Founder Focus is a “Humans of New York” style spotlight on the human stories behind diverse startup founders, their life experiences and perspectives, the origin stories of their startups, and the path they took to where they are today.
Hello everyone, I'm Jade. I run Cloudflare's startup program and welcome to another episode of Founder Focus where we shine the spotlight on startup founders and founders of other organizations all over the world.
Today our guest is Erica Buddington.
Hello. Hi, how are you? Thanks for coming on our show. Erica is the founder of Langston League.
So very briefly, could you tell us about Langston League and what it is and about the relaunch?
Yeah, so I am the CEO and founder of Langston League.
We are a multi -consultant curriculum firm. We specialize in designing culturally responsive and sustaining instructional materials and professional development.
We work with corporate clients, non-profit clients, in building out more culturally relevant materials for their students and sometimes for their staff.
And we also work with leaders and founders on how they can ensure that the development that they're enacting does not come from a place of generalization or minimizing as it relates to the people that they serve.
And so I spend a lot of time in archives and amongst webinars learning all sorts of new things where I can keep up to speed with how to take what we're doing to a digital platform because we're used to getting on the ground, immersing ourselves in the classrooms, in the schools, and the organizations that we work with.
And so this is a very different time for us, but we are super excited to continue our work.
And that's where we are.
Cool. So let's dig into that a little bit. I'd love for you to educate our audience a little bit about what are the problems in the educational curriculum as it applies to schools and also in a corporate environment that you are solving.
Right. So let me zoom in on a particular sector. So right now we are actually revising our entire Decolonize series.
And the series is three professional developments that happen with middle school and high school social studies teachers that, you know, walk through the materials and help to deconstruct a lot of the terminology.
And it also walks through different scenarios that educators might find themselves in and how the different lenses they should be using to modify those materials.
And so currently we're working with a school out in Long Island and the school came to us and said, you know, we are struggling to find materials that will work in our social studies classes that connects with the Black students that we serve.
And we asked, well, why is that? Right. And they said, well, we want to ensure that we are honoring the locale that students are able to venture out and, you know, embark on history trips here, but we don't have Black history here.
And that's really where our work starts. It starts in statements like that.
And so I had to sit down with this principal and have a conversation of how Blacks have resided in the Long Island, New York area since the 1600s when they came over as enslaved people with the Dutch and how what their progression has looked like as a segregated region over time.
And by the time we were finished even having our introductory conversation, the principal was like blown away as, you know, to how many connections were right in her backyard for the instructional material that she was delivering to students.
And so the first step is really understanding where the school that we're working with or the non-profit entity that we're working with, like, where are you when it comes to your social studies instruction?
And with that particular school, we realized we had a lot of work to do.
And so after that, we'll take their instructional materials and we will vet it to ensure there isn't any generalizing, minimizing, racist stereotypes, et cetera.
And then we have a conversation with the leaders, the students, the staff.
We have small focus groups. And from those focus groups, we build individualized social studies, professional development, where we are sitting with educators and helping them to modify their plans and helping them enact situations where they might come across a word or phrase or movement that isn't accurately represented in the materials that they've been given either by the state or by their particular school.
And so I'd like to give a solid example because when I say all the things that we do, folks are like, oh, that's a lot, right?
But one of our developments focuses on the social studies curriculum that happens in schools.
And I want to ensure that when teachers are teaching this, they're teaching it with as much accuracy as possible.
And so we're not going to say slaves.
We're going to say enslaved people. We're going to not just speak about the tribulations of Black people, but we're also going to speak about our triumphs.
Like, you know, speaking about how one of the first published authors comes from that particular Long Island region that this school is in.
And, you know, that was something that she, the principal at first said to me that that's not true.
It's Phyllis Wheatley. And I was like, absolutely not.
And so that's a historical inaccuracy that like immediately I said, oh, I can tell you someone who actually grew up a few blocks from here that was the first published Black author and connects to the seventh grade instructional material that you're delivering currently.
And so that looks, that is actually what's happening across the board.
There is, there are activists doing the work.
There are, you know, other entities like us, you know, consultants and firms doing the work.
There are schools that are doing the work. But the problem is that it's not happening across the board.
And honestly, while the intentionality for some folks is there, right, I can't wholeheartedly say that the sources that they're using to teach our children this history are accurate.
