Believe’s Ben Wilkins: “Literacy is a Fundamental Right”


Educator | 4th & 5th Grade Team Reading Teacher
Believe Memphis Academy

Q1: Where are you from, and how did you end up in Memphis, TN?

I’m originally from Georgetown, South Carolina. I graduated from college in South Carolina and moved to Memphis to work for the organization City Year Memphis. I chose Memphis because of its long history of fighting against racial injustice, a fight I wanted to continue through education.  

Q2: What were you learning as a history major that made you interested in a career in education?

I studied history in college, with a focus on African American and Women’s US History, which deepened my understanding of inequality in this country and the role that education in particular has played in perpetuating systemic racism, classism, and sexism. It also deepened my understanding of the legacy of grassroots movements that have been leading the fight against these injustices for generations. Learning about the Mississippi Freedom Summer and Freedom Schools led by SNCC [Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee] in particular helped me see education and literacy as tools of liberation. 

Q3: How did the gap year with City Year encourage you to stick into the education field and enroll with Relay Graduate School?

I don’t really think of City Year as a gap year for me, primarily because when I joined City Year, I knew I wanted to be in education and City Year would provide me the ramp to becoming a teacher. City Year affirmed my belief in the strengths and potential of all students and the impact a strong teacher can make, as well as the reality that our hyper-segregated schools are routinely under-funded and under-resourced. While I work towards supporting long-term changes to make our society more equitable overall, I know from my time in City Year that something I can do now is be a great teacher for amazing students. 

Q4: How has working at multiple schools—Memphis Scholars, Vollentine Elementary, and now Believe Memphis Academy—helped advance your educator skills?

While I was working for City Year at Vollentine and Memphis Scholars, the most valuable lesson I learned is that teaching cannot occur in a silo and must be done in coordination with families and the community. One of the reasons I am most excited to be at Believe Memphis Academy is because it is in the same neighborhood, the Klondike-Smokey City neighborhood, that I have been in for the last two years. The relationships that I’ve built with students and families are so valuable to my work in the classroom, and I am committed to earning the trust of my student’s families and [letting them know] that I care for their students and will provide them with the education they deserve. 

Q5: How do you envision society can help uplift education equity?

Literacy is a fundamental right. And yet, nearly three quarters of third-grade students in SCS are not on grade level in reading. That fact is unacceptable and a sign of the racist, classist designs of our education system. To make education more equitable, strong early literacy programs with literacy coaches in every school is a minimum. Perhaps even more important is the transformation of our curriculum to be more anti-racist and representative of the diversity of the students in our classroom and a commitment to support, train, and compensate teachers, therapists, and social workers in the act of unlearning implicit biases to make schools a safe place for all students and families. 

Q6: What are your favorite places to enjoy Memphis?

I love spending time outside at Overton Park and Martyrs Park by the river, trying local restaurants (Cozy Corner, 99 Cent Soul Food Express [now Memphis Soul], and Pho Binh are a few of my faves), and checking out the Choose901 Blog for fun weekend events around town!

If you agree with Ben that literacy is a fundamental right, consider donating $25 towards Give901’s Fall Learning Kits that will go to children in Memphis. Learn more here.