Tyler James Williams Never Had a Black Teacher, So He Decided to Play One on TV

The 'Abbott Elementary' star talked to Complex about his partnership with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to help fight for education.

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Tyler James Williams cares about children and their education even when the Abbott Elementary cameras aren't rolling.

The actor caught up with Complex before his panel with W.K. Kellogg Foundation's president and CEO La June Montgomery Tabron at the Essence Festival of Culture that took place with this weekend. The panel focused on Early Childhood Education and introduced the actor's partnership with the foundation that will kick off this summer.

Together, they will share firsthand accounts and success stories from early child care and education advocates, who will open up about the challenges they face and the efforts to provide equitable learning and development opportunities for children across the country.

Like Abbott Elementary often highlights, systemic barriers, like a lack of funding and a need for more teachers, disproportionately affect children of color and children from low-income families. Through the Every Child Thrives initiave, the actor and the foundation's aim is to celebrate the educators, caregivers, communities, and organizations who are hard at work to break down these barriers and help make a strong education accessible to all children.

Williams plays a first grade teacher named Gregory in the hit ABC show, and aside from being a ratings and critical success, the show has also put a spotlight on educators like the ones who inspired Quinta Brunson to write and create the show. The cast and creators have made it a point to give back to public education systems and have donated money and time to support educators who are on the ground doing the work.

"We have a really unique opportunity right now with Abbott being as successful as it is," the actor tells Complex. "If we squander that opportunity, just kind of reveling in its success in the awards and all of that, then we're going to miss something huge. We actually have an opportunity to use this platform to actually affect change."

Gregory also serves as inspiration for young Black men to pursue a career in education. Williams himself says he never encountered a teacher who looked like him in his time in school and hopes that his character gives people a role model to look up to.

"A partnership with Tyler and what he represents, both personally as well as his character, is a representation of the African American male, someone who is critical to our education system as well as our wellbeing overall, and that narrative is being shifted every day," Tabron tells Complex. "Every time we look at an episode or we partner with Tyler directly, the narrative changes and it shows the importance and the influence that our Black men have on our society and how important it is to lift them up and to allow them to be the asset that they can be both in our education system as well as in our lives."

Complex quickly caught up with the actor ahead of the panel and he told us all about his decision to jump on board with the initiative, who he models Gregory after and what he hopes other Black men learn from his character.

To learn about the work Williams and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation are doing, visit wkkf.org and everychildthrives.com.

The Abbott cast is so involved in helping people, especially with teachers and education. Can you talk to me a little bit about this partnership and why you wanted to get involved with this?
I think we have a really unique opportunity right now with Abbott being as successful as it is. And if we squander that opportunity, just kind of reveling in its success in the awards and all of that, then we're going to miss something huge. We actually have an opportunity to use this platform to actually affect change.

When this partnership came across my desk and I heard about all the things that the W.K. Kellogg Foundation was doing, it felt like a really easy, “Yes.” Part of what I do is I tell stories, stories of all kinds, and hopefully those stories affect people. 

That's what I want to use my voice here to do, is to tell the stories of educators on the ground and organizations that are supporting them to affect their communities and the children in their communities, especially when you have communities of color and the inequities that they deal with. That's incredibly important to me at this time, as I'm like in depth, in the midst of Abbott, it's not something that I can just kind of ignore anymore.

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W.K. Kellogg Foundation

Some of my closest friends are all teachers, and they tell me about the hardships they go through. What do you hope, through this show and through this partnership, that you are telling everybody about what's going on in the education system?
Well, I hope part of it is exactly what you're talking about. There's an educational aspect that people just don't know. I mean, to have so many educators in someone's life and still not really know what their day-to-day lives are like, it's our job to tell those stories and to shine a light on that. So I think that's one part of it.

But I think the other part is inspiring people to get involved on the community level, on the state level, but then also on the city level and the school board level. Hopefully, people can see these stories and then in their teachers, in their lives, and their communities, they can start to connect the dots between the person that you know and Janine Teagues, and the person that lives down the street and Barbara Howard, and you can start to see the things that they need and the assistance that they need. And then we can stand up and use our voices to help with that.

And I think that's what the work that the W.K. Kellogg Federation has been doing. And there are people who have dedicated their whole lives to this. You know what I mean? And we need to support them in that. It can't just be something that we talk about and we watch on a Tuesday or a Wednesday night and go, "Wow, that's unfortunate." That's not the end of the conversation.

Twitter: @wokeSTEMteacher

A few years ago, there was a viral tweet that was asking, "When was the first time you had a Black male as a teacher?" We always talk about who Quinta based the show off of, but is there someone in your life that you have modeled him after?
Yes. I mean, there's several people. I think one of the things that you kind of touched on is I remember seeing that tweet and I remember realizing I did not have one at all.

Oh, wow.
I had never encountered a Black male educator in any of my tenure in my educational experience, and that was incredibly unfortunate. And I thought about what the difference would be in my life if that had been the case.

But I definitely model Gregory off of all of the Black men in my life. He's my father, he's my grandfather, he's my uncle, he's my brothers. There's so many aspects of him, because I come from a family of really dedicated Black men who were very involved in the raising of the next generation of not just only their kids, but the kids in their communities. That's something that gets lost from our narrative a lot. 

A lot of times our narrative is controlled for us, and we don't get a chance to really show this other side, that we're not rare. We're here, we're doing the work. That's part of what I want to do in my career over time, is to show the lack of rarity that it is where we can actually see it more in the world and tell these stories more frequently, and I think that's something that hopefully you see more of and people will seek out.

I think we want everybody to go to Everychildthrives.com and see more of these stories of people doing this and seeing it so that it doesn't become something that feels like, "Oh, well, this is the asterisk. They're like the exception to the rule." It's not. It can be the rule.

Do you hope that through Gregory, you inspire more young Black men to pursue a career in education?
Yeah, I think it's very clear: if you can see it, you can be it. We know that at this point. Hopefully the success of Abbott leads to more of that, more people who see this and go, "Oh, I can do that." I remember that happened to me as an actor when I saw somebody who looked like me and I went, "Oh, I think this is something that I can do." Hopefully, that is the case. The more we show it, the more people will gravitate to it.

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