“While my last name may have protected me in the neighborhood, it also followed me into the classroom. One adult at school might turn to another and say, ‘She’s a Merriweather’,” Denisha Allen recalled in a biographical sketch. Allen’s Merriweather relatives were famous for street brawls, not academic achievements.
“The name seemed to justify my behavior and hold me to a stereotype,” she continued. “Many teachers on the Eastside [of Jacksonville, Fla.] had been around a long time. I guess some of them assumed I was destined to drop out of school as a teenager, like my mom and her brother.”
For a while, Denisha Allen, whose mother was an unmarried teenager when Denisha was born, did indeed appear to be following in the Merriweather footsteps. She failed third grade—not once but twice. Going to school was a trial. “The earliest memory I have of school was in the second grade,” Denisha recalled. “I remember being puzzled and angry because I didn’t understand the lessons being taught. I remember wanting to ask my teacher to repeat herself, but I got the sense that she didn’t want to help me understand. I feared being ridiculed by the other students. My classmates were very critical. I did my best to just fit in.”
In the sixth grade, Denisha experienced stability for the first time in her life. She went to live with her godmother and they moved into Habitat for Humanity housing. Her godmother, a beloved member of her community, also applied for a Step Up for Students Scholarship, so that Denisha could enroll in Esprit de Corps Center for Learning, a small, private school in Jacksonville, Florida. This is what set Allen on the path to becoming a senior fellow at the American Federation for Children, which advocates for school choice, and founder of an AFC project called Black Minds Matter. The project is “committed to ensuring every black student has access to a high-quality education of their parent’s choice.”
Allen founded Black Minds Matter in 2020, the year of civil unrest related to the murder of George Floyd and the ascendancy of the Black Lives Matter organization and slogan. Denisha recognized that that moment, and that slogan, was an opportunity, “to bring attention to the inequities in the education system that eerily resemble the institutional injustices of our criminal justice system. For black lives to matter, black minds must matter.
“Black Minds Matter is obviously a play on Black Lives Matter,” Allen continues, “because if black life is going to matter, the black mind must matter equally. You can’t divorce one from the other. If you’re going to represent people, you need to represent what they actually want. I don’t believe Black Lives Matters is supporting what black parents want in education. That’s concerning. It would be similar to the Independent Women’s Forum saying that we’re not going to support something the women who are our constituents want. And that’s how I feel about BLM.”
Denisha’s powerful commitment to school choice comes from her first-hand knowledge of how dramatically it can transform young lives. “When I got that Step Up for Students scholarship,” Denisha recalls in an interview with IWF, “that’s when everything changed. Like that school was complete night and day. It was such a joy to be a part of my new school.
“Of course, I didn’t realize it at first, because when I first walked through the doors, I still had my guard up. I still was ready to fight. I was prepared to be disrespectful to my teachers. I was in in-school suspension for the first two months. At first, I wasn’t used to the environment at my new school. The teachers greeted us and smiled every single day till the day I graduated from high school. And it was a place of joy. The model at that school was that learning is a joy, excellence is the norm, and superiority is our goal. And I can honestly say that every single day that that was what they instilled in us. We were going to do everything with excellence and that was a complete 180-degree turn from what had happened at my other schools. I’d gone to school with my pajamas on before because I didn’t care. At this new school, we had a uniform from the top of our head to the bottom of our feet.”
“I went from making Ds and Fs to making As and Bs the first nine weeks and becoming the first in my family to graduate from high school, from undergrad, and I went on to earn my master’s degree. And that’s the power of school choice. I take that message with me everywhere.”
While Denisha was still in high school, she came to the attention of veteran school choice advocate and future Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. The Florida School Boards Association and the state’s teachers’ unions had filed suit to put an end to the very scholarship program that Denisha credits with putting her life on a new and productive path. Denisha, then age 16, defended the program publicly and in 2014 authored a Wall Street Journal op-ed on what it had meant for her. “At Esprit de Corps,” she wrote, “making honor roll is expected and academic success is celebrated. This environment was very different for me. But something clicked. My grades and self-confidence rose. I believed I could succeed and people there believed the same. Learning was no longer a nightmare, but a gift I greatly appreciated. I worked hard. In the end, I graduated with honors.”
