Teaching in a Detroit school led Kyle Ofori MPP 2019 toward a new goal—reviving America's cities.
James F. Smith
May 7, 2019
Kyle Ofori MPP 2019, a product of elite prep schools and the Ivy League, studied education reform at Princeton but had never attended public school himself when he started teaching on the West Side of Detroit.
“I came face to face with the difference between who I thought I was, what I thought I wanted to do, and what I was actually doing,” Ofori recalled. “Learning about public education reform and charter schools in a classroom in New Jersey is a whole lot different from actually being a teacher in Michigan and interacting with students. Most of my students were black and I had spent most of my life in predominantly white settings, so there was culture shock there, along with things like a harsher discipline policy and fewer resources compared to the schools I attended.”
As he gained hard-won personal insights during that challenging year, Ofori also was struck by the dedicated community-building he witnessed in Detroit neighborhoods. Those experiences carried Ofori toward a new career path—supporting development in American cities, focused on innovative approaches to community building and economic growth.
Ofori had always attended private schools, as a Catholic school student in Wooster, Ohio, and as a boarding student at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. His parents, both medical doctors, immigrated to the United States from Ghana and always made education a priority. As an undergrad at Princeton, Ofori studied economics and Chinese, but also became involved in a student organization focused on public education reform, which deepened his desire to make a difference in education.
From Princeton, he went to Detroit to teach math through Teach for America, which places new teachers in underserved school districts. The experience helped him recognize that he didn’t want to teach for a living but that he did want to stay in Detroit. “I was inspired by the level of dedication that people had to their community, and I wanted to dive more into the work going on,” Ofori said.
In his first post-teaching job, Ofori learned to code and built mobile apps for Detroit Labs, a software development company. But over the next two years and on his own time, he worked in community development, volunteering for Eastside Community Network. His passion for education and community development also led him to launch a coding program for students at a charter high school near downtown.
As he learned more about the challenges Detroit and its people were facing, he watched developers build new projects that did little for the poorest residents. He saw clear racial and class divides between those able to live downtown or in suburbs, and those living in poverty in much of the rest of the city. He knew that the residents of Detroit, and other cities, deserved better.
That convinced him that he could build on his economics training and his insights into urban development needs by combining urban planning studies with public policy coursework. Hence his two Harvard degrees. He will graduate in May with a Master in Public Policy from the Kennedy School and a Master in Urban Planning from the School of Design.
At HKS, Ofori was a Sheila C. Johnson Fellow. The fellowship, for students interested in serving African American communities, was a big part of his time at Harvard, “and gave me a sense of home” during his three years in Cambridge.
Ofori strengthened his expertise through field lab courses at Harvard Kennedy School, one with Lecturer in Public Policy and Management Jorrit de Jong on addressing problem properties in cities, and another on budgeting with Linda Bilmes, Daniel Patrick Moynihan Senior Lecturer in Public Policy. He also took invaluable courses at Harvard with Lecturer Edward Marchant. In one, students were introduced to real estate finance, and in the other they participated in an affordable housing design competition.
During his time at Harvard, Ofori also joined other students in raising issues relating to diversity and inclusion. “I’ve been able to see how the issues resurface time and again, and how progress seems to stop once each class graduates. I would like to see more commitment from the [School] administration to address those concerns that particularly black students and other domestic students of color face.”
Students want more tenured faculty of color and more female professors, Ofori said. One student petition calls for addressing race and racism by making courses on the issue part of the core curriculum. Ofori reasons: “Without a solid understanding of how race was created throughout history, we won’t be able to combat the ways in which the ideology is perpetuated.”
After commencement and summer travel with his wife in West Africa, he will keep building his urban development skillset in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when he takes up a 10-week fellowship with the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative. Why Tulsa? Ofori believes the city is full of potential in terms of economic and community development as Tulsa approaches the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, in which white rioters burned down a prosperous black neighborhood. Ofori notes that nearly a century later, there is still much work to do.