An Interview with Dr. Jessica Samuel, IRT ’15 on Educational Equity

Dr. Samuel is an education equity expert. Her experience includes advising for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary & Secondary Education, consulting for the Commonwealth Corporation, and coaching for the Institute for Recruitment of Teachers. In addition to working with education organizations, she also provides 1:1 coaching and small group workshops for various education stakeholders.

Dr. Samuel recently spoke with Brittany Zorn, IRT ’13 on her work and experiences. The written transcription of their conversation, link to an audio copy and an introduction by Brittany is included below.

Introduction by Brittany Zorn, IRT ‘13

As an IRT alumna, I started my role as Arts & Sciences Programs Specialist for the IRT with a ton of enthusiasm and boundless energy. Early on in my career, I was tasked with incorporating more opportunities for current students to connect directly with alumni. One of the ways I sought to bring more alumni perspectives to our advising curriculum was through the curation of multiple alumni panels and alumni-lead talks during the Summer Workshop (this was, of course, pre-pandemic when in-person programming was still the universal standard.) As luck would have it, I was casually scrolling Facebook one day and came across a post by IRT alumna Jessica S. Samuel, IRT ’15 regarding some of the work she was doing at Boston University around self-care for BIPOC students at PWIs as a revolutionary and libratory act. I instantly identified Jessica’s work as addressing a gap in IRT’s advising curriculum that I was working to close; we wanted to facilitate more intentional conversations around wellness for our scholars, and Jessica clearly demonstrated some specialization in this area through her post. I reached out and invited her to lead IRT’s first ever Wellness Day keynote address in the 2017 IRT Summer Workshop, and this collaboration served as the starting point of our working relationship ever since. 

Now, in 2022, Dr. Samuel has officially earned her doctorate, published an ebook, delivered a TEDx talk, and founded her own equity consultancy firm called Radical Education & Advocacy League. It felt like the perfect time for us to reconnect and discuss all that she has accomplished since first returning to IRT in 2017 to deliver her Wellness Day address. I asked Jessica if she would be willing to meet and discuss her recent successes with the purpose of celebrating her work in the IRT Newsletter and on the blog, and she graciously agreed. Below are some questions I had for her about R.E.A.L. and her recent TEDx talk, and her responses. We had intended that these questions would serve as the basis for our actual conversation, but as it turns out, our discussion went well beyond the scope of the questions listed below. 

Thus, I humbly present to you the following written interview alongside a podcast-style recording of our actual conversation, which touched on themes of self-actualizations, “non-traditional pathways” to and through higher education, how to know if pursuing a career outside of the academy is right for you, the importance of keeping an open-mind, and so much more. In our conversation, Jessica reflects on the role IRT played in multiple full-circle moments throughout her career up to this point, as well as the ways doors to unforeseen opportunities were opened for her by her personal-professional network. There are so many takeaways from Jessica’s experience that I know will be relevant to other IRT alumni and students of color more broadly. I hope that reading and listening to Jessica’s testimony is as inspiring and uplifting for you as it was for me to record them. 

Interview with Dr. Jessica Samuel, IRT ’15 (Audio)

How did you identify your passion for “providing [educational stakeholders] the tools and resources they need to advance equity in their learning programs and professional processes” ?

Dr. Samuel: This passion really came as a result of my experience as both a student and educator. It was my time as a public high school teacher that ultimately served as the impetus for me to reenter academia and pursue my Ph.D. From the vantage point of a K-12 educator I understood just how inequitable education has been for students of color. From the vantage point of a graduate student, I experienced that inequity first-hand. Looking at my experience in both roles led me to recognize the continuities between the two and hone in on my passion for advocacy work. 

Did you always know you wanted to do educational consulting, or when did it become clear to you that you wanted to do this kind of work? 

Dr. Samuel: I always knew that I wanted to be free. I knew that I wanted to live a life of peace, flexibility and uninhibited creativity. Having autonomy over my labor as a Black woman also became increasingly important to me as I made my way through graduate school. Consulting just seemed like the perfect channel through which I could accomplish all of that. Besides those personal desires of mine, having a knack for advising/counseling/coaching others helped me to gain more insight on what career pathways were truly available to me. In other words, merging my passion for justice and education equity with my gift of the gab led me right to this work. 

It seems to me that you were intentional in creating a title for your consulting company that spelled “real”; how did you come up with the “Radical Education & Advocacy League”?

Dr. Samuel: The name of my firm literally came to me in a dream. No cap. Lol. Seriously though, I’m deeply spiritual and I believe in the power of prayer and meditation. I also think that our dreamspace is one of the most profound sources of inspiration and power. I had been meditating on my business idea for a while and new that I didn’t want to just name it after myself like “JSS Consulting” or “ Samuel & Advocates” (which were ideas I actually shopped), but that the name should really reflect the nature (depth and breadth)of the work. So, I think having that long-term, collective work mindset helped put me in the position to get the right download. One night I went to sleep and by 5am the next morning I had the name. I popped out of my sleep just to write it down and kept saying it over and over again and letting it marinate in my mouth and around me until it felt exactly right. Radical because that’s the only way we will get things done. Education and Advocacy speak to the heart of what and how I do what I do. And League signifies the fact that it will take more than just me to get this mission accomplished. 

You recently delivered a TED Talk in St. Thomas… congratulations! It seems to me this is a universal symbol of having “made it”; how did the opportunity to be a TED speaker come your way? 

Dr. Samuel: So, I was actually supposed to give my TEDx Talk two years ago. However, as we all know, COVID-19 put a stop to everyone’s master plans. However, the actual invitation to speak at a TEDx invite comes after submitting an abstract describing your proposed topic along with your CV/ link to your LinkedIn. After that, you are then invited to an in-person/face-to-face interview where you are vetted about your background, expertise on the subject matter proposed for your talk, and stage presence. Once the organizers finalize their interviews they then make their selection of about 7-9 people, depending on the submissions in any given year. I definitely think that giving a TED Talk was a milestone I didn’t even know I wanted to accomplish. Getting to be on stage, sharing my story, and discussing my big ideas around educational change in the US/USVI meant the world to me. That it all happened on the heels of obtaining the PhD felt even more of an accomplishment.  

How, if at all, do you see your IRT experience as having had an impact on your post-Ph.D. trajectory? 

Dr. Samuel: Besides obviously being the channel that got me to graduate school without having to pay a dime, IRT was one of the first organizations to employ me in my capacity as an education equity consultant. My very first job working explicitly on educational equity after embarking upon the graduate school journey was through IRT. In true activist-scholar form, my research brought me to this work and it was my research that led you to reach out to me to host a wellness day workshop. I would say that experience with IRT coupled with other consulting roles I’d taken on before and after, helped to cement the notion that pursuing this career trajectory was for me. 

Dr. Samuel holds a B.A. in Anthropology and African American Studies from Wesleyan University, an M.Ed. in Secondary Education from UMSL, and a Ph.D. in American Studies from Boston University. Her dissertation, “Consuming the U.S. Virgin Islands: Conservation and Education in America’s Paradise,” interrogates conservation colonialism’s impact on education aims on the island of St. John. Her research has been supported by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and Mellon Foundation.

R.E.A.L.’s website:

Dr. Samuel’s ebook “Radical Self-Care and Other Ways to Remain Decolonized: How to Thrive as a BIPOC in Graduate School”: 

Dr. Samuel’s TEDx St. Thomas talk: 

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