An End of Year Reflection from Nellie Mae Interim President & CEO, Dr. Gislaine N. Ngounou

Nellie Mae Ed. Fdn.

Dec 22 · 3 min read

Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages

When our organization sat down to write an end of year reflection in December of 2020, I felt a flicker of light and hope shining in the distance. After one of the most challenging years for many of us, 2021 promised a light: a return to in-person school activities, vaccines, and new leadership in the White House. But we know that things usually don’t go as we hope or imagine.

2021 ended up being full of its own challenges and hardships, including the attacks on democracy we saw across our nation — from the storming of the capital at the beginning of the year, to attacks on public education and the teaching of the true history of our country.

We know that pushback is often a response to change, progress, and movement. Back in June 2021, Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw reminded us of the importance of historicizing these kinds of attacks to remember that we’ve seen similar trends before because “the control of the frame, the control of the ability to communicate, the control over knowledge about racial oppression has always been one of the go-to features of those who want to sustain and maintain an inequitable status quo.” And, this knowledge coupled with the tools and opportunities before us and the incredible work of so many continuously fill me with hope, expectation, and joy.

Hope because organizations like the Equity Institute in Rhode Island are working diligently to create culturally affirming spaces to attract and retain educators of color, and have led efforts in their state to create pipelines and pathways for these educators –beginning with professionals that have already dedicated their lives to working in schools.

Hope because in places like Chelsea, Massachusetts, our Speakers Bureau member and grantee partner Gladys Vega of La Colaborativa has not only partnered with Chelsea Public Schools to advocate for better opportunities and services for families and young people, she has also worked to build a pipeline for Latina leaders in municipal city leadership, where they can play key leadership roles in their school systems and communities.

Hope because advocacy from youth organizers in Connecticut led to the passage of legislation requiring that every public high school in the state offer an elective in Black and Latinx history, which will start being implemented next year.

Hope because Gedakina, an Indigenous-led and serving organization in Vermont, has been leading virtual workshops focused on culturally relevant and historically accurate curriculum, and providing culturally appropriate and historically accurate literature on Indigenous communities through its One Shelf Project.

And hope because of countless other organizations, schools, educators, families, organizers, and young people working for change and racial equity in public education in communities across New England. We are so grateful for and inspired by all of you.

We know 2022 will have its own set of challenges and opportunities, but it is because of our partners that are working to advance educational equity every day that we have hope and are reminded of what love and justice look like in action. We end the year with profound gratitude and in deep contemplation as we consider the immense wisdom and teachings of the great now ancestor bell hooks: “there can be no love without justice,” and “the heart of justice is truthtelling.” We look forward to a season of rest and restoration. We look forward to a new year filled with hope, love, truthtelling, justice, and joy.

In community and solidarity,

Gislaine N. Ngounou
Interim President & CEO
Nellie Mae Education Foundation

Take a Look Back at Our Most Popular Posts of 2021:

Open Letter: Teach Us Everything
The Nellie Mae Education Foundation Appoints Dr. Gislaine N. Ngounou as Interim President & CEO
A Letter from Our Youth Advisors
Announcing Our 2021 Speakers Bureau
When White Tears Are Held In Higher Regard Than Black Life

Open Letter: Teach Us Everything

Here at Nellie Mae, we are committed to equitable public education and teaching the truth, and those values are under attack from special interests who do not actually care about our students. We are taking a stand in support of education alongside our partners in this week’s Sunday edition of the Boston Globe. Our open letter urges New England public schools to teach the truth and continue to make our schools models of equity, inclusion and justice.

It has become apparent that these fights fueled by conservative voices are not going away. At Nellie Mae, we will continue to unapologetically champion racial equity and quality public education for all students across New England. We hope to have your continued support in the weeks, months, and years ahead during this effort.

For a closer look at our letter and video, supported by and shaped with many of our partners across communities, see below. If you are moved by what you see, please join us on this journey and let other supporters know.

In partnership and community,
Dr. Gislaine N. Ngounou
Interim President & CEO — Nellie Mae Education Foundation


Join us by signing on to Nellie Mae’s open letter.

To learn more about additional efforts to teach truth, visit AAPF.

When White Tears Are Held in Higher Regard Than Black Life

By Dr. Gislaine N. Ngounou, Interim President and CEO, Nellie Mae Education Foundation

These past couple of weeks have shown us all too well, again, how white tears are held in higher regard than Black life.