When DeVos was tapped for Education Secretary, she offered Denisha a job. Allen served as School Choice and Youth Liaison to the Secretary of Education at the U.S. Department of Education. Denisha already had received a master’s degree in social work from the University of South Florida and a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary social science. “I was very fortunate to be among the folks who worked at the department who traveled around the country and talked about school choice and networked with people,” says Allen. Denisha’s scrapbook includes a picture of her and her godmother, now dead, posing proudly with Secretary DeVos.
Allen joined the American Federation for Children after serving at the Department of Education. She started Black Minds Matter in response to the 2020 riots. “The entire country, and quite frankly, the world was in civil unrest after the murder of George Floyd,” Allen recalls. “Every company and politician was looking at their system and trying to figure out how they could be more just. If a system was judged to be racist, there were performative and theatrical solutions. They changed the name of Aunt Jemima Pancakes, for example. This was supposed to help give African-Americans equal opportunities. Like are you kidding?
“But the one system that people weren’t talking about was education and that’s sad because we don’t have only some theatrical solution to fixing education. We have a tangible solution, a feasible alternative, and that’s school choice. Eighty-five percent of black kids in this country are functionally illiterate, and eighty-three percent are not doing math on grade level.
“Black Minds Matter is obviously a play on Black Lives Matter,” Allen continues, “because if black life is going to matter, the black mind must matter equally. You can’t divorce one from the other.”
“And when I think about my personal story, and then I look at my community and African-American students across this country writ large, I know that there needs to be a focus on education, there needs to be a focus on providing alternative options because the district schools aren’t doing it. I looked around, and no one was talking about this. One of the first things I did was write an op-ed, and that got published and was called Black Minds Matter. And then we built out this idea, and now we have a movement promoting school choice, education freedom, and connecting with black education entrepreneurs, people who have started their own schools, and are just doing a fantastic job of providing options for students. We want to continue to be the voice. When people in this country say they want to talk about education in the black community, we are that voice. Black Minds Matter is the go-to organization for this. Our goal is to promote school choice in the black community.”
As part of the program of promoting school choice in the black community, Black Minds Matter publishes a “black-owned schools directory.” Currently, there are nearly four hundred schools on the list, with a link to the website included for each school. “Our communications initiative is to publicize the concept of school choice to black families,” Allen says. “And yeah, we have a catchy name. We want to celebrate legislators who support school choice and spotlight and share the stories of black school founders in order to change the narrative around school choice.
“There is a big disconnect between what black voters want and what Democratic elected officials who are elected by the black voters are actually doing for their constituents,” Allen continues. “We know based on a national poll that seventy-five percent of black people want school choice. They want more freedom for their kids to go to whichever school that best meets their needs. That message resonates and that’s something that they want, unfortunately, the Democratic Party, which is mostly made up of minorities, is not supporting bills that expand school choice in the states.
“Of course, we have some fantastic Democrats across the country who are standing up to their party and supporting education freedom. But that’s not the case writ large. And the reason why that is the teacher unions. The teacher unions are the major funder of the Democratic Party. The teacher unions oppose school choice because it is a direct threat to their bottom line, and they do not want a system where parents are able to freely take their tax dollars to the school that best meets their needs. They’d rather kids stay trapped in failing schools based on their zip code. And so that’s the big problem with what we have now. Education should not be political, but unfortunately, it is. And that’s why we exist. AFC is a single-issue organization. We support candidates who support school choice and who want to see it expanded.”
The American Federation for Children supports education dollars following children, which can happen in several ways, including vouchers, education savings accounts (ESAs), or the kind of tax credits scholarships that turned around Denisha Allen’s life. Denisha is married to Rinaldo Allen, who works at a government contracting firm that sells fiber optic cables for aerospace. They have a son Josiah, who is one, and another reason to support school choice.
“I take the message of what school choice can do with me everywhere,” Denisha says, “because not only did it change my life, but I look at my sisters and brothers, my biological siblings who didn’t have the same opportunity that I had, and their life story is not the same as mine. Their stories are completely different. And that hurts me and that’s what gives me fuel to make sure that every kid has the opportunity to thrive in school.” Denisha’s powerful example—and her powerful work as an advocate—is sure to be one reason why education freedom policies are spreading, and will continue to spread, across the country.