Race and Equity in the Time of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the racial inequities our country was built on, bringing to light how deeply systemic racism impacts our society at every level. At the same time, the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others expose the fact that anti-Blackness and police brutality have not stopped during this pandemic. In this video, members of Nellie Mae’s community advisory group share the struggles their communities are facing during these dual pandemics of COVID-19 and racism. They encourage us to think of how we can continue to build an anti-racist community, and how we as a foundation can support communities of color in this unprecedented time. We appreciate the time and effort they put into participating in this video, and are excited to amplify their work.


Race and Equity in the Time of COVID-19 was originally published in Nellie Mae Education Foundation on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

“Huey’s Kites”

“Flying kites is such a simple act of freedom. The peacefulness, open field, endless sky and seemingly unlimited ways the kite can move or flow. And yet, this freedom isn’t afforded to everyone. A basic childhood (and adult) act never experienced, to me, is a metaphor to the basic human rights that have failed to be fully realized by Black people and communities of color due to the oppressive (intentionally so) structures in which we exist.

“What happens to society, communities, the world when there are no limitations for people to flourish; when the wind of their freedom can carry them wherever they want?” — Marquis Victor

This film was created by Elevated Thought Founder and Executive Director Marquis Victor and parts of it were featured in Nellie Mae’s Community Advisory Group’s “Race and Equity in the Time of COVID-19” video. We are excited to share “Huey’s Kites” in full here.


“Huey’s Kites” was originally published in Nellie Mae Education Foundation on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Silence is Complicity

At the time we’ve reached the unthinkable milestone of 100,000 deaths as a result of COVID-19, we’ve also witnessed the murders of too many Black Americans at the hands of violence and white supremacy: George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Nina Pop, Sean Read, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor. These are merely a few of the names of Black individuals that have died at the hands of racism — there are unfortunately many more that have gone unnoticed and unheard of by the public. Racism is a virus too.

The COVID-19 pandemic has just pulled back a curtain on the racial inequities that are foundational to our country. In Wisconsin and Michigan, the percentages of affected residents who were Black were more than twice as high as the proportion of Black people living in those states overall. Here in Massachusetts, the highest per capita rates of infection reside in working-class immigrant cities like Chelsea and Brockton, who both have high concentrations of people of color.

How our society moves forward depends on our ability to understand why these inequities exist, and the actions we take to address them. As Merlin Chowkawayun so rightly notes in an analysis of these statistics in the New England Journal of Medicine, “disparity figures without explanatory context can perpetuate harmful myths and misunderstandings that actually undermine the goal of eliminating health inequities.” False narratives around Black people being able to tolerate higher levels of pain, for example, date back to slavery. That explanatory context is something that white people love to sweep under the rug — the pervasiveness of whiteness and violence in our country.

COVID-19 is only uplifting what has been so ingrained in our nation’s history for decades — the constant state of violence against Black people — in our economy, our justice system, our health system, our education system.

As an organization, we wholeheartedly stand against anti-Black racism, and are committed to ensuring that we can take the steps to becoming an anti-racist organization. We are committed to supporting our grantee partners who are on the front lines of racial equity work in public education, by supporting organizations led by and serving people of color through general operating support grants, and supporting community organizing groups that are working to ensure that young people of color have a seat at the table in educational decision-making, to name a few. As an organization, we will continue to do our own learning around white supremacy, our complicity in upholding this system as a philanthropic entity, and we will take action to dismantle it. As a white leader, I am committed to holding myself — and other white people — to do better.

White people must step up and take action, and hold each other accountable. It is our responsibility to examine how we are complicit in the spreading of this virus of racism, and how we benefit from it every day. Silence is complicity. This moment calls on us to reflect on the type of society we want to build and take action. Our future depends on it.

Nick Donohue is President & CEO at the Nellie Mae Education Foundation


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

Lighting Candles: Finding and Studying Schools that are Achieving Equity

Guest Author: Eric Toshalis, Senior Director, Impact & Improvement, KnowledgeWorks

There’s a maxim I like a lot these days: “I’d rather light a candle than curse the darkness.” I like it because it underscores the need for illumination and resourcefulness when bad news can sometimes obscure the good. It suggests that when we’re faced with a challenge, we can start to move past it when we use existing resources to investigate our current situation. The lit candle reminds me that sure, problems exist — but solutions do too. Rather than sitting in the gloom and yelling about how bad things are, we’re better served when we gather information then find a way out.

And that’s what the REMIQS project — and the website we’re launching — are designed to do! We’re using better data to find our better schools, to learn what those schools do to produce better outcomes among our traditionally least served students. We will use what we learn to engage in practice and policy conversations about what we need to do to spread the best approaches. We are doing this with a clear understanding of the systemic challenges we need to overcome in public secondary education, not the least of which is the persistent inequities the system is designed to produce. But while we continue to tackle those larger issues, we also focus on what’s working now and how we might scale it up. We think this is way better than going down in a “blame of glory.”

That’s why we’ve built this website. We’re taking what we discover in the REMIQS project to illuminate where equity is being achieved. Not where it might be, not where it should be, but where it actually is being achieved. Then, through this website and other means, we’re communicating what we find so that parents, educators, policymakers, school system leaders, employers, university officials, researchers, and students themselves can learn from it.