White tears, as Kyle Rittenhouse cried as he was acquitted of all five charges, were held in higher regard than the lives of the three white, men he shot — Joseph Rosenbaum, Anthony Huber, and Gaige Grosskreutz–as they fought for Black lives. Two of those men, Rosenbaum and Huber, were fatally shot.

White tears, held in higher regard than Jacob Blake, who was left partially paralyzed after a white police officer shot him outside of his home.

White tears, held in higher regard than Jacob Blake’s children, who watched as their father was shot.

White tears, held in higher regard than Julius Jones, who has spent half of his life on death row, his sentence commuted only hours before he was set to be executed — to still face life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

White tears, held in higher regard than Ahmaud Arbery, whose murderers’ conviction now gives his family and community a small fraction of peace, but not justice.

The systems that are supposedly meant to support and protect us — to create safer, more vibrant, and more supportive communities — are not broken.

White tears, held in higher regard than Tamir Rice, killed 6 years ago by a white police officer for holding a toy gun.

And countless other lives cut short insensibly because white tears have been held in higher regard than Black life.

The systems that are supposedly meant to support and protect us — to create safer, more vibrant, and more supportive communities — are not broken.

No, they are working exactly as they were designed. To hold some lives up above others, especially white lives…unless those white lives are also fighting for Black lives.

To protect white tears above Black life.

It is hard to decouple the injustices of the criminal punishment system steeped in anti-Blackness from attacks on public education and real threats to democracy. It is no surprise that the U.S. has, for the first time, been added to the list of “backsliding democracies” by the International IDEA think tank.

To those who did not believe that the major confluence of factors threatening democracy and daily life represents an urgent crisis (especially for Black people and other communities of color) worthy of swift action —I hope this drives the message home and renews a call to act boldly.

As a former teacher, I cannot stop thinking about the lives and experiences of my students. Kyle Rittenhouse could have been a student in my class — so could have Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, Julius Jones, and Jacob Blake. I continue to reflect on the ways in which our education community and our society at large may have supported them in growing into thriving humans — or failed them. I continue to think about my own role and responsibility.

That’s why the calls to teach the truth, to ensure that our children get the fullness of our nation’s history and present are non-negotiable. That they get all the facts to make meaning of this crumbling society and democracy, to be full participants in honoring and advocating for equity and justice for themselves and others.

Living in a backsliding democracy in which Rittenhouse gets to walk away free fells sickening and terrifying. Each day, we are reminded that white tears are held in higher regard than Black life.

As funders, especially funders committed to racial justice, we must think about our responsibilities beyond our narrow or specific organizational missions. We must honestly interrogate our personal and institutional connection to human life and suffering. For those of us in positions of greater privilege, we must show up in the fight for democracy with all of the tools and resources at our disposition, because we simply cannot afford to sit on the sidelines.

Those at the forefront of the fights — young people, community organizers, activists, and educators — are doing their part, laboring to manifest solutions, bearing the brunt of injustices, and telling us that our nation is not well. Will we listen?

Will we fully commit to joining the fight to stop holding white tears in higher regard than Black life?

That commitment is necessary if we are to significantly and collectively bend the moral arc of our society towards justice and freedom for all of us.

Celebrating Latinx Heritage Month: Our Stories Part One

As Latinx Heritage Month comes to a close, we’d like to share some reflections from Nellie Mae staff and board members on what their heritage means to them. Read these personal and important stories below.

Delia Arellano-Weddleton, Director of Engagement and Partnerships: Mi Historia

I identify as Mejicana, Chicana and Latina and I often deal with the tension that comes from being a first-generation American. There is an expression — ‘Ni de aqui, ni de alla’ which describes how I often feel. I don’t always feel that I belong in this country, but I know that I don’t belong in Mexico either.

My family comes from Guanjuato Mexico and belongs to the Guamare Indigenous community. That history gives me great pride and strength. I come from a line of warriors that have had to overcome many challenges.

I value showing up as who I am 100%, be it my accent, my brown skin or the straight hair that connects me to my indigenous roots.

I find pride in the stories that have been passed down to me, whether it is about curranderas or stories that show the strength of my people. These stories give me strength.

