Fittingly, Kenya Bradshaw can trace her life’s mission back to her childhood and a family that valued public service.
As the executive director of the Memphis chapter of Stand for Children Tennessee, it is just such a background that bolsters her in the day-to-day struggle to make education available to everyone as early as possible.
“I feel like, if Memphis is ever to reach its fullest potential, the greatest vehicle through which we can get there is by investing in our children through early childhood education, early home visitation and in also having a strong K-12 public education system,” Bradshaw said.
The Whitehaven High School alum was born in Miami but moved to Memphis at a young age. For college, she went east to the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga where she received an undergraduate degree in marketing and international business. The goal, clearly, was to make her mark in the corporate world of products and finance.
“My life’s ambition was to design the next Coca-Cola product or work for FedEx,” she said. “When I went to college I knew that I was going to work in marketing.”
While in school, Bradshaw participated in the program Student Support Services, which helped her to be able to finish school. Once she graduated, she was given the opportunity to work for the program and quickly moved into management.
“It still is one of the greatest experiences of my life because I could directly see the work that I did translated into changing the lives of my students,” she said.
Though she cherishes the education she received at Whitehaven, she felt she was unprepared to be competitive in college and saw the same situation for incoming students at UT.
“That’s what made me end up getting into advocacy, because I knew that they deserve better and we shouldn’t have them paying for their last year of high school with our remedial courses in college,” she said.
“I’m not a surgeon, but I get to change lives every day because lives depend on the work that we do.”
Executive director, Memphis chapter of Stand for Children Tennessee
Bradshaw continued at UT-Chattanooga for a master’s in business administration degree and held positions with International Paper and the Tennessee Valley Authority before working on a school funding campaign in Chattanooga. She was able to garner a sales tax increase for more funding for schools, and interest in Bradshaw was piqued in her hometown where she was asked to run a similar campaign.
“I’ve been working on educational policy and campaigns ever since,” she said.
She went to work for Stand for Children in 2005, leaving two years later to work for the Urban Child Institute, but has been back at Stand for Children since 2010. The organization advocates for children statewide and strives to increase public funding, improve schools and achieve legislation on behalf of students. Bradshaw’s 2005 campaign, “Education is Our First Priority,” led to an increase of $21 million more from the Shelby County Commission to be spent on children in Memphis and Shelby County. She also took a grassroots effort and a group of 200 people to the state capitol to lobby for increased pre-kindergarten education. The legislature opened 200 pre-K classes statewide that year.
“Early childhood education is the area that we should be investing more in, not less,” Bradshaw said. “It’s important that, if we’re ever wanting to address our high level of poverty rate, the way that we have to address that is by providing every child a high quality education, including having a great teacher in front of them and that great teaching has to begin as early as possible.”
Despite the successes, Bradshaw and her staff still have their work cut out for them. Just last month, federal cuts to funding for the pre-K programs that Stand for Children has fought for will leave more than 80 classroom doors closed. Another hot-button issue in the community, however, the impending merger of the Memphis and Shelby County school systems and the daunting structure that will become, Bradshaw sees as an opportunity.
“Memphis is really at a place where it can determine the future of what it wants to be as it pertains to education and the merger is a part of it,” she said.
Bradshaw takes what happens with education in the community to heart both personally – with school-age nieces and nephews in the system – and as a citizen with a stake in the future, and professionally as a local leader and advocate.
“I’m not a surgeon, but I get to change lives every day because lives depend on the work that we do,” she said. “I get the privilege of seeing that, and it causes me to work with much more urgency because I know that every day we don’t do the right thing, that 150,000 children’s lives depend on it.”