And so you'll find my team amongst the archives, you'll find us in, you know, cemeteries, you'll find us in museums, you'll find us in everywhere, just trying to source first -person narratives, clippings, images that students can rely on rather than the materials that have been summarized and are often inaccurate.
So yeah, across the board, across our nation, there's a dual instruction happening.
And so you have, you know, that these materials that have, up until 2016, there's a textbook company that, you know, still referred to enslaved people, hostages really, as immigrants, right?
And so we have to think about that's four years ago. A lot of those textbooks are in use.
And there are thousands, if not, you know, more than that, of schools using these textbooks and giving this language to children.
And so while, you know, many people are doing the work, there are many people that aren't.
There are many people that are struggling.
There are many people that don't have the framework in which to enact this work.
And so that is our particular focus at this time.
That's great. So let's say someone in the audience is a parent or has family who are in education.
What do they tell their principal in order to get a meeting with you?
Right. So first of all, parents can reach out to me anytime. Like, there's literally a link on my Instagram.
You click the link and there's like a consultation for parents that can call me and ask, you know, what is that, how do I advocate for my child or for the entire school to have this experience or for the educators to receive this professional development?
And I have conversations like that every single day.
But if a parent wants to take it, you know, take that straight to their principal or the board that they're a part of, they can find the materials on our website.
We had a parent recently in Brooklyn package everything on our website, brought it to the meeting, and she actually called us up and was like, hey, can you record like a 10-minute introduction to what you do so that I can play it at the school?
We're like, actually, that's just a good idea, something for us to have on hand, this new environment.
And so we did that and sent it over and the principal emailed us the next day and was like, okay, I'm ready.
And so that's what parents can do.
They can just talk directly to us and we can help them to form the pitch to their leaders.
But really and truly, I want to see parents just doing it on their own because your leaders, the leaders of your school are there to support you and your children and your community, right?
And so you, like, your voice is the biggest voice, to be quite honest, and the children, right?
And so I never want parents to feel like I need to go through all these different protocols.
Speak to your principal, give them the website link, give them the material that tells them exactly what we do, and come with the data.
Like, a lot of parents will show up with their children's homework or things that, you know, conversations that their students have had.
We see it in the news right now.
It's like, no, well, not right now, but like, it's still happening. There are all of these headlines that say, teacher enacts slavery lesson, teacher enacts civil rights lesson, and they use some sort of play or role play that is not inappropriate.
It's extremely racist, and that's the evidence that parents can just bring to the table.
And sometimes it's not even that extreme. Sometimes it is a worksheet that a child brings home, a story that a child brings home that minimizes our experience, that minimizes our triumph and our tribulation.
And so parents, I always tell them, arrive with this because it's not just, I feel this way.
It's, I have evidence that you're not doing this in the way that it should be done, and I would like to start here.
So that's how they can advocate. Can we also zoom in a little bit on, you said you also do work with corporate clients.
Can you tell us a bit about that?
Right, so we have quite a few corporate clients. We once worked on a, trying to think of a few people, right, so we do Black History Box, but because of them we can, and so we're responsible for designing their newsletter, the instructional material that comes along with the box of products, really cool products.
We're celebrating Black History every day. We've worked with clients in the tech arena, so you have TechSpark in Toronto, Canada.
You have, we've also worked with Google Code Next in building out instructional material to assist with their pipeline program.
We have a program for students who are interested in everything from U.S.
design, to coding, to robotics, and more. Students are in the 9th and 10th grade and eventually receive an internship, and so we were helping to hone that and make that more culturally relevant.
And some of our corporate clients are in, I can't say names, but like we've had sports teams and, you know, accounting firms reach out to us because they want to have development on, you know, and I don't want to say this because we don't do, like, I think that, let me, let me preface with this, everyone's been reaching out like, we need anti-racist training.
Can you create one for us? Everything we do is inherently anti-racist, and so when people come to me with that, I say, here's what we do offer, and if you would love a history lesson and you want to immerse yourself in the context of the place you are serving, we can assist with that.
However, there are other activists that have dedicated their lives to that particular training and don't see it as a trend or a book club or something could be to just put down, and we like to honor them and we'll pass along their names.
But yeah, that is what our corporate clientele looks like.
Products. That's great. Let's see, so 2020 has been a rather interesting year in a lot of ways.