I find great joy, knowing that I’ve fulfilled my parents’ American dream and that they can look down and say’ ‘mija you have done us well’. I find joy in passing the torch to my children, nieces, and nephews so that we don’t lose our stories.

The youth give me eseperanza. Historically, social movements have been led by youth and there are many great examples of how Chicanos, Latinos have been leading change. For example, the 1968 high school walk outs in LA, the Young Lords, and the farm worker huelgas.

Youth are having the difficult conversations that other generations haven’t had, whether it is about LGBTQ rights, anti-Blackness in the Latinx community or climate change. They are our hope and I’ll always support them.

Marcos Lucio Popovich, Program Director of Grantmaking: My Reflections

My family comes from San Luis Potosi and Jalisco, Mexico. For several generations (probably beginning in the late 1800s), my family began traveling from Mexico to harvest crops throughout the United States. They were migrant farmworkers working in Texas, Ohio, Oregon and everywhere in between, picking cotton, tomatoes, plums. My grandmother would say that they were not rich in material things, but that they were rich in faith, rich in family, and rich in culture. She taught me to be proud of being Mexican, of being Mexicano, even when the world told us otherwise. She taught me to be proud of our culture, language, and history, and to be proud of the many contributions we’ve made to the U.S. even though it is not written in our history books.

I’m proud of our resilience and work ethic, our courage to risk it all to create a better life for our families. I pray that when the history is written about our current times that we don’t forget to recognize the contributions of migrant farmworkers during this pandemic. They fed our country while working under dangerous conditions.

When I went to college, I met other Latinos that shared similar experiences: Puerto Ricans, Peruvians, Dominicans, Salvadorans. While we each had our own unique histories and cultures, we realized that we faced similar challenges, had similar interests, and that by creating a bond across our various cultures, we could create power, political power, power that can effectuate change. “In unity, there is strength” was our motto. “In unity, there is strength.”

I carry that with me today. No matter what we call ourselves, Hispano, Latino, Latinx, Chicano, Borinquen, we are stronger when we are united. And, we need to continue to find ways to bridge divides, build community, be inclusive and grow the movement for our collective liberation.

Latinos will soon make up 30% (2050) of the U.S. population. My hope is that we foster a people that knows and remembers its history, maintains its pride in its culture and language, rejects assimilation and welcomes acculturation, has opportunities to thrive and succeed, and charts a new and better path forward. The next generation of activists brings me hope that this is possible. “Si, se puede.” Yes we can!

While Latinx heritage month ends after today,

we think it’s important to celebrate Latinx heritage year round. Therefore, look out for the next part in our series coming soon.

Additionally, we understand that language is ever-evolving — and how individuals with Latinx heritage describe themselves varies. We understand this complexity and invite you to learn more here.

Funders, It’s Necessary to Support Healing and Rest

In a year unlike any other, marked by a global pandemic and persistent racism and violence, we must reckon with what it means to not simply go back to “the way things were.” The way things were was not working for far too many. Our policies, systems, and practices, for the most part, have centered whiteness and white supremacy at the expense and exclusion of the experiences and expertise of Black, Indigenous, Latinx, AAPI, and other communities of color in this nation. We know that many non-profit organizations, communities, and schools — especially those led and staffed by people of color — are often under-resourced, deeply impacted, and overworked. We also know the deep pain and trauma that many have experienced this year. In a grind culture that too often values productivity and capitalism over people and wellbeing, it’s no surprise that so many people are functioning in a constant state of exhaustion.

As funders, let’s step up by not only providing general support to our grantee partners, but by thinking about how we can regularly support our partners in accessing healing and rest.

At the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, we’ve seen so many of our grantee partners working around the clock to meet community needs. In Chelsea, Massachusetts, Gladys Vega, Executive Director of La Collaborativa — a community-based organization serving Chelsea residents — spent the majority of the pandemic working 16 hour days. We’ve seen and heard stories of educators who are working at all hours to support students learning remotely, hybrid, and in-person. In fact, we’ve even seen many educators departing or considering making the hard decision to leave the profession after impossible and unrealistic expectations have left them feeling devalued, exploited and exhausted.

“White supremacy is killing us all — in both blatant and subtle ways.”