At this very moment, our team is working with states to access data that will allow us to find schools that promote disproportionately positive outcomes among our least served populations. Those populations include:

  • Black and Brown students
  • students from low income families
  • students who qualify for special education services
  • English Learners

We’re interested in “disproportionately positive outcomes” because we believe that to reduce opportunity gaps, we must see greater rates of positive change in traditionally underserved populations than the rates evident in more privileged groups. We’re looking for schools that are eliminating that gap — not by bringing the top performing students down — but by lifting marginalized students up at an accelerated rate. This is equity. This is what we think good schools do.

In designing this project and communicating its developments on this website, we want to be clear that we’re not moving the goalposts in how we evaluate schools. Test scores still matter, as do graduation rates and attendance. Those items just aren’t enough anymore, especially when there are such rich data currently being ignored. Furthermore, we are not seeking to crowd an already stuffed field with a new school quality measure. And we’re definitely not using data to tell states and districts where their worst schools are so officials can “hold accountable” what are (sometimes erroneously) understood to be underperforming sites. Nope, we’re not doing these things. Why curse the darkness, right?

The REMIQS project is unique because it’s using a more robust set of outcomes to find a representative national sample of schools that are already achieving equity. Essentially, we’re finding the bright spots and illuminating what they do so we can do those awesome things elsewhere. The more candles, the better!

This post originally appeared on the REMIQS site.

Update from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation on COVID-19 Response

Dear Grantee Partners, Friends, and Community:

We know that many of you are providing direct support to educators, community members, young people and their families as they navigate this pandemic and the inequities that only become exacerbated in such a situation. As a philanthropic organization, we remain steadfast in upholding our responsibility to support New England communities during this challenging time.

Today, we want to share some updates around additional flexibility for current grantee partners, and also share an update on some new funding commitments we have made as part of our ongoing COVID-19 response.

Extending Flexibility

As a follow up to the note we shared about changes in the Foundation’s operations and grant expectations, we hope the following measures will lift some of the burden from our current grantee partners during this unprecedented time, especially for organizations that are in need of additional supports to maintain and sustain themselves during this difficult time.

· We are now offering grantee partners the opportunity to convert any restricted funds to general operating support or to support work around COVID-19 response, to the extent that it is helpful to your organization.

· We’re providing the option to request payments earlier than scheduled.

· We can provide a no-cost grant extension for your grant if needed.

· In lieu of an extensive final report, we welcome a brief final report that includes a spending report and describes how your funds were used.

If you are interested in pursuing any of the above opportunities, please reach out to your Program Officer to communicate your intent, including your most current spend-to-date report so that we can better organize ourselves to support you. We will also be doing our part to reach out to you in the near future to determine how else we may be of service. In the meantime, we are available as needed to provide support as you continue to navigate these challenging times.

COVID-19 Response

As an organization committed to advancing racial equity, we recognize that communities of color are disproportionately affected by this virus and the racism that stems from it. We have been humbled by the response to our Racism is a Virus Too Rapid Response Fund and were reminded that there is so much work to be done on many fronts to fight racism, xenophobia, and Sinophobia.

Today, we are announcing a set of grantees from this fund, aimed at responding to the hate crimes and bias against Asian American communities resulting from COVID-19:

Additionally, we want to share an update on another set of grants we are making to support New England communities during this pandemic:

· Boston COVID-19 Response Fund, The Boston Foundation: $25,000

· Hartford Foundation for Public Giving COVID-19 Response Fund: $30,000

· Maine Community Foundation COVID-19 Response Fund: $50,000

· Massachusetts COVID-19 Relief Fund: $50,000

· New Hampshire Charitable Foundation Community Crisis Action Fund: $50,000

· Rhode Island Foundation/United Way of RI COVID-19 Response Fund: $50,000

· Supporting Organizing Work Connecticut COVID-19 Response Fund, CT Council on Philanthropy: $30,000

· Vermont Community Foundation COVID-19 Response Fund: $50,000

We invite others who are interested in contributing to these funds and organizations to reach out to us to learn more.

This crisis calls upon us to think about the world we want to build as we move ahead. For us, that means remaining committed to serving our communities as trusted partners in advancing racial equity throughout this region. We recognize that the impacts of this pandemic will be long-lasting; therefore, we are on this journey for the long haul.

We are keeping you in our hearts and are grateful for your partnership.

In solidarity,

Nick Donohue
President & CEO
Nellie Mae Education Foundation

Learning Resources During COVID-19

The Students at the Center Hub has many resources focused on Anywhere, Anytime Learning:

· 18 Digital Tools and Strategies That Support Students’ Reading and Writing: In this article, the Instructional Technology Specialist from Littleton, Colorado offers a wealth of education technology resources related to literacy development. Educators and students will be particularly interested in the links to specific digital resources. These are presented in sections that correspond to specific literacy skills such as pre-writing, reading, and evaluation.

· 4 Questions to Ask About Multimedia Content: This short article provides advice on selecting the best multimedia resources.

