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What will it take for every child to have ‘catalytic experiences’ in school?

Donnell Cannon and Jenny O’Meara conducting a Zoom interview for the first episode of their new podcast. Alli Lindenberg/EducationNC

Principals Donnell Cannon and Jenny O’Meara have long been fans of podcasts and education. This fall, they decided to take the leap and create a show of their own. The Hummingbird Stories is a show that explores the question:

What will it take for every child in North Carolina to not only have a sound basic education, but to have catalytic experiences that drive them to step boldly into the futures they deserve and create a better world? 

So what is the story of the hummingbird? How are these two principals from Edgecombe County planning on tackling their driving question?  Hear the legend of the show’s namesake and the hosts’ vision for this season in the trailer below. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, and listen to the first episode here.

I got to attend their first interview and asked Cannon and O’Meara a couple of questions about why they started this show. Here are their answers.

What made you want to do this?

Donnell Cannon: We both are podcast consumers and nerd out over our favorite pods. We share pods to inspire one another,  help shape an early idea, and stoke a new perspective.

Jenny and I have always talked jokingly about creating a podcast as a form of activism. It was always one of those, “How cool would that be?” moments. However, neither of us ever felt ready, confident, or prepared to make the thing we both were passionate about into a reality. We were afraid to make the BIG jump.

The idea of starting a podcast became real after having a colloquial check-in with our friend and mentor Mebane Rash about the opportunities that lie ahead for students post-pandemic. Mebane said, “Y’all should consider that podcast.” The entire conversation gave both Jenny and me the confidence we needed to pursue our passion. Mebane helped us feel powerful and BIG.

Jenny O’Meara: In my first year at Phillips Middle School, one of our teachers made a beautiful bulletin board with little clouds on it. He put some sharpies nearby and encouraged anyone walking by to write a dream on a cloud. I wrote, “Create a podcast about education.” 

I simply adore learning, and podcasts have made a big impact on my growth as a person and a professional over the past decade. They’ve sparked curiosity and led me to continue to live a life of wonder and awe. I want everyone to experience this on a regular basis and now, specifically, about what’s possible in education.

I believe with everything in my soul that we, as a society, are capable of designing an education system in which every student has what they need to thrive and self-actualize. Why not put two of my loves — learning through podcasts and redefining what’s possible in education — together?

A sticky note in Donnell Cannon’s office at North Edgecombe High School. Alli Lindenberg/EducationNC

What are you most excited about?

DC: I’m excited to hold space with leaders around our state and arouse a shared hope, imagine the world as it can be, and talk about how to bring that world into existence.

JO: I am beyond excited to learn from others doing amazing work in education across our state! Our first interview was fun, inspiring, and pushed my thinking about how I want to show up in this work, especially in tough moments. How lucky are Donnell and I to get to interview so many incredible people?

Why a podcast (as opposed to a newsletter, etc.)?

DC: We wanted to capture the stories of leaders across our state who are standing boldly in this moment to build towards a better future for their communities. We wanted to capture those stories and use those stories as a catalyst for others to find their power and work alongside their community to restore hope for the future. We believed sharing this in a podcast might fan others’ fire to imagine a better world and pick up the tools to start building it.

JO: Podcasts are life. If I don’t have an audiobook on at home or in the car, I have a podcast on. The best part of podcasts is that they are a simple and beautiful way to tell stories.

Why now?

DC: Now that systems have been disrupted — the same systems that have perpetuated inequity — it’s time to join hands with system benders to design something different: a system rooted in justice.

JO: Well, the practical and immediate answer is because Mebane invited us to do this. Then again, we could have said no. So here’s why I said yes.

The inertia of the status quo is so very powerful. Even in the midst of a pandemic where we have been forced to innovate in ways we never dreamed, I can feel the draw and desire to return to “normalcy”all around me and in myself. Still, we know that normal isn’t good enough. We know normal is not leading to every kid in North Carolina having a great childhood. This is the perfect moment for us to investigate what amazing, innovative work is already happening out there, learn from it, and find ways to spread it so that every child has a transformative education.

Alli Lindenberg

Alli Lindenberg is an executive fellow for EducationNC.