Even in our sector — philanthropy — we see people working hard to push for sustained change to better support communities most impacted by racial injustices, while navigating trauma within entrenched philanthropic structures. Really, we are all exhausted. But this is particularly true of Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and AAPI people invested in liberation and racial justice work. White supremacy is killing us all — in both blatant and subtle ways.

As funders, we must make a commitment to alleviate some of the trauma that our grantees have gone through not just over the past year, but as they do the work and bear the costs we know come with fighting for equity, justice, and freedom. Healing justice is a critical and necessary part of social justice movements. Without it, we will not have the stamina to move forward.

Activist, political strategist, and organizer Charlene Carruthers advocates for adopting healing justice as a core organizing value and practice — reminding us that everyone needs healing because real work for justice and liberation comes with pain and requires intense self-work, self-care, and community care. Additionally, we know that women of color are at the forefront of these movements, and we often pay for it with our lives and our health. This work is non-negotiable for our survival, and it isn’t easy — whether it’s happening in community-based organizations, public education systems, schools, government offices, the health sector, faith-based institutions, philanthropy, or other parts of the ecosystem. But rest and healing is also non-negotiable for us to sustain ourselves in these movements for change.

As Audre Lorde wrote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

At Nellie Mae, we are centering healing justice as part of our capacity building program for grantee partners. This past fall, we ran a youth-driven rapid response fund aimed at supporting the mental health of young people, as the pandemic pushed many into remote schooling and separated them from their friends, educators, and networks. Last year, we began a partnership with Getaway and Rachel Cargle, to support opportunities for Black people working for social change — including many educators — to receive a free night of rest away to allow time to recharge and heal. We are aware that these efforts require more resources. We’re organizing time for our staff and community advisors to engage in sessions about healing from racialized trauma, exploring how trauma stemming from racism distorts thinking and sends signals to the body.

“Imagine what a world could look like where healing and rest became a norm, rather than a last straw that we turn to after burnout.”

As healer, trauma specialist, and psychotherapist Resmaa Menakem reminds us, “we heal primarily in and through the body, not just through the rational brain. We can all create more room, and more opportunities for growth, in our nervous systems. But we do t{“type”:”block”,”srcClientIds”:[“e778ec83-6740-4485-8d09-2f7740e6dfbe”],”srcRootClientId”:””}his primarily through what our bodies experience and do — not through what we think or realize or cognitively figure out.” Resmaa advises that our bodies are important parts of the solution and where changing the status quo must begin. They cannot sustain themselves in racial justice and liberation work when they are in pain, exhausted, or constantly harmed by various forms of oppression, overt or subtle.

Photo by @NappyStock
Photo by @NappyStock

Imagine what a world could look like where healing and rest became a norm, rather than a last straw that we turn to after burnout. Imagine paid therapy and mental health or rest breaks for leaders and staff of nonprofit organizations and educators. It would look like prioritizing rest as a regular part of our lives, as Tricia Hersey teaches through The Nap Ministry. I’ll admit that I, too, am a work in progress. I’m working on being more intentional about incorporating more of these practices in my day-to-day, including dedicated time for meditation and prayer, connecting with nature, extending grace to myself and others, choosing joy, and cultivating a practice that encourages us to take care of ourselves and each other.

“What do communities, organizations, and schools we serve need to be healthy, healed, whole, free, and joyful on their own terms?”

A world where healing and rest are a norm would look like curated affinity spaces for folks that feel safe and affirming, where they can be held and supported — so that they can continue to show up and do the work in healthy ways. It would look like making identity and joy essential dimensions of how teaching and learning unfolds in schools, as Gholdy Muhammad advocates for in her Historically Responsive Literacy Framework. It would look like embedding healing in the social and emotional learning of youth, such as the work Dena Simmons leads in guiding educators and communities to do through her work at LiberatED. It would look like philanthropy asking the question: what do the communities, organizations, and schools we serve need to be healthy, healed, whole, free, and joyful on their own terms? Lastly, it would mean making the resources available for the answers to that question to be actualized by those most impacted and closest to the work.

Rest and healing are critical parts of the solution if we are to move closer to a more liberated world in which all people feel sustained, healed, held, safe, loved, and like full, thriving versions of ourselves and society.

Let’s continue this pattern of funding healing justice and rest. General operating support resources are essential so that grantee partners have the flexibility to allocate funds where they think best in their racial justice and liberation work. It is just as important to recognize our individual and collective humanity. Let’s fund grantees’ access and opportunities for healing and rest, and let’s also resource organizations and leaders who provide these supports in culturally responsive ways.

