A national organization that works to raise the quality of schools for students of color and from low-income families has hired a champion for education equity as Tennessee’s first director.

Gini Pupo-Walker, who founded the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition and is a school board member in Nashville, has joined The Education Trust as its first full-time staff member in Tennessee.

“Gini can now focus on education equity statewide and will be able to support organizations that are part of Tennessee’s coalition with research, policy, analysis, and organizing capacity,” said John King, president and CEO of Ed Trust.

A former public school teacher, Pupo-Walker has worked in education for more than 20 years, most recently as senior director of education and programs for Conexión Américas, advocating for Nashville’s growing Latino community. In 2016, she founded the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition, a statewide network that has grown to more than 50 civil rights and advocacy groups. Two years later, she was elected to the school board for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. 

Pupo-Walker becomes the third state director for Ed Trust, which has directors in Massachusetts and Louisiana and regional offices in California, Michigan, and New York. Launched in 1996 with a federal focus, the organization shifted to state-level advocacy when a 2015 federal law gave states more authority on education policy.

“The new reality is that most of the progress that’s going to be made for students of color and students who live in poverty is going to be made at the state level,” said Pupo-Walker. “And I would say that’s doubly true in the South, where the outcomes, mobility rates, and trajectory is more grim for those students than in any other part of the country. I hope we can get to become a model for how great advocacy can make changes in the South.”

Her work will highlight accountability-related issues like testing, school ratings, and school improvement work, as well as getting more high-quality teachers in front of the students who need them the most and increasing the number of teachers of color.

“We’re also ready to bite off some big issues like funding and the state’s BEP [school funding formula] — things that we’ve been stuck on for a long time. We’re not afraid to call those out and be a catalyst for starting hard conversations,” Pupo-Walker told Chalkbeat.

King became acquainted with Pupo-Walker and the coalition when he came to Nashville in 2016 as U.S. secretary of education under President Barack Obama. He met with coalition members about the approaching implementation of the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

“They were the most informed coalition of state-level advocates that I met with during that period, with a detailed understanding of ESSA, the ed policy landscape, data on performance, and where opportunity gaps were,” said King, who joined The Education Trust after Obama left office. 

Ed Trust has since provided training on advocacy to coalition members in Tennessee. 

“This organization has great resources, research, tools, and best practices,” said Cardell Orrin, who attended one of the trainings as executive director of Stand for Children in Memphis, a coalition member. “Gini is the perfect person for this position with Ed Trust. There’s a great need to focus on equity in policy across the state, and she’s demonstrated the ability to galvanize people into a coalition that is recognized nationwide.”

Pupo-Walker’s work is being funded by the Kellogg Foundation. K-12 education will be the first priority, she said, expanding later to higher education.