Could you tell me about the adjustments that you personally have made, or as an organization, how the landscape has changed around you, and how 2020 has been different for you?
Right, so I live in New York.
We were initially the epicenter of the coronavirus, and I caught COVID, so did many members of my family.
We were blessed enough not to lose anyone, but it was a very scary time.
Some of us ended up in the hospital, and so the first step in moving forward with Langston League was this piece around, how do we continue to do this work while in this environment?
Because at the end of the day, many of the students that are going to be back in school, whether that's in a virtual space or in person, and that's one of the problems we're having right now, is that conversation.
We need to be able to have the conversations around race. We need to be able to have the conversations about accurate history.
We need to be able to have the conversations about community, and so how do we prepare while also taking care of ourselves, while also meeting the demands of having to do this on a digital platform?
And so what 2020 has looked like is, we are literally taking all of our materials and moving it into a digital space where folks can enact with our work.
They can enact with different elements, so we even have a professional development component that's going to pop up on Microsoft Flipgrid on August 5th, and some of our clients that we work with, who were supposed to have an in-person professional development, are now working with us to have it via Google Meet or Zoom, etc., and so that's been one aspect.
The other aspect of it has been just advocating for many of the parents and communities that we're already tied to, because we have clients there, and so families have been reaching out to us about what other options they may have if their school district is requiring their children to go back to school, and so we've been helping to consult in that regard, and we've also had this other through-line happening of just self-care, and so, you know, just ensuring that I'm checking in with Lengths the League and the consultants that work with us at all times, taking in their particular context, and understanding that the timeline that we usually, the pace that we usually move in, is not going to be the same, and I want to honor that, and I ensure that our clients know that we're honoring that too, so 2020 has been pretty insane for all of us, and I'm actually working on not using that word anymore, but, like, we've been inundated, and, like, it's been an interesting year, but we're getting there.
Sure. I'm really curious if the students are having discussions, contextualizing some of the protests all around the country, and what that's been like since, you know, it's years since I've been out of school and haven't seen what student discussions are like anymore.
Right, so absolutely, students are having these conversations left and right, and it's why it's important for us, so let me give you a little bit of context of how this even started for me.
When the Trayvon Martin verdict was passed, I was in my last year of college, and I remember, you know, it actually, when the incident happened, I was in my last year of college, and I remember just, you know, all of my fellow students, I was going to a historically Black university, we all, like, left our apartments and just went to have discussions and reflections about what we can do and what the next steps were, and then when the verdict was passed, I was in an organization in Harlem, and I remember it was two in the morning, I was working all day, I didn't even hear it, and someone called and was like, hey, did you hear?
And I was still working, I was like, oh my god, this is crazy, like, you know, what are the next steps?
And I was literally working on a history lesson for students that was going to be in multiple classrooms in this organization, and I said, I called my boss and I said, I know it's two in the morning, and I know you think I'm crazy, like, but what I would like to do in this moment is I would like to rewrite everything we're doing for the next week, because our children need to understand where we are right now and how we got here.
And, yeah, so I'm seeing that, that's been my work ever since, but now I'm seeing that come from my students, right, and so, and my former students, so I'm getting a lot of phone calls when, you know, the George Floyd, George Floyd happened, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, right, every single time that we have another Black person, Indigenous person, Brown person murdered by police, my children, my former students reach out to me and say, Ms.
Buddington, here's what I'm doing, I need you to vet this plan for me, just to ensure that it's going to serve my school in talking about this, just to ensure that it's going to serve my community.
We have students that are creating Instagrams to talk about their particular issues at their schools, and so there are like several Instagrams that highlight the incidents happening at charter schools, at public schools, at private schools, and you know, institutions where they're being told to be quiet and let it go, or where they're being told they can't have these conversations, and so 10 years ago, right, I was writing the plans, I was making the calls at two in the morning, right now I'm getting my marching orders from the kids, right, they're calling me like, this is what you need to do, this is what we're going to do, and we just need to ensure that you help us out with the resources, but we got this, and I love that it's that way.
It must be very motivating to see all the, see how engaged they become with making a difference.
I think this is a good segue into shining a spotlight on you and yourself in your own story, leading up to this point.
Can you tell me a little bit about how you, what led you to begin your work on Langston League, and also about your experiences growing up, and how they have led you down your path?