To learn more about healing justice and philanthropy:

Organizations like Decolonizing Wealth, led by Edgar Villanueva, are leading healing summits for professionals of color in philanthropy to heal and engage in community care. Feminist funders like the Astraea Foundation, Groundswell Fund, Third Wave Fund, and Urgent Action Funds have long been doing this work and showing us the way.

Examining Student-Centered Learning Through a Racial Equity Lens

Nick Donohue
Apr 15 · 3 min read
Photo by Yogesh Rahamatkar on Unsplash

Over the past decade and in partnership with many educators, organizers, and communities across the region, the Foundation has played a part in advancing personalized, student-centered approaches to learning across the New England region. This approach has been rooted in assumptions that traditional approaches are not sufficient to address the great disparities in learning outcomes. And while we are still very committed to advancing these approaches we are learning more about what is needed to bring the full benefit of student-centered learning to bear in the name of racially equitable outcomes.

Over the last couple of years at the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, we’ve spent time using a racial equity lens to inspect our past grantmaking strategy that had been focused exclusively on student-centered learning. Additionally, we’ve spent time reflecting on our internal culture and grantmaking practices to inspect and disrupt how white supremacy culture shows up within our organization.

I’ve come to believe that without explicitly focusing on race and increasing public urgency around equity, we will never be able to dismantle a system built to separate and sort students by background, race, and opportunity and replace it with a more effective and equitable approach.

As I enter my final year of working at the Foundation, I’ve spent a good deal of time reflecting on the impact of the organization and our grantee partners’ work throughout the region. I’m extremely proud of what we have accomplished together, from advancing innovative, student-centered approaches to supporting young people to thrive. At the same time, I’ve reflected on the limits of our initial grantmaking strategy. I’ve come to believe that without explicitly focusing on race and increasing public urgency around equity, we will never be able to dismantle a system built to separate and sort students by background, race, and opportunity and replace it with a more effective and equitable approach.

Download a copy of the report

Today, our partners at Coalition of Schools Educating Boy’s of Color are releasing the first phase of research examining student-centered learning through a racial equity lens — informed by community organizations, parents, students, and educators throughout the region. This report tells us what many have long known to be true — that the current student-centered framework as it exists has lacked an explicit focus on racial equity and needs to integrate such a focus to be an effective tool in this effort. The research gives us hope that stakeholders view student-centered learning as a strategy to potentially address racial inequities — but we know that there are many conditions that must be present for these practices to take root (equitable access to transportation, mental health supports, and antiracist curriculum, to name a few).

I am proud to support this work that will continue to inspect our current student-centered learning frame, to better lay the groundwork for these approaches to flourish in ways that most center those impacted in conversations, decision-making, and practices. Phase 2 of the Equity and Student-Centered Learning Project will investigate the development and use of equitable student-centered learning practices by community stakeholders in order to advance racial equity in schools. We look forward to continuing this learning journey with you.

Download a copy of the report!

We stand in solidarity with the Asian American Pacific Islander Community

We Stand in Solidarity with the Asian American Pacific Islander Community

We at the Nellie Mae Education Foundation stand in solidarity with the Asian American Pacific Islander community across the nation, condemning the hate crimes that are being perpetuated by white supremacist and misogynist ways of thinking and acting. To claim that these acts were not racially motivated misses the point and perpetuates harm on our AAPI communities.

We acknowledge that these hate crimes did not begin with COVID-19 and have existed in this country for centuries. The hate against our AAPI communities begins and stops with us. And while there are multiple ways to demonstrate solidarity through education, action, and other means, we wanted to share the following resources in efforts of stopping AAPI hate:


We stand in solidarity with the Asian American Pacific Islander Community was originally published in Nellie Mae Education Foundation on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

A Letter from Our Youth Advisors

To the United States Secretary of Education

Dear Secretary of Education Cardona,

Congratulations on your confirmation as U.S. Secretary of Education, and the wonderful opportunity to support young people nationwide.

We attend public schools in Lawrence, Mass. and are members of Elevated Thought, an art and social justice organization that addresses forms of systemic injustice through youth development, beautification projects, public outreach, and paid opportunities for BIPOC creatives.

