WATCH: OCDE virtual forum honors Black History Month with experiences, perspectives and insight

Four prominent Black Americans shared their personal experiences and insight into educational systems and career paths during an online colloquium hosted Thursday by County Superintendent Dr. Al Mijares in celebration of Black History Month.

Although the stories and backgrounds of the speakers varied, the value of schools was a common thread.

“My job, first and foremost, is to increase access to a world-class education,” said Dr. Ian O. Williamson, dean of the UCI Paul Merage School of Business. “If you have a world-class education, there’s nothing in the world you cannot do.”

“How I got to be who I am really comes down to education — what I knew about it, what I didn’t know about it,” said Dr. Carol Hedgspeth, deputy director of The Education Trust-West.

As the latest in a series of OCDE events based on the theme “Know My Name, Face and Story,” the 90-minute forum streamed live for an audience of educators, parents, students and community members. If you missed it, you can watch the full presentation above or through Vimeo.

Along with Dr. Williamson and Dr. Hedgspeth, the lineup of speakers included Anaheim Elementary School District Superintendent Dr. Christopher Downing and Robert V. McDonald, president and executive director of the Black Chamber of Commerce of Orange County.

“As you know, Black History Month is a time to celebrate the achievements and contributions of African Americans,” County Superintendent Mijares said in his opening remarks. “At the same time, this month also presents an opportunity for a fresh examination of indicators and trends related to education, health, culture and the economy, all of which have an impact on our communities and collective future.”

Sharing ‘our story’

The origins of Black History Month date back to the efforts of Harvard-trained historian Carter G. Woodson and other prominent African Americans who created the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. In 1926, the association dedicated a week to promoting the achievements of African Americans. February was selected to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass

Since 1976, every U.S. president has officially designated the month of February as Black History Month. Other countries, including Canada and the United Kingdom, also dedicate a month to celebrating Black history.

Mijares said the aim of Thursday’s colloquium was to “better understand where we are in 2022 and where more progress is needed.”

“Our guests have been through educational systems at all levels,” he said. “They have navigated the pitfalls. They have leveraged strengths. And they have been able to overcome systemic deficiencies that they can now reflect upon with clarity. What they have to tell us today is critical to our future. The story of Black Americans is our story, as a county and as a nation.”

Featured speakers

Here’s more on each of the speakers:

Christopher Downing, Ed.D
Superintendent, Anaheim Elementary School District

Currently in his 33rd year in education, Dr. Christopher Downing leads 24 schools in the Anaheim Elementary School District, which is the largest elementary district in Orange County and the second largest in the state.

Chris Downing
Dr. Chris Downing

Dr. Downing previously served as a local district superintendent in the Los Angeles Unified School District, where he brought a focus on high quality instruction and differentiated support to some of the most traditionally underserved schools in Los Angeles. He also pioneered partnership programs with community colleges to provide dual-enrollment programs at all middle and high schools within the local district.

In the fall of 2019, Dr. Downing was selected as the Fourth District PTA Administrator of the Year. In 2020 he received the Maureen DiMarco Award for Leadership from the Orange County School Boards Association.

Carol Hedgspeth, Ph.D.
Deputy Director, The Education Trust-West

Dr. Carol Hedgspeth serves as deputy director at The Education Trust-West, an educational justice nonprofit that works to close opportunity gaps that disproportionately affect students of color from low-income families. 

Dr. Carol Hedgspeth

Dr. Hedgspeth started her career in the late 1990s in academia, teaching various core college courses in departments of psychology and education on the East Coast. She has since become a seasoned education researcher, having worked for the past 25 years at various education advocacy and social science research firms including Innovate Public Schools, WestEd, Cogent Integrations, LLC., the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education (ISKME), and American Institutes for Research. 

The through line for those varied professional experiences is a focus on understanding the optimal conditions for learning, particularly for learners who have been historically marginalized and disenfranchised.

Robert V. McDonald
President and Executive Director, Black Chamber of Commerce of Orange County

Robert “Bobby” McDonald is an effective community and business leader, with accomplished sales and marketing skills. He is a notable speaker, author, community and veteran advocate and historian.

Bobby McDonald
Bobby McDonald

McDonald currently serves as president and executive director of the Black Chamber of Commerce of Orange County. Under his leadership, which spans more than 30 years, the chamber has consistently collaborated with minority business associations, local chambers and legislators to provide support and advocate for the county’s many small-business owners.

Along with developing the chamber’s educational outreach programs, McDonald, who served in the U.S. Navy from 1965 through 1968, has established veterans’ business network programs. Through a partnership with Explorer Studios, he also supported the production of two award-winning educational films, “Building the Dream” about the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. and “History of the Buffalo Soldiers.”

Ian O. Williamson, Ph.D.
Dean, The UCI Paul Merage School of Business

Dr. Ian O. Williamson was appointed dean of The UCI Paul Merage School of Business in January 2021. Prior to arriving at UCI, he served as pro vice-chancellor and dean of commerce at the Wellington School of Business and Government at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.

Dr. Ian O. Williamson
Dr. Ian O. Williamson

Dr. Williamson is a globally recognized expert in the area of human resource management. His research examines the impact of “talent pipelines” on organizational and community outcomes, and he has assisted executives in more than 20 countries across six continents to enhance firm operational and financial outcomes, improve talent recruitment and retention, enhance firm innovation, and understand the impact of social issues on firm outcomes.

Dr. Williamson’s research has been published in leading academic journals and covered by media outlets across the world. He has personally served on the editorial boards of several prominent publications, including the Academy of Management Journal, Academy of Management Review, Academy of Management Education and Learning, Journal of Management, and Cross Cultural Management: An International Journal and Journal of Management.