Written by Joelle Adeleke
Valencia Hicks Harris, founder and executive director of Empower ALL Incorporated, a not-for-profit established in 2021.
The non-profit with the intention of eliminating cultural and implicit bias in educational spaces.
Valencia Harris, born and raised in Raleigh, had a far from linear path to get to where she is. Now, she is the creator of EmpowerALL, a program with a vision of eliminating cultural biases and highlighting mental health.
“My mother was an educator for 49 years before retiring when my son was born. And so I spent a lot of time after school, track out summers in my mother’s classroom,” Harris said. “And I actually vowed that I would never become an educator.”
She graduated UNCG with a bachelor’s degree in Public Relations Communications with the hopes of becoming a speechwriter. After graduating, she worked as a teacher’s assistant for her mother’s friend.
“But during that time, it was hard to find jobs. So I decided to go back to school,” Harris said. “So after leaving UNCG, I went to North Carolina Central University, to get a degree in Educational Leadership Research and Technology.”
She said that it was hard to get a job at that time. She decided to go back to school, this time at North Carolina Central studying Educational Leadership Research and Technology.
“But definitely, that’s when I started diving into how you can bring in the digital competency into core instruction,” Harris noted. “So really incorporating technology into the classroom.”
She completed her masters degree in elementary education at NC State, after transferring from Meredith.
After her first semester pursuing her doctorate in educational equity at NC State, Harris found the interests that led to the start of Empower ALL.
“And in that course, we did a lot of foundational texts where we read Paulo Freire, read Bell Hooks, read Hanneman, I mean, a lot of terminology came to fruition for me, that I was finally able to put a name to some of the things that I have experienced,” Harris said.
That’s when an idea sparked.
“So I called on some core friends and I said, ‘Hey, I have this idea of really wanting to go after educational equity in a way that empowers our youth that amplifies the voices of historically marginalized populations,’” Harris said.
Quickly, her friends were in.
They decided they wanted there to be focused on mental health, cultural affirmations, and Science, Engineering, Arts,Technology, and Math (STEAM).
“Let’s identify ways in which we, as a community organization, can help them to meet their goals that they’ve set ways that we can go in and bring some sunshine and some joy and recognition to our teachers who are truly skilled at crafting what they do every day, how can we support them in that,” Harris said.
She said that access is a huge priority in the program.
“So ultimately, when we talk about access, being able to pair up with students, being able to have those partnerships, those relationships with individuals that they can then have the courage to make mistakes, to improve, to continue into that cycle,” Harris said.
Harris ended up leaving the classroom to pursue EmpowerALL.
“Well, to be quite honest, leaving the classroom was the most difficult decision that I’ve ever made,” Harris said. “One because I didn’t want to let my students down. Because when I talk about Mom adopting those children as their own in the same way, I did, too.”
Harris said she wanted to shoutout Thomas MC Lauren and Roger Floyd, George Floyd’s uncle and first cousin, who were Empower ALL’s first partnership.
“And I recognize that a lot of people want to be a part of the Floyd family because of what has happened in the past, what has happened with the death of George Floyd, and really wanted to join forces but, ultimately, at the core he said ‘I recognize how authentic you are. I see your passion. I see your dedication. And I believe in you all,’” Harris said. “So that was our first huge success.”
Harris said that the greatest impact Empower ALL has had is when they allow youth opportunities to join conversations.
“So my junior board is–they’re fantastic and I already tear up when I see them getting ready to transition to their next step in life after completing high school,” Harris said. “But ultimately, everything that I do, every move that I make is thinking about our youth, and making sure that they recognize the importance and the value that they offer, recognizing the genius that is within them.”
To others hoping to venture into starting their own business, Harris said that they should do it.
“And I would say because again, going back to that gut feeling, if it is something that is burning inside of you, that is probably something that you should do,” Harris said.