Elliot Perry spent his 15 years playing collegiate and professional basketball career as a guard for then-Memphis State University, Los Angeles Clippers, Charlotte Hornets, Phoenix Suns, Memphis Grizzlies and the Continental Basketball Association. He was known around the NBA for his passion and relentless work ethic. It’s a code he’s adhered to and prides himself on in his ongoing role as point guard for education reform and those individuals and organizations working to better our schools, children, and community.
Perry's involvement with the Poplar Foundation, a philanthropic organization that provides funding for education, prompted him to propose creating Education Champions. He recognized how many organizations were doing good work in the city yet not getting the recognition they deserved. He thought that needed to change.
As the originator and spokesperson for Education Champions, Perry seeks to shed light on the positive initiatives coming from education outlets across the county, whether it be a public, private or charter school.
"I have not seen one parent that doesn't want the best for their child regardless of where they come from, regardless of what they have. At the end of the day, those parents want the same thing from their kid as you would want for your kid."
“I’ve always given my time in the community and I think I’ve always known the value of education, but the more I go talk to kids, the more I spend time, the more time I give, I’ve always stressed that the most important thing a young person can do is get their education,” Perry says. “I don’t care how many basketballs you can shoot or how many baseballs you can throw or footballs you can throw; we’ve seen thousands and thousands of athletes come through and have wonderful professional careers, but when that’s over, then what? So I’ve always used education as a foundation to say to young people that the most important thing you could ever get is an education.”
Stand For Children is one of the “champions" Perry points to. A national grassroots organization that rallies parents, teachers, and residents into a collective voice advocating for children and students, Stand for Children encourages residents and elected officials to invest in the future.
“Elliot is one of my favorite people to work with… I think that he is the epitome of living your passion.
Whether it be through basketball or really prioritizing education, Elliot really goes after it with his whole heart,” says Kenya Bradshaw, executive director of Stand for Children in Tennessee. “He’s really a servant leader in this movement because he’s really provided his own time, energy, and resources to insure that all children in our community can experience success that he has. He sees education as a vehicle for freedom for children in our community.”
Pass it forward
Perry grew up in a hardscrabble, working-class neighborhood of North Memphis to a teen mother who gave birth to him at 15. His father died just days later. He and his mom lived with his
grandparents and Perry attended Treadwell High School, eventually playing ball at Memphis State on a scholarship. Through it all, he never took his education, an ideal supported by his mother and grandparents, for granted.
“I grew up in a community where education is an abstract and most of us who grew up in those communities, we can’t attach education to anything.” It’s a community where kids go to school, graduate (or don’t), and then enter the workforce at a blue-collar level. Perry acknowledges he's lucky. “Just by chance I had a mentor who valued that part of it.”
His after school hours were spent at neighbor-hood haunts such as the Samuelson Boys & Girls Club and Hollywood Community Center, but it was his mentor who made the abstract of education tangible for Perry. Michael Toney was a freshman at Memphis State when Perry was in the fifth grade. They lived down the street from each other, became friends, and Perry would visit the college campus and sit in on classes with Toney. The friendship and encouragement he received, what he calls his “foundation,” is something Perry has kept close to his heart and tries to pass along to other kids coming from similar situations.
“Michael was able to change my perspective on the whole idea of being whatever you want to be through hard work and perseverance, but you’re going to have to have a solid educational foundation,” Perry says, while admitting he was a solid C-student. “It was not just a cliché, it was real, it became real and I gained more and more confidence, not just in my basketball abilities, but in understanding that I had to put that same work toward education.” When he speaks to children in the classroom, he tells them, “I used to play basketball and while I don't do that anymore, I still have my education. It's something no one can ever take away from you.”
A Spotlight on education that works
Whole groups of people, organizations from the community, business, and government have taken up the reins of responsibility and are working these days to harness what Toney sparked in Perry. Many are succeeding to a great extent; a success the public is largely unaware of. Education Champions will help to spotlight these endeavors and bring their gains to the forefront for parents and future parents to see.
The organizations and institutions championed include: Teach for America, The New Teacher Project, Stand for Children, KIPP Diamond Academy, Soulsville Middle and High School, St. George’s – Memphis, and Cornerstone Prep. The Teacher Effectiveness Initiative is one funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and seeks to put only the best teachers in front of students through improving how teachers are recruited, hired, and evaluated, and by providing these professionals with the tools needed to develop and grow.
The friendship and encouragement Perry recieved, what he calls his "foundation," is something he has kept close to his heart and tries to pass along to other kids.
Education Champions encourages individuals or companies interested in donating to any of these organizations individually, or to the Education Champions Fund housed at the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, to do so. Individuals may also advocate for children, mentor a student, or work to change the conversation around education.
Bradshaw talks regularly with educators nationwide about the value of creating a system that is about equity and opportunity. “Everybody is excited to see what is happening in Memphis,” he says. “I hope that that spirit is contagious so that people in our city really grasp onto that excitement also, and see this as an opportunity, because we are primed to build the best educational system in the world.”
What all parents want
These days 42-year-old Perry is a family man. He married five years ago while living in Houston, and now has a child of his own. Though he and his wife Kimberly haven’t made final decisions as to
where 4-year-old Morgan’s educational future lies, he's certain she'll learn the value of education — and community.
With school system consolidation now written in ink on everyone’s calendar, the eyes of parents countywide, as well as those of school system leaders around the country, will be fixed on the outcome. “I can’t think of any better time to be engaged in education and no better place than Memphis,” says Bradshaw.
Yet, with so many disparate ideas and opinions, it is imperative that the common denominator — educating children — not be set aside and forgotten. Perry hasn’t forgotten, nor has he forgotten what it was like to come up through childhood and adolescence with strong guidance both in and out of school.
The promise of a decent education should not be made according to zip code, of this the normally soft-spoken Perry is adamant and seeks to shout to his city. “I’ve talked to thousands of kids and thousands of parents from the richest and poorest communities in Memphis, and I have not seen one parent who doesn’t want the best for their child, regardless of where they come from, regardless of what they have. At the end of the day, those parents want the same thing from their kid as you would want for your kid.”