Tonya Breland, Erika Leak Lead DEI Cause with TESO
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was produced as part of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University’s South Jersey Information Equity Project fellowship and supported with funding from the Independence Public Media Foundation.
BY TYRIQ DeSHIELDS | AC JosepH Media
EASTAMPTON — Tonya Breland and Erika Leak are on a mission to change the education system for the better.
Breland and Leak are the leaders of the Burlington County-based Teach Educators and Scholars Organization, or TESO. The organization is leading an initiative to make education more inclusive for everybody, mainly those in underserved communities.
The company’s mission is to ensure all individuals, especially those who have been historically marginalized, have access to equitable, socially just, and culturally responsive learning and working experiences.
Breland originally founded TESO in 2011. After serving as a school principal who helped turn the school around, she decided to explore ways in which she could help improve outcomes for students of color in other school districts, too.
Breland saw the effect she had on her school and figured she could impact a larger number of individuals by shifting gears. She soon began working at the State Department of Education where she met her eventual business partner in Leak.
Here, the two would collaborate on issues of educational equity. They shared background and experience working at local and state levels, so they agreed on inequities when certain districts were compared.
While working at the state level, both Breland and Leak would get asked to review certain districts to point out any discrepancies. While they were always willing to do so, they sometimes would not have the capacity to do so.
Pivoting into consulting allowed them the agency and space to review more districts without being restricted by their jobs. By doing work in the schools as well as training companies, they realized they could impact a larger number of people than if they stuck to classrooms.
Diversity in education has been in peril around the country. In Florida, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis announced plans to ban state universities from spending money on diversity, equity and inclusion [DEI] initiatives in hopes that they will “wither on the vine” without funding.
The University of North Carolina voted against DEI programs in February. The State of Texas moved to erase DEI efforts around the state this month. Republican legislators in Missouri said in March they will try to do the same there.
Numerous states led by conservatives have passed laws to remove curriculum from schools that they claim pushed Critical Race Theory and other aspects of ethnic history and society.
When asked about such efforts around the country to ban the work TESO is so heavily involved in, they said they were “not surprised.”
“?I think conversations around race in this country are challenging anyway because our society has not traditionally given us license to have the discussion across racial groups,” Leak said.
The consensus was that to make progress in this country we must shift away from the idea that it’s “impolite” to discuss race. With open communication about perspectives and differences, we can begin to move into a space where healthy conversations can take place, leading to more harmony and less tension.
While TESO is only offering tutoring, they still were in the business of educating people. With such a sensitive subject, one may think it’s hard for two Black women to sell the value of such training, but the two find that people either recognize a need for training in DEI or are uncertain and need help to find one.
To help the cause, they’ve launched a podcast to help engage people in certain topics and encourage those types of conversations.
“?If people feel they have permission to talk about it then they can address some of the issues of today,” Breland said.
Their podcast can be viewed here and here’s the link to their website for more information.
By having more conversations centered around DEI, society can begin to heal the scars left by this country’s history. However, this requires effort from both sides of the fence and space for differing opinions to coexist.
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