My Personal Reflections on The Nellie Mae Education Foundation’s Equity Journey
By: Jan Phlegar, Board Member, Nellie Mae Education Foundation
My career in education began at what seemed to be the height of activism across the United States. In college, I was deeply involved in social justice movements, including those focused on civil rights, the anti-war effort, and women’s rights. Like many young people, I was trying to have my voice and that of my generation heard, and trying to get attention focused on righting wrongs that caused harm to people based on race, economic class, and gender.
My early experience in organizing led me to focus deeply on the campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment, a cause I worked on from 1973 into the 1980s as a part of Virginians for the Equal Rights Amendment (the ratification deadline for states passed in 1983). I experienced what many youth and community organizers experience today — being called unthinkable names, and enduring threats against my reputation and well-being. And on January 15, 2020, Virginia ratified the ERA. While there is legal controversy about whether this constitutes the needed 28th state and there is more work to be done, it does show that many of the hardest changes take time and can be worth the wait. All of these experiences set the foundation for my work and my beliefs over the next four decades.
In 1970, I began my first teaching job at an Atlanta high school that had just been desegregated. There, I saw how power dynamics of education systems affected the daily lives of young people and their families. Decades later, it is clear that many of the race and equity issues that shaped education early in my career are still pervasive.
Today, who succeeds in American public education is still largely dependent on race, economic status, and zip code. I have worked in education for forty years — and some efforts have shown promise in addressing these disparities — but none have come close to making systemic change powerful enough to abolish barriers to educational equity for young people of color. Systemic racism and income inequality have kept our system of education profoundly unequal for decades.
When I joined the Nellie Mae Education Foundation Board of Directors in 2008, we were focusing on advancing student-centered learning, fostering systems change, and increasing college and career readiness, and equity. But over time, it became clear that if we really wanted equity and excellent education, we needed to make that our priority. When I became Chair of the Nellie Mae Board in 2017, we engaged in an organizational equity audit, examining the Foundation inside and out, which catalyzed the new phase of our Equity journey.
For the most part, mainstream philanthropy hasn’t taken an active role dismantling systems of white supremacy. Our equity journey as a foundation has brought us to a new place, ready to focus on achieving our mission: To champion efforts that prioritize community goals that challenge racial inequities and advance excellent, student-centered public education for all New England Youth. With the launch of our new grantmaking strategy, we have an opportunity to make a real and more effective difference in the lives of students and families across the region. As we move forward, I’ve identified some lessons from our work so far that I hope will guide our new strategy:
1. Learn to truly listen and engage with our communities (especially young people)! An important first step for funders is to really listen to their partners and community voices. If funders truly want to support equity in education, we must have an understanding about the power and privilege that comes with our grantmaking and change that dynamic. This doesn’t happen until you understand the lived experiences of people working in schools, with students, and with families in the community. In providing grant support, we feel that philanthropy should aim to give voice to those who have not been heard in our education system. That involves stepping back and letting people who are doing the work and have the most at stake take the lead in providing solutions.
It also means we need to listen and support young people in this journey, especially young people of color who have been harmed by our current systems. This brings me back to the student movements of the 1960s and 70's in which I was involved and my own desire to have voices of young people taken seriously.
2. Sankofa: “Learn from the past to inform the future.”
As we began considering refocusing our mission, goals, and values, we recognized that we could not move forward with a new strategy without fully exploring our work of the past ten plus years. We needed to examine our own decision making, grantmaking, and fundamental ways of operating and make changes. We put in place the use of a racial equity lens to examine everything from our Board committees to our communication with others. We crystalized our racial equity principles and put them into action.
3. Move ahead together — take the time to clarify and deepen experience and understanding. Though it started many years ago, it has taken three years as a group of Board members, leaders, staff, and community advisors to forge the path forward on our racial equity journey. At times, it has felt excruciatingly slow, but we have made the time to reflect, learn, and question. It is not about the sprint; it is about the fundamental deep journey. To paraphrase an African proverb, “If we want to go far, we need to go together.” This will become even more challenging as we go into the future.
4. Continue to learn, adapt, and improve. We are not the first to do this work, and learning from others is so important. We want to build on these successes and learn about what was not as successful. As we move forward, I hope that we work to build an evidence base about what works to achieve racial equity with our grantees and community partners. I hope that we can practice “urgent patience” and ensure we are taking time to listen and learn.
5. “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you recognize that your liberation and mine are bound up together, then let us work together,” -Lilla Watson
Any philanthropy that is fighting for racial equity has to be doing so because it understands that there is no possibility of “excellent public education” without racial equity. All of our futures are inextricably bound together, and we need to fight for racial equity like our future depends on it — because it does. This is not about “charity,” or helping others, it is about helping us all. The philanthropic community was born out of a paternalistic view that the wealthy knew better how to address society’s ills. But we know that the people who know most about the effects of racism are those who are marginalized and oppressed by the current system, and experience it every day. So, let us work together.
While our Foundation has much work to do, we are eager to take these lessons and move forward toward our new strategy. Although we realize that real education transformation will take time, we will persist in collaboration with our grantees and community partners to help lead our school system as a whole toward a brighter and more equitable future.
Jan Phlegar served as Chair of the Board of Directors at the Nellie Mae Education Foundation from 2017 until 2019, and remains on the Board.