American astronauts landed on the moon before Lillian Lowery walked into her first integrated classroom as a sophomore in Gastonia, North Carolina. Brown v. Board’s mandate had escaped her schools for 14 years. Still, Lillian views her upbringing in the segregated South as an asset in her quest to help all children succeed.
“There were no implicit biases and no excuses” in segregated schools, she said. “Those Black teachers were relentless.” Her principal and teachers lived in the boarding houses down the street from her working-class family. Her neighbor became the city’s first Black mayor. “There were Black businesses in my community, Black doctors, Black bankers. Each of them had high expectations for all of us,” Lillian recalled. “If I had to do it all over again, I’d do it the same way to have the people all around me who supported me.”
She was warned that her new high school would be challenging — that she needed to be three times better than her white classmates. She walked into her white 10th-grade English teacher’s class and thrived. Mrs. Holloway’s cos-play and character portrayals inspired Lillian’s love of literature and teaching. Her journey started as a middle school English and social studies teacher in Gastonia, where she taught gifted and talented students, sponsored the school newspaper and coached cheerleading.
“Those other pieces around classroom instruction helped me form my beliefs in holistic instruction and tapping into who young people are as individuals, their passions and how they use their learning to perpetuate what they want to see for themselves in the future,” Lillian said.
She went on to principal and superintendent roles in Virginia before leading the Maryland and Delaware state education departments, a public-private education partnership in Columbus, Ohio, garnering a plethora of honors and seats on national education boards — and now serving as vice president of P-12 policy and practice at The Education Trust.
But before teaching, there was cotton. Gastonia was a textile mill town known as the “Combed Yarn Capital of the World.” It also became famous for a 1929 strike at one of its mills that lasted for several chaotic months and ended with at least two deaths and unfulfilled demands for better wages and working conditions. Lillian’s mother and family friends worked at another of the city’s mills, like many did after high school when advancement opportunities were limited. It’s also what Lillian did during her first summers while attending North Carolina Central University, a historically Black college. She admits she wasn’t very good at mill work. The machines came around to pick up the thread she bobbed faster than she could handle. Her co-workers carried her.
“I have total respect for those folks who worked hard for their families. That’s where I got my work ethic,” Lillian said of the hard labor. “It opened my eyes. This is not a dress rehearsal. This is real life. You stand on the shoulders of people who went before you. It taught me to appreciate the opportunities that I had and not squander them.”
Lillian lived in two worlds most of her early life. Her Black neighborhood and her integrated school. She was a latch-key child raised by a single mom during the school year, and she spent summers with her father. Her father’s siblings earned five valedictorian and two salutatorian honors between the seven of them. Her mother’s family was socially conscious with strong people skills. She says she got her IQ from her dad and her EQ from her mother.
That combination, along with her culturally affirming upbringing, guided her development as a leader and change agent. She is credited by teachers’ unions, governance boards and business leaders for listening to the voices who make up policy and those who live it. She worked with teacher advisory boards to ensure her team’s initiatives were on point. She worked with state legislators, negotiated union contracts, transitioned two states to college- and career-ready learning standards and helped create support programs for teachers. Change is Lillian’s friend, and helping teachers educate the whole child is her passion.
“We are who we are. Children show up with the lives they’ve lived and the families they have. Let’s honor that and make sure they see the value of their experience in the classroom,” she said. “If we don’t address the lived experiences of kids, we are missing the boat.”
In her 40th year as an educator, Lillian said she now enjoys a freedom at The Education Trust that’s different from any other previous role. “I’m in a position now to have a voice. I can speak to power in ways I haven’t been able to in the past. If I stub my toe, it’s my toe,” she said.
With the transition to the new federal guidelines, states are more empowered to enact their individual priorities and accountabilities. Lillian is currently working with various state departments of education to build coalitions, hold up a mirror, analyze the data and provide technical support. She is credible as an educator and former state leader who has walked the walk. Everywhere she goes, grounded in data, she is looking to build on what already exists. Continuous improvement is her strategy of choice.
“I am a person who wants to go in and take challenges as opportunities. I’ve worked with the best educators this country has. The majority come with the best interests of students in mind. What are we doing to support them and help them be successful?” asks Lillian. “We need to have that same mindset. What are their strengths and areas of needed improvement? Just as we tend to students, we need to do the same for the educators who show up every day to support them.”
A former superintendent used to quote Stephen Covey often: “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” She still keeps the motto close to heart. For Lillian, the main thing is the students she serves. “How do we motivate children by honoring what they bring into the classroom? Children need to see themselves and be honored for who they are, who their families are,” she said.
Despite drastic changes since Lillian walked the halls of her high school, massive challenges remain in public education. A quality education is still a civil right denied to too many students in America, and she has something to say about it: “Just as we are picking up our progress, confronting the data and making real changes in schools and classrooms, the Trump administration is signaling a retreat on civil rights guidance and action on reducing instances of — and disparities in — exclusionary school discipline, despite clear evidence that these new practices work better than punitive measures,” she recently wrote. “As educators, advocates, parents and students, we cannot stand for this. This is not the time to retreat; this is the time to speed our collective efforts by examining what’s working and ensuring these successful strategies reach more students.”
Lillian is unafraid of leveraging her national platform to share her views on what she knows to be true. But she’s not one, by nature, to seek the spotlight. Instead, she prefers a more distributed leadership approach. “The work is never about me,” she says. “I don’t have to be the loudest voice. The bottom line is I want to get stuff done for kids. Let’s partner with folks who have credibility to move this work forward.”
With a resume and experience unmatched by most, Lillian brings her own credibility to any work she tackles. She believes there is still a lot of work left for her to do in paying it forward. She knows she was singled out in elementary school because her teachers saw her potential, and that singling out set her up for academic success. Still, she wonders, “How do we make those decisions as educators? What do we do for the other students to be sure they are given the same exposure?”
“Given my station in life, being raised by a single mother, it could have gone either way for me. I could still be in my hometown working hard and happy in my environment. But I was blessed to have people pushing me,” she added. “I’m thankful for the people who passed through my life, Black, white, indifferent. I wanted to give that back, and I will keep giving that back.”