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Celebrating Black History Month - Leaders in Our Community: Alvin Garrison

Alvin Garrison

The Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce invites you to join us in recognizing the leaders making history in our region.

An outgrowth of Dr. Carter G. Woodson’s “Negro History Week” initiative of 1926, Black History Month (also called African American History Month) celebrates the achievements and contributions of African Americans to society. It was officially recognized as a national observance by President Gerald Ford in 1976. Said Ford, “In celebrating Black History Month, we can seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

The Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce invites you to join us in recognizing the leaders making history in our region. Today, we are proud to highlight Alvin Garrison, Superintendent of Covington Independent Public Schools.

Born in Louisville and raised in Elizabethtown by his mother Geraldine and his grandmother Dorothy Russey, Garrison is a two-time graduate of Western Kentucky University where he earned both his Bachelor’s and Master’s of Education Administration degrees. After spending several years working at schools in Hardin County (including seven as the principal of John Hardin High School), Garrison was hired as the superintendent of Covington’s public school system in 2013.

 

What does Black History Month mean to you?

Garrison: For me, it's an opportunity to celebrate the contributions and accomplishments of African Americans. Back when I was teaching multicultural studies, I taught my students about how we should celebrate all histories throughout the year, but it's not always something that we do. So, I am thankful we at least have a month to celebrate the accomplishments and achievements of African American people. We’ve made a lot of great contributions to this nation of ours from inventions to businesses. We’ve done a little bit of everything.

 

Do you have any people that inspire you/you consider heroes? If so, who are they and why do you consider them to be as such?

Garrison: It’s a hard question to answer because I have so many, but I start with my grandmother and my mother, and numerous family members. But as I go back throughout the years, there is one person that constantly comes back to mind: My fourth and fifth grade teacher Ms. Stephanie Buckner. She was one of the few African American teachers I had; she might have been the only one I had as a student in Elizabethtown.

The one thing I appreciated most about Ms. Buckner is she really promoted Black history in her teaching. She always told us, all of her students, we were smart, intelligent and sophisticated. I still use that line today. She instilled that all of her students would know there was more out there for them. I learned about African American leaders, not only Martin Luther King, Jr., but all different types of African American leaders. I credit her for that encouragement working within a mostly white system, going out on a limb to teach us those lessons.

She taught all of her students the importance of all people and the contributions of all people. I took that lesson and, in my teaching, thought it was important I teach kids not only the Caucasian experience, but the African American experience, the Hispanic experience, etc. I thought that was important.

When I think of other leaders that inspire me, of course MLK, Malcolm X, Colin Powell, President Barack Obama, those folks have also provided inspiration for me as well. I am inspired by anyone who has overcome barriers.

 

You are one of Kentucky’s few Black school district superintendents. Can you talk about what you would like to accomplish as a leader in education in the state and the challenges you have faced being African American in your role?

Garrison: Education is key in trying to get yourself out of whatever negative circumstance you’re in, whatever that circumstance may be. Maybe it’s poverty, maybe it’s drugs, racism – education is key to overcoming it. Education is the great equalizer. For me as a leader, the first thing I have to do is lead by example for our students. I have to be the leader that any student, regardless of race, color, creed, whatever, that they can aspire to be like. I want to be the kind of leader where they look at me, not because of my color, but because of how I carry myself.

My other mission is to make sure my students receive a world class education. If education is key, I have to make sure they get a world class education.

When I accepted this job as superintendent of Covington Independent Public Schools, I was only the fourth African American superintendent in Kentucky. I was the second African American male. At the time when I started in 2013, I was the only African American superintendent because the one before me had retired.

The toughest part is often being the only African American wherever you go; nobody else looks like you. You have to temper some things sometimes because you don’t want to seem like the “angry black person,” but you do want to try to make a positive change. Throughout the years, there have been times – especially when I was a high school principal – I had to overcome those stereotypes that I’m only looking out for the black children and not the white children. John Hardin is a pretty affluent school, so you had kids from different backgrounds, and they did a good job of getting along pretty well, but sometimes there would be situations and some of the white parents may have thought I’m catering more to the African American students, which of course was not true.

Indeed, I’m here to support all students, but I am looking out for the underdog whoever that may be. I consider a lot of our kids, most of our kids, regardless of race, underdogs. We have about 90% of our students on free and reduced lunch (in our schools) – that’s a lot of underdogs.

We have inequities within the school and within the community. Growing up like I have, it’s like looking through a window. It’s as clear as day to me and then people ask, “Why are some kids getting this or that when others are not?” Well, let’s look at the circumstances. Let’s level the playing field some and maybe we’ll get those children to have some better results.

 

What is the biggest issue that needs addressing to make things better/more inclusive for African Americans in the Northern Kentucky region?

Garrison: Acknowledgement that we’re here and awareness that we’re here. We can’t walk around invisible. They have to acknowledge that we’re here.

I was the only African American superintendent for several years in the state of Kentucky. I would go to these regional and statewide meetings and we’re talking about improving conditions throughout the region and I look around, and I’m the only one (that looks like me) in here, so who are we improving the region for? Who are we improving the state for? I can’t speak on behalf of all African American people, all Hispanic people – I can’t do that. If we want to improve the region, we’ve got to give voices to all instead of just inviting one to a room of 40 or 50 people.

Sometimes, someone just has to point it out. I don’t mind making people uncomfortable sometimes because it needs to be done. If we don’t want to be inclusive, just say so. But if we’re saying we want to be inclusive and we’re sincere about that, let’s not just talk about it, let’s be about it.

You’ve got show me some action and that means bringing more people to the table if you really want to be inclusive.

 

How, in your view, has the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce worked to promote the success of African Americans like yourself and others?

Garrison: I'm very proud of the NKY Chamber. I think they're listening. I think they’re hearing the message through spotlights like these. That’s a way of being inclusive. They’re branching out and tapping into more diverse chambers. That awareness and those actions show they are truly sincere about making change necessary to be inclusive.

Now, I meet with NKY Chamber members and see others that look like me; it wasn’t like that six or seven years ago. I’m very proud of them and applaud their efforts, and I’m just thankful they want a better region and a better community for all. Through their efforts, it raises up the whole community.

 

For more information about Black History Month, visit https://africanamericanhistorymonth.gov





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Ninth District Elementary School  |  2800 Indiana Ave.  |  Covington, KY 41015
Phone:859.292.5823  |  Fax:859.655.6933