See below for more information on this year’s panelists.
To learn more about our panelists’ work as it relates to Early Childhood Black Lives Matter at School, including the work of panelists from our past symposiums, follow this link
Akiea (Ki) Gross, MA, MSED (moderator)
Enigmatic and unapologetic, Akiea Gross, or Ki, as they are known creatively, is an abolitionist educator, education consultant/coach, events curator, and creative entrepreneur with a passion for equity and social justice and a penchant for telling it like it is.
Iheoma U. Iruka, PhD
Research Professor of Public Policy, Director of the Early Childhood Health and Racial Equity Program
Frank Porter Graham (FPG) Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Iheoma U. Iruka, PhD, is a research professor of public policy and director of the Early Childhood Health and Racial Equity Program at Frank Porter Graham (FPG) Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Prior to rejoining Carolina, she served as chief research innovation officer and director of The Center for Early Education Research and Evaluation at HighScope Educational Research Foundation. Dr. Iruka was previously at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska and the FPG Child Development Institute. Dr. Iruka is engaged in projects and initiatives focused on how evidence-informed policies, systems, and practices in early education can support the optimal development and experiences of children from low-income and ethnic minority households. She has been engaged in addressing how best to ensure excellence for young diverse learners, especially Black children. Dr. Iruka has served on numerous national boards and committees. She holds a BA in psychology from Temple University, an MA in psychology from Boston University, and a PhD in applied developmental psychology from the University of Miami, Florida.
Thomas Williams Jr., PhD
Policy Advisor, Office of Special Education and Early Learning, Kentucky Department of Education
Thomas Williams Jr., PhD, is currently a policy advisor with the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) Office of Special Education and Early Learning (OSEEL) in Frankfort, Kentucky. Prior to his appointment, Dr. Williams served as an early learning principal with Oakland Unified School District in Oakland, California. Dr. Williams started his career in Jackson, Mississippi where he served as a credentialed pre-K–4 and kindergarten teacher, pre–K–2 instructional coach, and school readiness coordinator. His work as an early childhood leader continued while he was employed at DC Public Schools as the supervisor of Early Childhood Lab Schools. He has served as a mentor for the California Consortium for Equity in Early Childhood Education Fellowship Program and is currently an adjunct professor with the College of Education at Spalding University. He is also currently in progress to co-author the book, Principals’ Guide to Leading Early Childhood with the Commitment to Equity: Effective Instructional Leadership to Support Our Youngest Learners. Dr. Williams’ education includes a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education, a master’s degree in early childhood education and education administration, an educational specialist in psychometry, and a doctorate of philosophy in educational administration, all from Jackson State University. He currently holds a Kentucky Rank 1 educator credential in early childhood, supervisor of instruction, principal, and superintendent.
Denisha Jones, PhD, JD
Director, Art of Teaching Program, Sarah Lawrence College
Denisha Jones, PhD, JD, is the director of the Art of Teaching Program at Sarah Lawrence College. After earning her bachelor’s degree in early childhood education from the University of the District of Columbia, Denisha worked as a kindergarten and preschool teacher and a preschool director.
Denisha is an education justice advocate and activist. She serves as the co-director for Defending the Early Years, Inc., and is the assistant executive director for the Badass Teachers Association. Since 2017, she served on the steering committee for the national Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action. She is a true play advocate and recently completed an Anji Play Fellowship program. Her first co-edited book, Black Lives Matter at School: An Uprising for Educational Justice, was published in December 2020 by Haymarket Books. She earned her PhD in Curriculum and Instruction from Indiana University in 2013. In 2018, she earned her juris doctor from the David A. Clarke School of Law at the University of the District of Columbia.
Nikolai Pizarro de Jesus, MBA
Consultant, Author, Parenting Coach
For over 10 years, Nikolai Pizarro has worked to empower predominantly Black and Brown parents and caregivers with science-based frameworks of early brain development, literacy instruction, non-violent discipline, and self-directed education. Her book, Ring the Alarm, has been used by programs sponsored by Brooklyn Kindergarten Society and the Department of Health. She has facilitated workshops at hundreds of preschools and private early childhood centers, including over 300 Early Start and Head Start Centers.
Over the past eight years, as her own unschooling journey with her son has unfolded, her work has increasingly included private and small group coaching and collaboration with families looking to transition from conventional schooling to self-directed models. As a response to COVID-19, she started the Facebook group “BIPOC-led pandemic pods and microschools,” launched an early literacy system, and has initiated a project to turn her own home into a self-directed forest school and permaculture mixed-age coop. Nikolai is currently enrolled in a Forest School Director Certification Program.