· Digital Learning Day Resources: To help support digital learning throughout the year, this website offers several useful resources which include: A list of free digital tools to support classroom activities, interactive lesson plans submitted by teachers, and links to a large number of resource databases to find more tools and lessons

· How to Move From Digital Substitution to Deeper Learning: This podcast features a discussion of how teachers can ensure they are using technology to support deeper learning and move to more student-centered teaching practices. The guest focuses on practical suggestions and examples for teachers to put to work in the classroom.

· Center on Technology and Disability (CTD): The CTD is designed to increase the capacity of families and providers to advocate for, acquire, and implement effective assistive and instructional technology (AT/IT) practices, devices, and services. This website features free professional development and resources such as articles, recorded webinars, online modules, and more.

· From Hotspots to School Bus Wi-Fi, Districts Seek Out Solutions to ‘Homework Gap’: This article discusses possible ways to address disparities in access to high-speed internet connections in the home. It offers school, district, and community leaders facing such problems ideas from other districts, such as advertising community location with high-speed access or providing wi-fi on buses.

· Equity by Design in Learning Technologies: This report looks at equity in regards to access to and application of new technologies that support learning. It outlines the challenges and explores how learning technologies can provide the greatest benefits for the most vulnerable learners. This podcast provides more information on the report.

· How Giving Students Feedback Through Video Instead of Text Can Foster Better Understanding: This article describes how several teachers have shifted from providing written to video feedback for students. Ongoing feedback is an important part of formative assessment. This piece looks at the advantages of using video to deliver this feedback and provides links to websites and tools for teachers who would like to get started.

· How Podcasts Can Improve Literacy: This article, written by a veteran educator, describes how podcasts can be used as a strategy to boost literacy in any subject, especially for English Language Learners.

· Learning Accelerator’s Practices at Work: Blended & Personalized Learning : The Blended and Personalized Learning Practices at Work site, managed by The Learning Accelerator, is a collection of free, practical strategies and resources to help schools implement blended and personalized learning. The website is divided into sections that explore the basics of blended learning, provide real-world examples, and detail strategies to support implementation.

· KQED Teach Online Courses : KQED Teach offers free online courses on a variety of digital products and tools that can be used to enhance learning. The courses begin with Foundations in Media, which introduces the key digital media literacy concepts. Subsequent courses focus on one digital tool or product with overview modules/lessons, which should take between two and three hours to complete, as well as modules to share lessons learned after using the tool in the classroom.

Communications for Good and COVID-19

To communicate is to be human — to share conversation over a pot of coffee with a coworker, embrace a loved one in a hug, share a meal with a group of friends. As I keep the news on in the background while I’m quarantined like so many in my home, the commercial breaks seem like a surreal trip into another lifetime — where people are dancing together at parties, picking kids up at school, listening to a presentation in an office. Now, more than ever, we are seeing how effective communications practices can keep us connected, even when we are physically apart.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the lessons I have learned about effective communications through a racial equity lens at the Nellie Mae Education Foundation remain even more relevant today. How we respond to this pandemic as funders is critical — not only in how we choose to use our resources, but in the ways we choose to communicate.

This is About All of Us, Not Just Some of Us
Americans tend to default to an individualism cultural model — meaning that we think that what happens to us is the result of our individual actions, not larger systems and historical systems of oppression. We see this playing out through the hoarding of food, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and baby formula, or politicians putting big business in front of the needs of those suffering the most in this crisis. When President Trump incites vitriol like using language such as the “China Virus” he is buying into racism, xenophobia, and Sinophobia that divide us. He is also reinforcing this idea of individuals from a community of color being the root of this virus, instead of tapping into the idea that our own health and wellbeing depends upon the health of others.

The Message Matters, But So Does The Messenger
There are a multitude of reasons why a group of community organizers might hear a message differently if it were to come from a young person of color versus me, a white woman working at a philanthropic organization. These reasons may include lived experiences, proximity to challenges at hand, relationships and credibility in communities, and many more. The same principle remains for communicating in the wake of this pandemic. Now is not the time for funders to insert their agendas into every news story, or distribute press releases as normal. It’s time to lend our support to the messengers and our grantees — credible sources on what we can do as a society to diminish the effects of this virus. At Nellie Mae, we have been organizing resource and support opportunities for communities throughout the region, and also working internally to shift our practices to provide more support to response efforts. For those interested in sharing the facts, the CDC, NIH and local departments of health are good places to start.

Listening More, Saying Less
Effective communication is not a one-way street. We all know that this crisis will have profound impacts on the sustainability and viability of many schools, districts and nonprofit organizations in our region. As funders, we have to figure out how we can support our grantee partners during this time by listening more, asking them how we can be of support, and following their guidance. Additionally, we need to take it upon ourselves to be proactive, bold and decisive in our communications around flexibility surrounding grant requirements, lightening the burdens that so many of our grantee partners are feeling at this time. We’ve already seen powerful examples of this from funders like the Barr Foundation and the Heinz Endowments.

Funders, this is our chance to use the many resources we have at hand — our money, our networks, and our communications — to support the communities we seek to support. After all, we’re all in this together.