that involves caregivers whose jobs are not flexible enough to let them be able to visit your classroom, but who wants to be involved in the education of their kids?

I think that there's often no need to reinvent the wheel. We're talking about local organizations - what's happening in your community? What organizations can you join forces with to address poverty in the populations that you're already working with? So jumping into the arena doesn't have to look like becoming a lobbyist and come into DC where I live, right? You can start right where you are. I sit on the board of this nonprofit called Parent Teacher Home Visits. The whole thing is that we send educators into the homes of their students to meet with their guardians, right where they are, form relationships, that better address the needs of their kids. And it's been proven to improve academic performance across the board. I think that we're doing ourselves a disservice if we underestimate the impact of partnering with like minded educators right there.

Chris McNutt 21:16

That nonprofit sounds really cool, even though we were just talking about the counterintuitive point, but it does sound really interesting. I like that idea.

Kenrya Rankin 21:24

Yeah. And it has local chapters. So you know, perhaps that is how someone could decide that they want to partner with Parent Teacher Home Visits, and bring that program into their district. And look, you've drawn on a pedagogy, that is larger but you're working with people who are right there where you are, to work with your direct population to address the impacts of poverty on your students.

Chris McNutt 21:50

The hardest question, at least for me to think about, is I'm reading through this book, and this conversation after maybe like, the first two questions becomes rather bleak. To be honest, a lot of this discussion is not a happy discussion. And going on social media, there's always a new media craze surrounding something that's really sad going on in the United States. These things are hard to address. What hopes do you have surrounding...? Do you see things approving on the horizon? Do you feel like people are starting to organize more? What keeps you going?

Kenrya Rankin 22:21

This may be surprising but I'm full of hope. As you mentioned, my latest book is called How We Fight White Supremacy, and it chronicles the ways that black people resist in the face of cultural, political and economic systems that thrive on the subjugation of people who are not white. That's how we define white supremacy. And it came out in March. Since then, I've been traveling, doing book talks, and meet and greets, and all that kind of stuff all over the country. The moments that really stick with me, after we've done the reading and talked about the big themes, and we're sitting at the table, my co author Akiva, Solomon and I, people come up to the table and they have their book and it's like dog eared, and they've, marked all over in sticky notes. And they're like, "this book really helped me figure out what I'm supposed to do. It helped me figure out what my purpose is." So I'm a bit of a crybaby, but I can't tell you how many times that has made me cry as I'm hugging a virtual stranger, but who doesn't feel like a stranger anymore, because they have read this book and felt a super duper connection with it.

One of the things that we wanted folks to feel or to do by the time that they finished the final chapter, which is about freedom dreaming, this idea of stepping outside of the confines that we find ourself in right now, in imagining what we want our society - a just society to actually look like. Because I think that very often we get bogged down in the reaction, right? So much of what we're doing is a reaction to the latest, crazy tweet, or the unhinged and dangerous violent policy. And when we get mired in that, it's hard for us to think about what we want this world to actually look like. That chapter asked people to just stop and close their eyes and envision what a society that does not have all of these things - and it actually looks like so that we're not putting ourselves at risk of perpetuating it, right? I just find so much joy, and so much hope. And the people who tell me that they figured out a way that they can join the millions of people who are collectively working to advance the fight against this system that really means to do us harm... That brings me joy, and hope.

Chris McNutt 25:09

Thank you again for listening to Things Fall Apart from the Human Restoration Project. I hope this conversation leaves you inspired and ready to push the progressive envelope of education. If you have time, I'd love for you to leave us a review on iTunes, social media or anywhere that you see fit. I mention iTunes specifically, because the more ratings we have there, the higher we rank on the education podcast list, and the more listeners we have, the better we're going to do. We can't do this without you. And I'm humbled by the opportunity to help broadcast this message to as many people as we possibly can. So let's push forward together and restore humanity.

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