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.

This Moment Shows Us Why Philanthropy Should Reinvent Itself

By: Dr. Gislaine N. Ngounou, Vice President of Strategy and Programs, Nellie Mae Education Foundation

Brooklyn Museum / CC BY

Much of the philanthropic community is earning praise for its response to COVID-19. To date, funders across the country have provided over $10 billion in grants, prompting some to even dub the pandemic as philanthropy’s “shining moment.

While it is encouraging to see many stepping up, foundations should use this experience to reflect on the strengths and shortfalls of our work, and how we can better wield our power and privilege to support communities in the future. COVID-19 is exacerbating inequities and rapidly harming people of color — especially Black people — who for centuries have been failed by our economic, education, and healthcare systems. As painful as the realities and data are, they are neither new nor shocking. We have seen this play out time and time again in the murder of Black people living in this country. Our systems are not broken; they are merely functioning as they were designed to operate — that is, privileging some while perpetually oppressing many. Racism has been the pandemic that Black people in America have endured for over 400 years.

Read the full article in Nonprofit Quarterly


This Moment Shows Us Why Philanthropy Should Reinvent Itself was originally published in Nellie Mae Education Foundation on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

An Educator’s Letter to Families in This Moment

This letter was written by Manuel J. Fernandez, Head of School at Cambridge Street Upper School (CSUS) in Cambridge, MA to CSUS Families

Dear CSUS Parents and Caregivers,

1968 was a pivotal year in my upbringing. I was in my early teens, and it was the year of assassinations (notably Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy), urban protests, college campus takeovers, the rise of the anti-Vietnam protests, and so much more. Growing up in Brockton, Massachusetts, I felt pretty invisible as a Black Cape Verdean boy among my white classmates. I only felt noticed when one of them would call me the N-word or bullied me verbally and physically. I know now that I suffered from internalized racism, which was burrowed into me every time my white teachers were dismissive of my racial harassment concerns. I did not like being Black, and it seemed no one else liked it either. The only Black teacher I had was when I was a high school senior. He was the P.E. teacher, and he wasn’t too impressed with my unathletic and uncoordinated self. I am not sure what was internalized in my psyche from that, but I certainly didn’t fit the stereotype of a tall Black boy.

I observed many changes in society at that time and within my self-identity. In the ensuing years, I latched on to the Black Consciousness movement spurred on by my Uncle and Aunt’s membership in the Black Panther Party. I became more and more racially conscious through the readings of James Baldwin, W.E. B. DuBois, Toni Morrison, and the literature of the Harlem Renaissance period. As I came to know of the many contributions Black people had made to the country and the world, I felt proud of being Black. I was becoming increasingly aware of my Cape Verdean ancestry, particularly about our history in southeastern Massachusetts. I was equally proud.

As a young educator, I endeavored to support the aspirations of my Black students and advocate for their needs with higher-ups. I became increasingly aware that my white students and the white educators I worked with needed my support to embrace an anti-racist lens. We learned from our consultant Beverly Daniel Tatum (author of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria) that anti-racism was an active choice. Choosing not to be actively engaged in the dismantling of racism in our society was to implicitly or explicitly support racism. This past week, I have heard from scores of those students, Black, White, Asian, Latinx, and LGBTQ accomplices. I am so proud of these many women and men who, like me, have made the struggle for racial equity their life’s work.

This week that pride has been tempered by feelings of rage, fear, and despair. As the father of three Black daughters and two young Black grandsons, I cannot look at the graphic videos of unarmed Black men and women being murdered without seeing my family members in harm’s way. They all embody some of my voice — proud, unapologetic, and strident on all issues of equity. I caution my daughters often to consider their surroundings when they publicly object to inequity. They don’t always heed my advice.

As a Black school leader, I have struggled with ways to support our scholars devoid of my emotions at a time when they need clarity and perspective. Since its founding in 2012, CSUS has centered equity in our mission. At this time, I find comfort in the leadership and advocacy of so many of our CSUS educators. They have stepped up in a big way and have responded to scholar inquiry on the horrific events of the past few months and engaged scholars with strategies rooted in an anti-racist lens to help CSUS move forward.

I have spent my forty years as an educator as a staunch advocate for equity and anti-racism. It has not always made me friends, but it has created opportunities and a vision for all the scholars that I have been fortunate to serve. I will continue to do that as long as I am able. I will stand for my scholars and with my colleagues to advance anti-racism in our school and the community. There is no other choice. I hope you choose to do the same within your sphere of influence.

1968 changed America. Unfortunately, the change was incomplete, and many of the small gains have little influence on our present situation. 2020 is changing our society, whether because of the pandemic or because of the heightened awareness of the anti-Black racism and other forms of bigotry that pervade every aspect of our society. We can embrace the change and stay the course. But the new day that we want for all of our children and grandchildren will not be realized unless we all step up.

Thanks for reading.

Peace, Manuel


An Educator’s Letter to Families in This Moment 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.

Researcher Positionality

Eric Toshalis, KnowledgeWorks

This piece originally appeared on the Students at the Center Hub.

“What you see depends on where you stand.”

“And where you stand is the result of where you’ve been.”