Right, so I was in college, and I was performing spoken word, and I was rapping, and that is pretty much how I paid part of my tuition, and you know, ensured that I had all the books I needed, and also just the way that I expressed myself, and I remember I was performing an event, and a judge approached me, and she said, I love what you're doing, and I think you should be doing it in the classroom, and I said, me?
She's like, yeah, and at that time, I was going to write the great American novel, I still am, but you know, I said, no, I'm going to be a writer, I don't know, you know, what you're talking about.
She's like, no, you belong in the classroom, and so I ended up working for two programs.
One of the programs, you know, was with working with students, particularly girls, transitioning out of juvenile detention centers, group homes, and other, you know, spaces that really we need to not reimagine, but eradicate, and you know, I remember just being in love with that first class.
Like, I came with this piece I was really excited about, this prompt, this activity that I wanted them to do, and about 15 minutes in, I was like, oh, I'm never leaving.
Like, this is where I want to be, and so, yeah, that was my first experience, and then it just, from there, it just took off, and so working in Harlem, and you know, working right next to Langston Hughes House gave me the inspiration for Langston League, and not seeing our children reflected in the instructional material, but also seeing their history inaccurately represented.
A lot of the mandates and, you know, protocols that were enacted in the schools were inherently racist, and I was just like, okay, what are we going to do about this?
And so, first, Langston League was supposed to be like an after -school program, and then that, you know, spiraled into, okay, we design really great instructional materials, let's do that.
That spiraled into professional development, and we just finished the fellowship to open our first school, so we're working on that as well, right?
So we are really about education reform, but if I could be quite honest, like, we're trying to be on this, we are, we're on the side of abolition, and eradicating this construct of schooling, and showing students that education is everywhere, and so that's how it began, and that's where we are now, and the relaunch of what it's going to look like.
There are many elements, the first element is out, it's called Decolonize, a Black history series for middle school students, and we have a partnership with Microsoft Flipgrid, so we have more episodes releasing on August 5th, and going forward, Microsoft will have a ton of videos coming out, but we are actually working on a professional development series, it's a little bit fun, I'm not going to say what it is, I'm it's going to drop in a week, and then we're also working on two other series, with two other networks about Black history, so we had to relaunch everything, because where we were five years ago, is not where we are now.
Yeah, I mean, it's great to shift with whatever the, shift with what it is that the audience, and the, what the audience wants from you, which is more Black history.
Exactly. So, you mentioned putting yourself through college by competing in poetry slams, could you tell us what that was like, especially HBO's Death Poetry, but first, like, what is a competitive poetry slam, and like, how does it work?
Right, poetry slam is just a competition where poets go toe-to-toe with three-minute poems, usually it's about three minutes and 30 seconds, and you have judges, and so those judges can be sourced from the crowd, they can be formal judges that, you know, the organization has brought in, and really though, it's not about the points, it's about the poetry, but slam is a great way to compete and keep yourself sharp, and so, I was in high school, and I realized, you know, my poems were, I hate to brag on myself, but they were top notch, and I said to myself, you know, what's the next level?
Like, I'm in the journals, I'm reading at libraries, at open mics, like, this is great, but like, what's the next level?
And then I came across an organization called Urban Word NYC, and some Urban Word NYC alumni are like people that you, you will know just by hearing their names, so like Elizabeth Acevedo, who is a National Book Award winner, she's written The Poet X, Clap When You Land, you have Carla Lussant, who is this amazing writer, also one of the main actors in Hamilton, you know, many of us, Aja Monet, who's this like prolific poet, there are so many of us that ended up becoming, you know, artists, or actors, writers, and you know, we're out here just changing the world, and so Urban Word changed my world by introducing me to slam, I remember competing every weekend, flying to California, winning Brave New Voices slam champion with my New York team, and then making my way back in my first year of college, we got a phone call from Russell Simmons, HBO Deaf Poetry, and they said to us like, hey, we'd love to see you on our stage, and they flew us out, and we performed, and so that was 2007, I believe, yeah, so, you know, I spent the rest of my days after that just packing Norton Anthologies in my suitcase, on a Friday, flying out, performing in somebody's city, somebody's university, on the weekend, and making my way back home, and you know, if that weekend, my parents were helping with my tuition, I was also doing, you know, paying for my tuition, but that weekend, like, I didn't have any help, and I needed some money, and there was a slam happening, I was going to go win it, so that's really how, you know, I kept myself afloat during college, yeah.
