Alisha Thomas Morgan on Running for Office at 22, the NAACP and Sundays With the Real Housewives

At 23 years old Alisha Thomas Morgan became the first African-American to represent Cobb County in the Georgia House of Representatives. During her 12 years of service,  as a legislator and mom, Morgan championed the expansion of school choice options for Georgia parents. In 2015, Morgan became executive director/superintendent of Ivy Preparatory Academies, an all-girls charter network servicing metro Atlanta and is part of the second class of Future Chiefs with Chiefs for Change.

What gets you going in the morning? Coffee? Tea? Morning run or yoga?

When I am treating my mind and body right, listening to an inspirational podcast while jogging either on the treadmill or outside in the mornings gets me going. It’s sometimes a struggle, but it really does set me on a better path for the day to eat better, maintain a positive attitude and get in the shape I want.

You were elected to the Georgia House of Representatives at the age of 23 and served 12 years in the legislature where you sat on the education committee. I don’t know many 22-year-olds that are passionate about K-12—well, until they have children of their own. Why education?

I started my activism with the NAACP at 14, so I had early exposure to social justice and criminal justice issues that impacted young people. When I was in high school in Miami, I tried to start an African-American heritage club and my principal was opposed to it. I ended up going to the school board meeting to request the club to be started and it got denied. They did start a heritage club a year after I graduated.

I was also 21 when I bought my first house. As a taxpayer, I started going to community meetings, and education was by far the biggest topic. So that helped me become more in tune to what the issues in the community were and how I needed to use my voice.

I’ve been advocating for kids all my life and now here I am back in school, right? Twenty years later almost.

Recently, U.S. Representative Maxine Waters was criticized about her hair, inspiring the hashtag #BlackWomenAtWork. You were representing a minority party in the legislature. You’re a woman. You’re a woman of color. What’s your #BlackWomanAtWork moment?

I found that when I was in the legislature my challenges came from being Black and being young. Women would describe experiences where they’re sitting in a room and they get ignored, and then a man says the same thing. That happened a lot in the Black Caucus to me. It also happened a lot in the Democratic Caucus and that was I think because of my race.

And then my age was a problem no matter where I went. I was always getting mistaken for the intern. Even now when I tell people I served 12 years in the legislature, they’re like oh, so who did you work for? And there are hundred stories of just navigating the political system, the party system, the drama of the legislative process that there were moments where I was like, you know what? Y’all can have this. Eventually, people realized I wasn’t going anywhere. I also learned to develop relationships and became a much more effective legislator.

Do you listen to trap music? I mean, this is Atlanta.

I love it. I’m more of a Miami bass kind-of-girl so I try very hard to make sure that that kind of music does not come on anywhere near me in a professional setting because the Miami will come out of me.

You’re involved in the NAACP and…

Was. I will always be a life member.

Right. They’re doing a multi-city tour in response to their moratorium on charter schools. What do you think about that?

What person would walk into Ivy Preparatory Academies run by a Black woman, a lifetime member of the NAACP, and see the empowering things that we’re doing for our girls, one of them my daughter, and say that this school should be closed? Solely because it’s called a charter school?

It would be hard to have a conversation in Atlanta about charter schools and their position against them, given the many high-performing charter schools that we have and the number of schools that are run by Black folks. I think that the problems that the NAACP has with charter schools have some legitimacy. When you look at schools in other states that don’t have high accountability, that don’t have the right laws in place, some of the individual charter schools have practices that are unfair, inappropriate or unjust, those things need to be dealt with.

No one from the NAACP, despite my lifetime membership, has ever reached out to me as a charter school leader and said, can I come and see your school? Can I understand what’s going on? How can you pretend to know what’s best for Black children when you aren’t talking to the families who are being served by these schools? Or the leaders who are running these schools?

You’re young, Black, a Democrat, charter school leader—there’s not many of you.

A lot of us in the state, Black Democrats who support ed reform, feel very isolated. And I won’t go into the long stories about how I was ostracized by my own party because of it. And then there’s the other party that is more supportive of education reform but at the same time they want to cut healthcare and don’t believe in even having Medicaid.

So we often feel isolated and alone because we’re a group of people that everybody else doesn’t understand, except for parents. Because if you talk to a mom or a dad who wants a great education for their child, they don’t care what the school is called, what the governing structure is, they just want a great education.

Supporting charters doesn’t mean we don’t support traditional public schools. My goal is for all public schools to be successful and be filled with caring adults with high expectations for children.

What’s your guilty pleasure? On the way here I was just listening to the radio about Real Housewives. Is that you?

I’m a faithful Real Housewives of Atlanta watcher. Every Sunday at 9 p.m. My mother and I text back and forth, “Did you hear what she said? Did Mama Joyce really”…yes, that is my guilty pleasure.

Last words?

If we could have more dialogue between practitioners and policymakers, and have parents more involved in these conversations, I think we would have better outcomes.

On the reform side, if we would just respect communities, I think that’s the biggest gap that exists: reformers who mean well and sometimes fall into the trap of “I’m going to come into your community and tell you what you should do because I know better.” That’s not the jam. We’ve got to do a better job of talking to people and building things together.

An original version of this post appeared on Education Post.

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