Many of us may be tempted to dismiss these pithy maxims because they’re just plain self-evident. “Right,” we might say, “tell me something I don’t know.” But really, they’re kinda radical observations. Maybe even revolutionary. Let me explain.

Researchers are taught to establish the rigor, validity, and reliability of their investigations by controlling for or eliminating the influence of any bias. They learn to design studies and use methods that yield observations whose trends and implications can be defended, largely because they are cleansed of any idiosyncratic interpretations. The logic is that others should be able to look at those same gathered data and make the same inferences. When this is achieved, the study is understood to be authoritative. But is it?

Whose authority are we talking about here? Who gets to decide what counts as “valid,” “reliable,” “rigorous,” or even “important”? Can we rely on existing systems — and the individuals trained within them — to render judgments about the veracity of research without any predisposition? What if the whole systemic approach to eliminating bias can sometimes erase the insights, funds of knowledge, and expertise we actually need if we are to see where and how bias functions?

These are the questions we raised in the Student-Centered Learning Research Collaborative as we designed our most recent RFP. In that RFP we set out to support research projects that examined the impact of student-centered practices on marginalized populations, namely Black and Brown students, students from low-income families, English learners, and students with learning differences. To do that well, we realized we needed to go beyond traditional “objective” investigations of students’ experiences. We needed to find and support researchers who could make meaning of diverse participants’ experiences of student-centered learning, who possessed the necessary critical sophistication with various forms of marginalization and inequity in education, and who were familiar with the techniques used to overcome them. In other words, we needed researchers who understood their position and used it (rather than controlled for it) when designing an investigation. So we built the RFP around a concept called “positionality.” And the results couldn’t be more promising.

Guided by the field-defining work of one of our Advisors, Rich Milner, the Cornelius Vanderbilt Endowed Chair of Education and Professor of Education in the Department of Teaching and Learning at Peabody College of Vanderbilt University we integrated “researcher positionality” into the way we solicited and evaluated proposals. We reasoned that if we’re going to use research to move the needle on equity, we need to consider very carefully who is conducting the investigations and how they are prepared to answer questions related to forms of oppression that occur in and through education. History has shown that people from dominant backgrounds tend to use dominant funds of knowledge and forms of inquiry to reproduce dominant interpretations of educational phenomena (sense a theme here?). Scholars’ from nondominant racial / ethnic / cultural / linguistic / disability backgrounds (or those who have done the hard work to become allies) therefore bring essential insights into research question formation, method selection, data collection, and findings interpretation. So we crafted an RFP that required applicants to answer a host of prompts about design, staffing, timelines, deliverables, budgets, etc. — pretty standard stuff — but we also asked these two questions to place positionality in the foreground:

  • In what ways do your team members’ backgrounds influence your research approach and design? For instance, how do your racial/ethnic/cultural/linguistic/disability backgrounds influence the research questions you pose, the data collection tools you employ, and the way you interpret research findings?
  • In what ways do you expect to encounter race, racism, ableism, discrimination, marginalization, and other forms of systemic oppression in your study, and what specific staffing and research design features prepare you to capture and interpret such phenomena with rigor and responsiveness?

And in our evaluation criteria we introduced a weighted category on “capacity” that included typical components like the team’s prior history of success, staffing allocations, access to data and sites, and a management plan. It also included this:

  • The research team possesses the requisite expertise in, experiences of, and/or sophistication with identifying and understanding issues of inequity and marginalization, and provides evidence of members’ ability and willingness to appropriately name and account for researcher positionality.

The range of responses these prompts yielded was striking. Many applicants couldn’t or didn’t address them at all, choosing instead to characterize the legitimacy of their proposed inquiry based on how well-practiced they were at removing preconceptions that would bias their interpretations. But the proposals from teams who demonstrated their capacity to read and respond to issues of systemic oppression in their work just jumped off the page. Theirs were careful, measured, insightful, and critical investigations of student-centered practices that might promote more equitable outcomes. The funds of knowledge they drew from, the responsiveness of their designs, and the intentionality of their interpretive methods demonstrated a kind of rigor that uses positionality as a strength. The ones that rose to the top were clear, and we were thrilled to award grants to the research teams at the High Tech High Graduate School of Education, the NYU Metro Center, and Rowan University.

Our current grantees are now beginning the second year of their two-year cycles of research at sites in Denver, New York, Philadelphia, and San Diego. We gather together twice per year to analyze data, discuss problems of practice, refine public-facing deliverables, and identify where the field of student-centered learning needs to go if it is to truly prioritize equity. And at each turn, we foreground our positionality both to frame the limitations of our view, and also to underscore where our expertise is most useful. This approach is as scientific as it is strategic, as political as it rigorous. Really, we’re all here because we’re from there. Conducting research with this positioning in mind helps us to name what we can see and move with purpose toward where we want to go.

Join us! We can’t wait to share with you what we’re finding and learning, and hear how it might resonate in your community. Click here to sign up for alerts about our studies and updates about the public release of findings at our convening in fall of 2020.

This blog is part of the Student-Centered Learning Research Collaborative Equity Series by JFF and KnowledgeWorks.