We had the good fortune of connecting with Lora Smothers and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Lora, is there a quote or affirmation that’s meaningful to you?
“There is, therefore, only one thing left to do; save our money and leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons.” -Ida B. Wells
I stumbled across this quote while casually researching Ida B. Wells, the iconic anti-lynching activist and journalist. After the brutal lynching of her dear friend Thomas Moss in the winter of 1892, Wells urged Black Memphians to pack up and leave. To her, the death of Moss represented the death of any hope for progress or peace for Black folks in Memphis. They were out of options.
As a Black educator and parent for the last 13 years, I have found myself in a similar predicament when seeking an educational setting for myself and my children. The public school system, with its overcrowded classrooms and over-policed hallways, not only fails our children academically, but also puts their spirits and their Black bodies in jeopardy. Its nationally standardized curriculum primarily serves corporate interests and necessarily maintains systems of oppression. These schools often undermine the kind of critical thinking and democratic participation that would liberate our babies. Meanwhile, private schools remain entrenched in white supremacy, offering a colonizer’s version of history; codified erasure of Black vernacular, hairstyles, and dress; and the paternalistic objectification of Black students as athletes and tokens.
What are we to do? Which parts of our well-being are we willing to sacrifice? As the scripture says, “we are hard pressed on every side”. Could it be as Wells said? Is it time to leave these systems designed for our demise? These were the questions that rumbled in my spirit as the idea for the Joy Village School began to take shape. Deeply moved by Wells’ refusal to accept less than what was best for her people, I began imagining what a school built by us and for us would look, sound, and feel like. A year and a half later, we are on the brink of opening Athens, Georgia’s only K-8th private school centering the joy and thriving of Black youth.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
As a child, I was the only Black student in my grade throughout middle and high school. As a result, I often felt out of place at school, at even in my own skin. No amount of academic or athletic achievements could undo that feeling. When I began my teaching career, and witnessed students in my classes in both public and private schools undergoing similar struggles, I began to feel burdened to offer them a better option. It was clear that Black families in my community were longing for a place where their children could be themselves and be academically engaged without fear of marginalization or traumatization.
After wrestling with God for a few months, I finally gave in to the call to open a new school, and the idea for the Joy Village School spilled out. I envisioned a school centering the joy and thriving of Black youth, a school led by Black educators, centering Black history, and employing culturally relevant teaching strategies. At the time I was working full-time for a local nonprofit, but I took the step that so many of our ancestors once did, and started hosting outdoor popup schools to give my community a taste of Black-centric, joy-driven education for a couple hours on Saturday mornings. The popup schools evolved into 1- or 2-day camps during school breaks, and then I secured the location for a full-time school not long after that.
The biggest challenge has been fundraising for a school centering Black liberation. Athens, Georgia, like many southern towns, is set up to systematically exclude entrepreneurs of color like myself. But I’ve learned that simply being true to myself, telling my story, and leading with integrity and humility is a powerful way to build a brand and a business that folks are excited to invest in.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
I would definitely have to take them on a Black history tour! We’d visit the Morton Theater, Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery, the Historic Reese Street School, and then round out the day with a meal from Weaver D’s!
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I’d like to dedicate this shoutout to my mom (Cathy) and her mom (Ruby) and her mom (Louise), who all did what needed to be done for their children to get the best education possible.
Harold Faison, Shai Arnold