An Interview with Dr. Joyce Kenner

photo by Mr. Benjamin Gucciardi

This article has been edited for clarity.

TK : Why did you decide to retire this year? And did the pandemic influence your decision at all?

Dr. Kenner : Number one, I’m sixty-five years old…I’ve been principal here for twenty-seven, assistant principal for five. I’ve been at Whitney Young for thirty-two years, almost half my life. And I just…had a new grandchild born yesterday…And then I have a granddaughter who’s three years old. So those two babies are going to need me. My son is going to need me. And I just think it’s time. It had nothing to do with the pandemic. I could have retired five years ago, and I chose not to…I stayed on at Whitney Young because of the pandemic. I just felt like my students needed me. The faculty needed me, and I was not going to do that based on that situation. So that’s the reason that I did not retire three years ago.

ABG : …Do you ever think that…when people have held a position for so long, do you ever think there’s a point when someone just needs to allow someone new to come in?
Dr. Kenner : No. And I’m not trying to be boastful, or brag, but I was good at this…That’s why I say to you guys this as students getting ready to enter the workforce. Once you graduate, find something that you’re passionate about and that you’re good at. And I was good at this. And so in terms of another person coming in, we’re obviously going to have another principal that to me has some big shoes to fill. There’s not a whole lot of Joyce Kenners willing to do what I used to do for my students…It wasn’t about the money, it was about me being able to support young people and get them to the next stage of their lives. And I just always, my whole life, I’ve been committed to that. Since I was little, I wanted to interact with children.

CP : It was reported on the news that you’re planning on writing a book. What will this book be about and why decide to write it?

Dr. Kenner : So for the last twenty years, any time we had an incident at Whitney Young, I would write down the incident and just throw it in a folder. So I probably have a hundred different incidents that occured at Whitney Young and I’m going to talk about those incidents (obviously not name anybody) and talk about how I handled it, and the person reading it, maybe how they would have handled it. I want people to view it from not really necessarily an educational standpoint, but from a leadership standpoint. So I want this book to be read by people in leadership positions or people who are contemplating leadership positions.

Photo courtesy of Yearbook

CP : …One of things that you always said in [open house events] was that you have an open door policy. How did you decide to start having an open door policy and how do you feel it has impacted all of us?

Dr. Kenner : I just wanted the kids to be able to tell me what the issues are…because a lot of times you guys think that, “Oh, she already knows”. Well, if you don’t talk to me, I don’t know, you know? And so a lot of assumptions are made.

ABG : What was a time that a student shocked you?

Dr. Kenner : Shocked me? … I have a good one… One of the students that called for my resignation on [] … I actually stopped that young man from getting arrested here as a senior and so when all of it was said and done, when it was over, he actually came and asked to speak with me, here at Whitney Young and apologized. And, I said, first of all, why would you do that to me? As much support as I gave you as a student, when a parent called and said, I want the kid arrested, I said, wait a minute, let me just talk to the kid.

TK : … How do you feel about that sort of criticism?

Dr. Kenner : I wasn’t in touch with it. That almost made me retire. That hurt me more than anything, because I know who I am and how I have supported our students. I was dumbfounded…That was the most traumatic time for me at Whitney Young.

ABG : …Do you think as…a Black woman, do you think that definitely affected the way people felt about you? And then, what do you think, being a Black woman, was the impact of that on your principalship and what struggles did you face?

Dr. Kenner : …Honestly, I would say no. And even if I were treated differently, I would not have viewed it that way because I am a strong Black woman. I’m going to fight back against people who I feel are unjust or saying something stupid. I know how to fight back. I’ve learned how to politically fight back and articulate my position without people saying that she’s really, really mad. So I never wanted it to be about my skin color and me being a woman. I never wanted to be viewed that way.
ABG : What impact do you think you’ve had on your community?

Dr. Kenner : I just think that I was able to be a role model for our students here. And however students identify – Black, white, green, female, male, it didn’t matter. I was just a role model. And some of the things…students would say, “Oh my God, why is she so uptight about hats in the building?”, “Why is she so uptight about crop tops?” Basically, I’m trying to prepare you guys for society, and society is not going to be as liberal as a Whitney Young inside our walls… You know, whatever the controversies were, I felt like I did them to benefit our kids.

TK : … And you often have had a position of letting teachers teach their own way without dictating everything. As you say, you don’t want to be dictatorial. How did you develop this policy and do you still stand by it?
Dr. Kenner : I majored in physical education, and I think I know a lot about physical education. I don’t know anything about math or English or social science or science – that’s not what I majored in. So how can I tell a superstar teacher how to teach? That shouldn’t be my role.

TK : …I know a lot of places in the country, lawmakers have been trying to weigh in on what teachers can teach, such as banning critical race theory or banning being able to teach LGBTQ issues.

Dr. Kenner : I’m going to be really, really disrespectful. That sh*t is ridiculous. And you can print that. I don’t think a lawmaker should have the right to ban anything. I think that it should be up to schools and the school districts and the teachers in terms of what we’re teaching. I thank that with gay rights, we have an obligation to teach that. We have an obligation to teach about different ethnic groups. Why not? You know, what are we afraid of?

CP : … Our school was one of the first schools in Chicago that had a Pride Club. What was it like when that was founded here?

Dr. Kenner : It was horrible. Oh, man, it was horrible in the sense that my mind was closed as a new principal in 1996…I confiscated the newspaper because a student came out in the newspaper and at that point nobody was coming out… The next morning I said, “Joyce, what are you doing?” You are the principal of everybody. So I got the students to gather down in 104 and I said, I’m sorry. I’m sorry…I made a mistake…I had to learn as a new principal and as a person. These are all my children. I don’t care if they’re gay or green or Black or white or whatever.

ABG : What are some of your greatest achievements as principal?

Dr. Kenner : … I think in general, the greatest achievement that I believe is that I was able to merge the academics and the extracurricular together to equal a whole student.

TK : How do you want to be remembered as principal?

Dr. Kenner : As somebody who cared about our students…[tears up] We’ll just leave it at that.