School leaders operate at the center of a series of communities, liaising with students, caregivers, teachers, and staff in and around school, and also with district and state officials. They’re also immersed in their local and regional communities. All of those groups have resources that could be invaluable to schools, but that often go untapped.
When leaders do seek out those resources, however, they can work intentionally to build relationships with community members who become mentors, parents who become advocates.
Baruti Kafele—better known as Principal Kafele, renowned speaker, author, and host of the AP & New Principals Academy YouTube Channel—is a former principal and current school leadership consultant who has gained national recognition for his work on equity-centered practices and school turnarounds. He is adept at community-building and guides school leaders to use strategies for forming coalitions that support youth development, empowerment, and learning. I talked to Kafele to learn about his collectivist approach to school leadership.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
BRITTANY COLLINS: Can you tell me a little about your approach to building school-community connections?
BARUTI KAFELE: You’ve got to forge alliances with community members who are not affiliated with the school. Community is important. And that means that when there are events in the community, you’re there, you’re visible—and not just when your students are performing. There’s a community meeting, something’s going on in the community—just show up.
Show that community, “I’m with y’all.” Some of us in these positions, at the end of the day, go home, but this is not just a 9-to-5, and the work is not just in the building.
Show up at the City Council meeting. They’ll see who you are. The mayor will see that you see fit to attend and will think, “I need to get to know you.”
You may find that there are volunteers who want to come to your school and work with your students as mentors, or provide presentations. But first, you gotta be in those spaces.
You hear about the need, the urgency to support Black-owned businesses. We’ve got Black-owned restaurants in my city and in Newark, where I was working. I’d pile up a bunch of kids in my truck—they’d see 15 kids coming into the restaurant, and I’m paying for all of them, and it’s a Black-owned business. That speaks volumes.
COLLINS: How did you foster a strong sense of community at your schools?
KAFELE: It starts with the way students enter the building. I was an urban principal, and most urban schools have metal detectors and security officers, and that’s the first thing students see. That’s not gonna work with me. I’d position myself outside, greeting them as they came in and shaking hands or giving a one-arm hug, calling them by their name, having whatever conversation I want to have with them. I’m shaping the culture of the school before they walk into the building. There’s no team that walks onto the field without the head coach having the final say. Lay a foundation; set a tone.
I also shared the morning message. Announcements are often led by students, and if the leadership voice does come on, it’s some cliché message. I know my population, I know what they need to hear. Let me give them that thunder and lightning so they say, “This man that I look up to said something that resonates with me despite what I’m up against.”
COLLINS: How did you involve teachers in this type of community-building?
KAFELE: You’ve got to be able to lead the effort in creating a culture in the building that allows you to empower others. Every school in America has aspiring administrators in classrooms, teaching. They’re there, and they want to grow and learn. Find who they are. Tap into that—find out what their strengths and weaknesses are, how you can utilize their service and create synergy.
Sometimes a principal will say, “We have disciplinary issues.” That’s because the culture is so toxic. Culture is saying, “Give me some attention. You’re giving the detention and suspension attention, give me love.” That’s the culture talking.
My schools have always been low-performing when I walked in. They were accustomed to low performance. That was part of the environment they were working in; it’s not a part of who they were. Here comes this guy—me—saying, “We can dream big. Imagine the impossible.” I’m selling that. I want them to taste success, develop a habit for success.
COLLINS: What would you say to leaders burdened by systemic barriers to that success?
KAFELE: You may be new to leadership, but you were in the classroom at some point, or you were a counselor at some point. You knew this system was flawed, because it is. But you made a conscious decision. No superintendent came and said, “I don't care what you say. I'm taking you out of the classroom, and you're going to lead this school.” You went to grad school, you paid money. You applied, and you interviewed. You knew the system.
So I say to leaders: “Don’t lose sight of what you already knew. Let’s go back to why you decided, knowing that this system is flawed, to go into leadership. You said, ‘Because if I get in there, because of what I know about me, about my skill set, I’m going to effectuate change.’”
I’ve yet to meet a leader that disagrees.
I’m from a city that, when I was coming up, was 100 percent Black. I went back to my home. I said, “I want to make that impact right here.” I wanted to be in that environment. I saw what was happening with Black kids. I spent five years in high school, and I graduated with a 1.5—I’m one of them. So I went right back to the place that created that five-year high school student—who graduated summa cum laude from college, by the way, so obviously it was in him, but there was nothing to bring it out. I wanted to prove to these young people: What was in me is in you.
But there’s this system. OK, I’m going to learn this system through my leadership lens, because I know it from the teacher lens. I’m going to learn how to navigate it, how to operate with different people I don’t agree with. I’m going to learn how to navigate working with them.
COLLINS: How do you do that?
KAFELE: When I was 23, I took my girlfriend—now my wife of 34 years—to see Luther Vandross. He told 20,000 people in Madison Square Garden, “I’m gonna take my time singing these love songs.”
I was able to apply that to school leadership. I’ve got people in the building who are not getting the work done—let me take my time and go to this underperforming, ineffective teacher’s classroom during a prep and forge a relationship. Let’s have a three-minute conversation about something that has nothing to do with school, maybe something that I noted: This person likes sports or the entertainment world. I’m creating a bond, some trust.
The following day, the third day, I’m coming back. The teacher’s feeling pretty good about me, because we’re not talking about anything professional yet. By the fourth or fifth day, I’m going to delicately, sensitively ease into what I need to talk about, because now we have trust.
It’s creating a culture where everyone wants to be there. It’s “I’m going to take my time singing these love songs” as opposed to trying to win a quick friend overnight. Let me put my time in and nurture this thing until we get some consistency. That’s powerful—that’s very powerful.