On supporting young leaders and change-makers

Kaya Henderson

Founder & CEO, Reconstruction US; Co-host, Pod Save the People


WHEN I STARTED Reconstruction, I set out to create a space for African American young people to learn their own history, their own culture. I was concerned that schools were teaching inaccurate versions of African American history or of American history and African Americans’ place in that history. I drew from great examples like Hebrew school or Chinese school to create a place where, as African Americans, we teach our young people our own history and culture, where we are responsible and intentional about the development of their identity. What I fundamentally believe is if we can do that for African American kids, we build kids who see themselves differently in school and in life.

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We talk about high expectations for kids all the time, and we talk about the soft bigotry of low expectations. Ultimately, all that boils down to is, do you love kids? Think about how you deal with your own children. You’ve got incredibly high expectations for them. It doesn’t matter if they struggle. Then you get them the supports. But you never say, ‘You can’t do it,’ to your own kids. I feel like the American education system has said to Black kids, ‘You can’t do it. You’re lazy.’

We talk about students being the leaders of tomorrow. These young people are ready to lead today.”

We wanted Reconstruction to be a place that was affirming, that was motivational, that was ‘yes, you can’ in an Obama-esque kind of way, because all of the research shows that when you encourage young people, when you make them believe in themselves, when they have a sense of possibility, they can climb the highest mountains.


Frederick Douglass said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” I know for sure that if we get education right for our young people, then we fix the criminal justice system. We fix the foster care system. We fix all of these social ills and issues that we currently face because we’ve prepared children to go out, support themselves, be leaders for their families, their communities, and for our world.

We talk about students being the leaders of tomorrow. These young people are ready to lead today. So if they are making the decisions, if they are taking us where we’re going to go, we need to make sure that they are well-equipped. It really is about creating a cadre of leaders who are going to take care of us and make our world a better place.