That's very admirable and adventurous. Let's see, you mentioned, before we went live on the air, you mentioned a recent history trip that you had taken in the surrounding area, and and also anthologizing more of the local history in Brooklyn, can you tell me more about that, and the ongoing work?
Yeah, so this past week, I made my way to Greenwood Cemetery. Greenwood Cemetery is in Brooklyn, and it is, I know that, like, most people don't really hear this with cemetery, but it's beautiful, one of the most beautiful places ever, and honestly, in the 1800s, it was on par with some of the tourist attractions, like Niagara Falls, like, if you saw a list of all of the tourist attractions in the 1800s, Greenwood Cemetery was one of the people, one of the places there, and so, you know, the United States went through this movement of wanting to have what they called rural cemeteries, and so initially, there were cemetery lots in churches, and, you know, folks buried people at home or amongst their small villages, but then, if you went to European countries, you would see these, like, rolling hillsides and, like, ornate depictions of, if I come to visit my loved one who is a permanent resident here, right, I should feel like I am amongst the heavens with them.
That was kind of the sentiment that they had, and so Greenwood is a product of that sentiment, but Greenwood has its own archive, historians, and they have a lot of history there.
There are 500,000 bodies interred in Greenwood.
They actually don't really have that much space anymore. I don't think you can be buried there unless it's, like, a special approval these days, but they do have some secrets, too, so very recently, a few years ago, they found out that they had colored lots, and these are lots that were designated for Black people in particular, and some of our most prominent people were buried there, and so New York State's first Black doctor, Black woman doctor, you know, she's a resident of Wheatsville.
She's buried there. There was a teacher from the Colored Orphan Asylum that was once on 42nd and 5th and connected to, you know, another one on Dean and Troy in Brooklyn, and, you know, many other prominent and just, you know, amazing Black residents of Brooklyn, and so very recently, they discovered that this area was designated for Black people, and the cemetery was, in fact, segregated at one time, and it was mind-blowing for them, but not mind-blowing for me, because I've been tracking trends like this across the nation, and so I needed to see for myself.
There wasn't that much information about it online because it's a very recent discovery, something that's still happening.
They renamed these lots the Freedom Lots, and so I made my way there just to ensure that I could see all of the graves, to make sure the dates were correct, and to ensure that, like, the stories that I'm reading online align with, you know, the story that the cemetery plots tell, and sometimes they're misaligned, sometimes they're not, right, and that's really what I'm looking for, is the inconsistency, because you'll come across something in a summarized, you know, encyclopedia page, and then you'll go to the actual place, and you're like, wait a minute, that's not when this person was born, or, you know, wait a minute, that's not where they said this person was buried, and so I need to see it live, right, and I had another trip to a church in St.
George's Church. It was built in 1730s, I believe, and I made my way there this week as well to confirm some of the research that is connected to Greenwood Cemetery as well.
So, I mean, I'm not going to get into it because I'm going to eventually have decolonized episodes on this and, like, post threads about them, but this is what you'll find me doing.
I'll be reading, I'll come across something, and I'll say, I cannot find any information on it, and, like, I'll find an address, and I'm going to that address, and I'm going to have a conversation with everybody.
Oh, you own this house? Okay, so who owned it before you, and who owned it before that, right?
And so, yeah, that's how I get a lot of my information. So, we have two minutes left, and in our, or one minute left, and in our last minute, I would love to for, I would love to ask you if there's a book or film recommendation, or any other medium that you could recommend to the audience, something that you enjoyed recently or just an all-time favorite.
So, an all-time favorite, everybody should read Isabel Wilkerson's Warmth Above Their Suns.
It's a, you know, a huge epic about the Great Migration, and she talks about the nuance of Renaissance and migration as it relates to Black people, and it is just the most incredible read everyone should read that book.
And if you're watching TV right now, you're quarantining, you should be watching Michaela Coel's I May Destroy You on HBO.
Her writing is phenomenal. Is that a movie or a show? It's a show, it's a show, and it was supposed to be on Netflix, and she fought for the creative rights to, you know, do what she wanted to do and own, and ownership, and she made her way to HBO instead.
And just read everything, like watch the show, read the interviews, it is, it's an amazing, just package everything.
It's amazing. All right, thank you.