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National Teacher of the Year Speaks in Chattanooga

This article was originally published on timesfreepress.com.

Growing up in a large housing project in Connecticut, Jahana Hayes said she never wanted pity, just a fair chance.

Hayes, now the National Teacher of the Year, said communities should be working to ensure all children, especially those like her, are provided with opportunity.

"We have to all use our time, our talents and our energy to build bridges and not gates," she said.

Hayes was the keynote speaker Friday at the Urban League of Greater Chattanooga's 34th annual Equal Opportunity Day Breakfast at the Chattanooga Convention Center. The theme of the morning was equity in education, and Hayes praised the work the community is doing through Chattanooga 2.0 to provide all students with a quality education and opportunity.

"We all have a responsibility — no, that word is not strong enough. We all have an obligation to make the future and this world better for our babies," Hayes said.

Now a teacher in the low-income school district where she grew up, Hayes said it's time for the country to have conversations about the systemic racism embedded in many institutions and take bold action to address them.

"How much more data do we need to collect?" she asked. "We already know what the problem is."

Warren Logan, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Chattanooga, said during this past year the organization has helped more than 13,000 families, and education is at the cornerstone of all the work taking place.

He urged everyone gathered to be involved in the work of making each of the county's schools the best in the nation.

"Everybody has a role to play," Logan said. "We do need to be about the business of making sure whether it's a public school or a private school we need to have the best of the best — the best public schools and the best private schools."

During the breakfast, both Chattanooga 2.0 and Chantelle Roberson were honored by the Urban League for their work.

The Community Impact Award was given to Chattanooga 2.0, a community initiative to improve public education and workforce opportunities.

Akia Lewis, a senior at The Howard School who accepted the award for Chattanooga 2.0, said she appreciates the group's work because "it gets students in the conversation, which is the most important thing."

The Whitney M. Young Jr. Award for outstanding service was given to Roberson for her work with Restore My Rights, helping people expunge their criminal records and regain voting rights.

"We wanted to help those of us in our community who have made some bad mistakes in their past get beyond those mistakes so they can be invested in our community and also be active and productive in our community," Roberson said.

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke also took the stage during Friday's breakfast, saying the community has work to do to provide all the city's residents with opportunity.

"In our city, like a lot of places in the country, there are people who feel like there is a ceiling on their progress," Berke said. "No matter how hard they work, no matter what they do, they feel like there is a cap on how much they can achieve. That's wrong, that's not the way our community is supposed to be set up."

Berke said the city is proud to partner with the Urban League, saying everywhere members of the community turn, the Urban League is there to help them break through that ceiling.

Logan said Chattanooga is a city small enough in size and rich enough in assets to solve many of the problems it faces.

"We need to be about the business of making it the best city in the nation, and that means equity in all areas," Logan said. "Sometimes we all need to come together and say enough is enough."