We are optimistic and motivated for the future, especially because you share our focus on achieving equity and addressing systemic racism in education.

As students who are most affected by the decisions made about our learning, we want to make sure our voices are included in shaping education policies and priorities. We encourage you to regularly engage with young people because our experiences uniquely qualify us for solving the most pressing issues facing our schools.

Photo by heylagostechie on Unsplash

We are optimistic and motivated for the future, especially because you share our focus on achieving equity and addressing systemic racism in education. For our public schools to live up to their promise of opportunity for everyone, we believe the following should be key areas of focus for the new administration:

Hiring more teachers of color

It makes a tremendous difference when children see teachers and educators who resemble themselves. Teachers of color can relate to young people in ways that white teachers sometimes cannot — due to different environments growing up, different economic situations, and different traditions and customs. As students, it is relieving to talk to people who have walked in our shoes and understand our struggles.

This is especially important within predominantly white institutions. Sometimes teachers of color are the only solace and support students of color can turn to when they are stressed. It alleviates pressure off students of color from having to explain to their white educators why they feel overwhelmed, or serve as “educators” to their peers when discussing sensitive topics such as racism, prejudice, and discrimination. In addition to having more teachers of color in schools, making sure that educators are trained in anti-racist teaching will help young people feel seen and heard.

Our education officials need to be cognizant of the opportunity gaps between urban and suburban schools — an issue that’s been discussed for decades now.

On that same note, hiring more teachers who are part of the LGBTQ community or have queer/homosexual identities serves the same purpose. This is especially important for children who are coming to terms with their sexualities, and realizing that there is nothing wrong with identifying outside the heterosexual norm.

Photo by Juan Carlos Becerra on Unsplash

Equitable school funding

Our education officials need to be cognizant of the opportunity gaps between urban and suburban schools — an issue that’s been discussed for decades now. It is vital that equitable funding for public schools is prioritized so that all young people can receive the best quality education. Students in public schools should not be forced to suffer in underfunded districts and be deprived of learning opportunities their peers experience in wealthy communities.

Mental health supports and discipline reform

We urge you to support policies that combat the school-to-prison pipeline. This involves finding alternatives to disciplinary practices like suspensions and expulsions, and providing mental health education and services that are culturally accessible nationwide. Similar to the importance of hiring BIPOC educators, students need better representation in mental health supports, guidance counselors, and social workers.

Education standards that apply to real-world learning

Too often, our learning and classes are tied to meeting vague standards that do not relate to skills we will need in our daily lives. It is important that standards are tied to real-world learning and skills that will be applicable throughout college and career.

Miguel Cardona, we wish you all the best as you transition into your new role. We look forward to hearing more about your ideas to improve our nation’s education system, and hope to work with you in building a better future for America’s youth.

Sincerely,

Milagros Pena, Elevated Thought, Lawrence, Mass., Community Advisor to the Nellie Mae Education Foundation

Helen German-Vargas, Elevated Thought, Lawrence, Mass., Community Advisor to the Nellie Mae Education Foundation


A Letter from Our Youth Advisors was originally published in Nellie Mae Education Foundation on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Hope for a Brighter Future

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

This new year has caused me to pause and reflect over the past 12 months. The events of the past year have made me even more aware of hope that I have for a brighter future for me, my family, and the youth that I have the honor of working with at Elevated Thought, an art and social justice organization based in Lawrence, MA.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

This past year has been shaped by a global health crisis, the prevalence of anti-Black racism, and an election plagued by misinformation and white supremacy. It has also emphasized that this world is fragile and its inhabitants are finite beings that often dance with the opportunity of embracing truth, yet ignore the love, justice, and morality that truth produces.

I know and believe at my very core, that my own child and every child, everywhere should have this opportunity; to love, to ask questions, to believe and disbelieve, to dream and experience those dreams coming true through each brushstroke.

I believe that every child should have an education where they can dream in the classroom, hug trees while walking in the woods, and be handed the world as an empty canvas to paint, all while being given the simple instructions of “just try your best”. I know and believe at my very core, that my own child and every child, everywhere should have this opportunity; to love, to ask questions, to believe and disbelieve, to dream and experience those dreams coming true through each brushstroke.

