Lion’s Pride (LP): Tell me a little bit about yourself.
Zion McKinnie (ZM): I started out at Gary Comer College Prep Middle School and was there until late 7th grade. After that, I moved to Baker College Prep where I was one of the founding littles for the Lion’s Pride Program. I came to work at The Noble Academy shortly after my graduation and I currently serve as a cultural specialist.
[At The Noble Academy, the culture specialist works to collect and analyze the culture “metrics” of the school that include components of academics, social-emotional well-being, and character development. The overall goal of the position is to create an environment where students feel safe, valued, and supported.]
LP: How would you say Lion’s Pride has impacted you as a person?
ZM: Lion’s Pride really helped me develop an open mind. I had already been a part of Noble pre-high school, so when Lion’s Pride was offered to me as a program to help me transition into Baker, I didn’t really feel like I needed it. But the program really helped with the transition in high school. A lot of people overall were helped throughout the program in different ways. You learn how to be more independent through your involvement with the program.
LP: What does your current role entail and what are your favorite parts about your position?
ZM: Some tasks that I am in charge of include organizing parent-teacher conferences, student remedial programs, improving culture and teamwork practices, and in doing so I work directly with Lion’s Pride. The role allows me to develop pre-established relationships, and through developing an open culture and relationships with scholars, I am able to know what they need and where they are in terms of strengths and the areas where they might need more help.
I always tell the students that I was a founding little, now I’m a big. This position gives me the ability to give back.
It was because people invested time in me, and I want to give back and to be the confidant that I had been given. It’s very important that these students know that there is someone who cares about them. They need to feel cared about, and know that they’re more than a number or statistic.
LP: Through Lion’s Pride, we have a cyclical experience of students both receiving mentors and then becoming potential future mentors themselves. Why do you think it’s important for students to have mentors at this level?
ZM: Having a mentor helps over the areas that your parents cannot necessarily support and essentially fills in the gaps. A mentor can be involved in areas that your parents can’t necessarily support and can find the weaknesses that they cannot necessarily find. As a mentor, by finding these weaknesses, you can understand how to help students come up with solutions for themselves. We teach our mentors that it’s their role to ask students, what can we do better? How can we help? And by doing so, we learn for ourselves how to better help the students we are mentoring.
LP: Who are your mentors right now?
ZM: There are a couple. My middle school algebra teacher. My drama teacher at Baker. The Community Outreach Manager at Gary Comer Youth Center. Former teachers allow for an interesting perspective because now I can look at how things are when I’m on this side of the fence. Now I can go to them as friends and ask them questions from both perspectives.
When I first started this role I was very overwhelmed and wasn’t sure about all the decisions that I had made. But when I talked to my mentors she reminded me that being in the education system was something that she knew I wanted to do, and that there is a gray area of being an educator. Legally you can only do so much to help a student and having that responsibility to find that balance is overwhelming. My mentors however remind me that these are the feelings that keep you going as an educator and help keep you going in the right direction. They remind me that this is an area where I can make the most impact.
LP: How do you see yourself changing with the role that you’re currently in?
ZM: I currently see myself building up in the role, taking on more responsibility. In the future I would really like to go into the education space, and teach psychology at the high school level. Ideally I’d like to teach at either the 11-12, middle school, or 1-2 grade range. The most likely opportunity to teach would be at the high school level where the students' opportunities are already developed and molded. But middle school students can be pushed into certain directions, and made aware of how their thought processes work.
LP: Let’s say you could go back and meet Zion from five years ago. What would she be the most surprised by? How do you see Zion in the next five years changing?
ZM: Zion from five years ago would be happy that she would be back at Noble so soon, but shocked that it would be so fast. She would want to help because she understands both sides of the fence. Noble has shaped me into the person I am by shaping my work ethic, taught me the importance of punctuality, how to dress appropriately for work environment, how to behave in work environment, etc. It was because people invested time in me, and I want to give back and to be the confidant that I had been given. It’s very important that these students know that there is someone who cares about them. They need to feel cared about, and know that they’re more than a number or statistic. I felt cared about when I was at Noble, and it’s important to me that the students now know that there is someone who also cares about them.
ZM: I think that Lion’s Pride will be at every Noble campus in the next five years. Lion’s Pride has the potential to go out of Noble, and integrate bigs and littles from other schools. I hope that we’re able to expand to any and all school campuses that are interested, maybe with even more capacity and space for more students.
LP: We know that Diversity, Equity and Inclusion are incredibly important in the education space. What do you think are steps that need to be taken to work towards this goal?
ZM: Speaking for our campuses, we know that representation matters. At The Noble Academy, the people who oversee our programs are very diverse and showcase a broad range of people of color. Having students see who is managing the programs, who’s teaching and instructing is very important. That as well as working with littles one on one, and making sure that we remind our bigs that they need support too. Offering support on both sides, and making sure that students are aware that you’re there to give it is very important. It helps them get what they need so that they can later give back. It’s always important to ask bigs what support I can offer to help them, because you can only support others best when you are who you need to be first.
Rapid Fire Q&A
Favorite spot in the city?
The Kenwood Hyde-Park Bronzeville Area. I grew up deeply integrated and involved with the arts so this area holds a lot of significance for me
Deep dish pizza? Yes or no.
Favorite museum in the city?
Museum of Science and Industry. My favorite part of the museum is the Crystals, Diamonds, and Gems exhibit.
What are you looking forward to the most as the weather gets warmer?
Outdoor events. Silverroom block party, Dancing Under the Stars, Movies in Millennium, Jazz Concerts, etc.
Underrated thing to do in Chicago?
Watching the sunrise at South Shore Community Center
Overrated thing to do in Chicago?
Tour of Chicago