By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times
When it comes to educating Birmingham’s best and brightest, Meryem Tunagur is all in.
The 23-year-old is the architect of the All In Campaign for Change, a partnership of Birmingham City Schools (BCS), the city of Birmingham, and the Birmingham Education Foundation (Ed Foundation), a nonprofit designed to help parents become more engaged in their child’s schools and for schools to improve.
Tunagur was recently named community engagement manager for the Ed Foundation, where she was previously a program specialist.
“The exciting thing about being [community engagement manager] is that it’s a [newly create role], which creates a lot of space for me to figure out what I really want to do,” she said. “When I took the job, I knew we wanted to start a grass roots campaign of some kind, … so that was the first thing I started working on.”
That campaign created by Tunagur led to an evening walk, during which Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin, BCS Superintendent Lisa Herring, EdD, and Ed Foundation officials went into the Ensley community to inform parents about the year-long initiative.
Start with Ed
Tunagur’s journey with the Ed Foundation followed a path she didn’t plan. After earning a bachelor’s degree in theater educational psychology from Birmingham-Southern College (BSC), she wanted to enroll in graduate school but didn’t have the financial means. She had to find a job quickly and applied for about 80 jobs outside of the South because she no longer wanted to be in Alabama. Unable to land a position elsewhere, she decided to pursue jobs in Alabama and came across an open position at the Ed Foundation.
“I was really intrigued by the work because it was hands-on,” she said. “It involved working with students and with BCS, which I enjoyed when I was college. … I applied, and a few days later they replied, [saying] ‘We want to interview you.’”
Tunagur didn’t have high hopes: “I said to myself ‘I’ll do it, but I don’t think I’m going to get it.’”
That changed after the interview. As part of the process, she had to submit an application activity that required her to design a program structure or lesson plan, develop activities around the theme of healthy eating, and incorporate a site visit. She worked really hard on the project and was offered the position the next day.
“At the time I was waiting to hear back from another job I had interviewed for in [Washington, D.C.], and I really wanted to be there, but for some reason I couldn’t turn down [the job in Birmingham],” she said. “I accepted the position of AmeriCorps Vista member with the Ed Foundation, and something in me that was like, ‘This is where you need to be.’”
Tunagur knew she could get far more out of the job than she could give: “I realized this was far greater than me, and I knew this was all going to be greater than anything I expected.”
In August 2017, she assumed the role of program specialist. She oversaw all the in-school programming and skill-building, going into classrooms five days a week to focus on a specific topic each day and create a project based on that topic.
For example, she worked with 12th graders at Woodlawn and Wenonah high schools, spending five days discussing the topic of public speaking and having the students write personal narratives; she did something similar at the Wylam K-8 School.
“I was getting classroom experience without being a teacher,” Tunagur said. “It was the best of both worlds, and I had an incredible time on the program team. I fell in love with BCS and the incredible, passionate, motivated teachers, faculty, administration, and students.”
Tunagur considers herself a Birmingham native. She was born here and mostly grew up in the Middle East before returning to the Magic City 11 years ago. Growing up, she lived in Saudi Arabia with her parents, Osman and Laurie, and her three siblings. Living in the Middle East was unique, she said.
“At school, there was this weird challenge of I’m the American, but I’m not American,” she said. “We were not Arab, and most students at the school were, so I was always the unique kid with the unique circumstances, but I liked that attention.”
“Being somewhat of a middle child, I always strived for that attention. I liked being the special girl who got to work after school with the teachers. Plus, my mom worked at the school, and everyone knew me as ‘Ms. Laurie’s daughter,’ so I was always the teacher’s pet and the favorite, which I loved.”
Once her family moved back to U.S., her situation wasn’t much different. Tunagur was still the kid with “the unique circumstances” but in a different way. The family moved to Mountain Brook, where she attended junior high school.
“I was the only kid who looked like I did, so that was another situation where I was the standout,” she said. “[Because of my hijab, head scarf] … I had a challenge to deal with very early on, being the only representation for not only an entire culture but an entire religion that makes up a thousand different cultures. That forced me to grow up quickly.”