Yet the past four years have reminded me that not everyone wants this dream to come true. I’ve seen public funds re-directed to benefit the dominant caste in society; stretching the already gaping abyss of education inequality in this country. The presidential election in 2016 caused many to be taken aback by the direction our country chose to blatantly move towards. During this moment in time, The Nellie Mae Education Foundation (NMEF) was working with youth and parent organizers, led mostly by people of color, supporting people of color. To say that these community members were nervous about what the election meant for them and others who historically have been marginalized is an understatement.

Fortunately, NMEF chose to step into the urgency of the moment and provide rapid response grants to eleven grantee partners. Based on conversations with grantees, this blog post was written to challenge the philanthropic sector to decide whether to be spectators or participants in the work at hand. As NMEF’s work with grantee partners evolved so did the understanding of the importance of centering community voice in the work.

In early 2019, NMEF extended their table by creating a Community Advisory Group, of which I am a member largely composed of leaders of color closely connected to the communities the Foundation supports. And in January 2020 a new strategy was launched that brought to life a recently adopted racial equity lens, even as we were unaware of what was in store in the months ahead. Due to this new way of working, NMEF made significant changes in how it approached supporting racial equity in education.

There was intentionality about centering youth and leaning on community-based organizations closely connected to young people and their families. Supporting the work of these organizations has allowed for entering into conversations from the perspective of those most closely impacted by the historical inequities that youth of color have been subjected to in the current education system. The Foundation has been able to support organizations working on school discipline policies that over criminalize youth of color, increasing the number of teachers of color, and implementing culturally relevant curricula, to name just a few.

When will this country understand that a larger collective reckoning is in order?

Yet alongside this great work, history continues to repeat itself. When will this country understand that a larger collective reckoning is in order? The next big revolution needs to plant its feet and pivot from this consuming sphere and turn to an evolution of consciousness, action, and care for each other. Though we are an incredibly adaptive species, we continuously fail to aggressively confront our innate desire for power and accumulation and our gnawing existential fear conjured by our capacity for perception and creation. This has led to long-held systems of purposeful oppression, subjugation, and manipulation of those few elements of existence we may be able to grasp as objective truths. Regardless of what we were doing before, we are faced with a now that is pressing on so many levels.

Young people have been especially equipped and adept at turning hope, love, and justice into definitive change and possibility.

For many of NMEF’s grantees, the growing support of the Foundation is tangible hope. Hope that has sprung alive informing the work our young people have done and continue to do. It is an example of philanthropy seeing where they operate and stepping down to serve in unison with brothers and sisters fighting for those few precious, abstract truths that can help lift humans from the chaos, find footing, look around and see the many possibilities of life, and develop ways others can experience that who might otherwise not. Young people have been especially equipped and adept at turning hope, love, and justice into definitive change and possibility.

As we are in the midst of a new year, I challenge the Foundation to continue doing their own internal equity work, all while externally not losing the focus, drive, or determination in centering youth and community-based organizations that are closely connected with youth and families. It is my desire for other philanthropies to take this moment to join NMEF in walking alongside their grantees in the fight for racial equity, as it will take collective action for change to take place in this country. And may we look back in 2025 and be able to see the hope that drove us to making our public education system a place where every child not just hopes, but dreams — and sees those dreams come true.

By Marquis Victor, Founding Executive Director, Elevated Thought and Community Advisor at the Nellie Mae Education Foundation


Hope for a Brighter Future was originally published in Nellie Mae Education Foundation on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Protecting Our Democracy

Today, runoff races in Georgia reminded us of what is possible when the extraordinary power of organizing and voting is exercised. However, those outcomes were met by the sobering reminder of the fragile state of democracy in our country. We want to acknowledge the pain and distress many of us are feeling today as White Nationalists sought to undermine our country’s democratic system through a violent insurrection. These actions are a result of the racist rhetoric of our current administration and an attempt to deny the voices of millions of Americans, especially Black Americans and other people of color. We at the Nellie Mae Education Foundation believe that public education is a cornerstone in upholding our democracy, and tonight, that democracy was threatened.

We also believe that today’s events are a reminder of the work we must continue to do, including changes to champion racial equity and social justice within our public education system. We condemn the violent actions of the mob that sought to undermine our democratic system and go against our nation’s shared value of allowing the American people to choose their leaders and ensure a peaceful transition of power.


Protecting Our Democracy was originally published in Nellie Mae Education Foundation on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.