Michael Atkins

The Foundation of Change: Why I choose this Journey

People see me today, and they probably wonder to themselves, “Ah, there’s the picture of black success, the exception to the rule. There is someone not defined by his circumstance; someone who hasn’t made excuses.” 

As much as all of those statements might be true, I am sometimes also the reason why people are tone-deaf to the plight of my brothers and sisters of color and their outcries for systemic change. These people might be thinking, “Why play the victim card? Just be like Mike!” Well, I am here to flip the script on that tone-deaf narrative. I, too, would have been a product of my environment.

During the early fall of my 6th-grade year. I settled into my new routine, getting acquainted with new friends, transitioning from being an elementary school student to a middle school youngster. 

The school bus’s steady hum came to its expected halt as we pulled up to the school. The schoolyard had its normal buzz; students were filing into the school building. I got off the bus and was making my way in. It was drizzling that morning. I could almost taste the damp air. Drops of rain had hit dry dirt, kicking up the arid ground’s first wafts being kissed by moisture. There was the usual busyness around me, but from the periphery of my eyes, I caught my white gym teacher making conversation with a colleague. I didn’t make much of it. Just as I was about to pass her, I heard, “Here come the bus, kids.” She was mumbling that to her colleague. I kept walking, acknowledging it in my mind as fact. She was right. The kids commuting by bus had just arrived, me being one of them. 

But that short statement didn’t leave my mind. It planted a seed in the soil of my consciousness with a purpose; the seed of doubt, doubt in a system, doubt in the people around me. That statement would send roots into my psyche and haunt me for the rest of my life. I don’t think the gym teacher said those words with intention; I don’t think she meant harm consciously. She was speaking out of the abundance of her heart. But I don’t believe anything happens by accident.

Those words could have harmed, and they did to a certain extent, but more overwhelmingly, what they did was bring about an awakening in me that would change the rest of my life and spark a fire in my belly. I will take it a step further and say those words sparked a blaze in me that couldn’t be tamed. I do not know if other souls within earshot of that gym teacher heard those same words that left damaged for life. I know that while those words marred my soul and left scars on me, they have also been the greatest motivators for me. Every time I’ve felt tired, worn out, or tempted to settle, those words have given me a furious desire to prove the odds wrong. Subconsciously I feel like I have been living my life since that morning to prove that gym teacher wrong, to prove to her I am not one of “the bus kids.” Some of us conform to labels, find comfort in them, use them for identity, while others rebel against them for life to prove the label wrong. Count me a rebel. 

We talk about trauma a lot in education. What happened when “Here come the bus kids” was uttered was trauma “ground zero.” They were the first racially charged words spoken over my young life that began gaining awareness of social norms. I have dedicated my life’s journey to ensuring students have a different journey and are seen and celebrated for who they are. I do this by building adult’s capacity within Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion development. 

My Current Work: 

Hi, my name is Michael Atkins. I am the proud principal of Stedman Elementary in Denver, CO. I have been part of Denver Public Schools since I was 4 years old. My experiences as a student, custodian, paraprofessional, teacher, assistant principal, and principal have given me a unique glance within education. I use that lens to guide my work and journey today. I lead to ensure the students under my care have a different experience than I did. I lead in hopes of grabbing educators by the hand and walking with them step-by-step and side-by-side on a journey of intercultural development, so we can serve ALL students and interact with our diverse world differently. Let’s be the sweeping changes our communities need in this world. 

Articles outlining Michael Atkins’ story and purpose: 

Sweeping Changes – 
https://www.colorado.edu/coloradan/2020/06/01/sweeping-changes

The Today Show – 
https://www.today.com/video/meet-the-former-school-custodian-who-is-now-the-principal-75694149744

CNN Story- 
https://www.cnn.com/2019/06/11/us/custodian-turned-principal-denver-trnd

Session: “From Denial to Adaptation” – Michael will speak about the importance of intercultural mindsets and the absence of Equity and Inclusion in a Diverse World – How do we shift?

The goal of this session is to introduce professionals to this work by increasing self-awareness and intercultural competence. Helping professionals understand mindsets from monocultural to intercultural (denial to adaptation). This helps people identify their biases.

Developing individuals’ self-awareness and intercultural competence should be a critical focus within DE&I work. We all come from different backgrounds than the individuals we serve. A cultural divide has developed within this country over time. We must work together to eliminate racial disparities, and it starts with us examining ourselves and being self-critical. We live in a blaming society where we constantly want to point the finger at everyone but ourselves. It’s time to change that narrative. We have to focus on the shifts we can make to better serve in the arenas we occupy. If we are going to value America, we have to develop skills that allow us to be intercultural rather than monocultural. 

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