Tunagur joined theater and choir, which carried over once she went to Mountain Brook High School. Theater became a real passion, and her class won the state competition during her junior year.
“We were doing a show called ‘Androcles and the Lion.’ I had the role of the lion, so I was a lion puppet, basically. But, instead of having a hand puppet, I had walking canes and sticks as my paws and I wore this giant 20-pound foam head,” she said. “I didn’t have lines. Three other actors had my voice and another did the roar, but I didn’t have a single line. … That was the first time we made it to the Southeastern Theater Conference, and we won state. That was a really big deal for us.”
Tunagur earned a full ride theater scholarship to BSC and created her own major in theater education psychology. Though she had a passion for theater, she also had an interesting relationship with education.
“When I was a little kid, education was something I resented because I knew I wasn’t good at Arabic, so [resentment of education] was something I felt like I wasn’t ever going to overcome,” she said. “When I moved back to the States, it was like learning something all over again because I wasn’t that great at American education, either.”
That changed when she began working with special needs students at Mountain Brook High School: “I realized that I empathized more with them than some of my other peers because I had struggled with education, as well. I found myself gravitating toward them to help.”
She continued that passion in college by tutoring special needs students at the BCS’s Bush Hills Academy on the western side of town. She also grew a lot in college.
“I met a lot of inspirational people, specifically the professors and adults I was able to work with,” she said. “It was a time of exploration and self-discovery. Even at the end of it, I knew that the journey wasn’t over.”
When Tunagur graduated from college last year and began working with the Ed Foundation, it didn’t take long for her to begin the grass roots All In Campaign for Change.
“The day I was offered the job, [the Ed Foundation] had a meeting at City Hall with Ed Fields, [Mayor Woodfin’s chief strategist], and Ken King, [the mayor’s community engagement officer],” she said. “We wanted to know how they ran [the mayor’s campaign] because it was one of the most successful grass roots campaigns in Birmingham history.”
“The more we talked about what we wanted to do and how we wanted to gather the community together,” they wanted to join, she said.
The objective of the All In Campaign for Change is to understand the experience and lives of BCS parents and students. For the next year, the BCS, the Ed Foundation, and the city of Birmingham will survey, phone poll, face-to-face interview, and conduct focus groups with parents, students, teachers, and other members of the community to assess what they want for the city’s schools. That information will be developed into a comprehensive plan that will be launched by 2019 or 2020. The campaign began on August 6, the first day of school in Birmingham, and she knew the partners had to do something big.
“The mayor is all about door knocking, and we knew we wanted to do door knocking, as well,” Tunagur said. “Luckily for me, the mayor’s office had a team of people who had done this for a year. Working with the mayor’s team and the superintendent to organize the launch and the walk, we looked at where we wanted to go. We targeted Ensley because school attendance in that area isn’t the highest. Being able to talk to folks in that community was a no brainer.”
Organizers met at the Birmingham Public Library downtown, targeted areas where they would walk, and set out to Ensley. Nearly three dozen people from the Ed Foundation, the mayor’s office, and other local groups were there to kick off the campaign. Tunagur was excited to see the attention they received.
“I wrote a press release with quotes from the mayor and the superintendent, … and all of a sudden four different news stations were at the library,” she said. “It was a little overwhelming but really exciting because clearly people care.”
Tunagur has other big plans in mind, too. She is working on Network Nights, a town hall where students, parents, and teachers can share ideas and work with the Birmingham Network Council, a group made up of students, teachers, parents, BCS alumni, and community partners, including the mayor’s office and the city of Birmingham, Regions Bank, the Birmingham Coca-Cola Bottling Co., Protective Life Corp., and GEAR UP Birmingham, a program that prepares students for college attendance and success.
The continuous support Tunagur receives from her peers and the community keeps her going, and she couldn’t think of a better way to begin her journey.
“I’m so blessed that my first job is at an organization that genuinely, wholeheartedly cares about me not only as a professional but also as a person,” she said. “I’m so blessed to have worked with teachers who are so passionate and [who] go so far for their students. … At the end of the day, I have a job and I am doing something I am so passionate about. I never could’ve imagined doing this much work that’s good for my soul at such a young age.”