The Fights Are Here: Reckoning with Roe is Reckoning with All

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

Funders, the fights are here, and people have been fighting all along.

“If you are silent about your pain, they will kill you and say you enjoyed it.” In her book Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston’s words echo in our heads and hearts as we witness the fight for reproductive rights unfold before us. We must not be silent about the ongoing pain and violence inflicted by the unraveling of social progress that renders far too many of us vulnerable and threatens our very lives.

The fights are indeed here as we witness the looming Supreme Court decision of overturning Roe v. Wade. The decision would ensure that 70% of the country would lose a constitutional right to make choices about our own bodies. Many people in power are upholding and reinforcing white supremacy systems that we have long been fighting against. The fight isn’t just about Roe v. Wade but every piece of our democracy.

When they come for reproductive rights, they come for marriage equality.

When they come for marriage equality, they come for LGBTQIA+ protections.

When they come for LGBTQIA+ protections, they come for interracial marriage.

When they come for interracial marriage, they come for voting rights.

When they come for voting rights, they come for immigration rights.

When they come for immigration rights, they come for the right to quality and equitable public education.

They are intentionally coming for us. They are coming for all of us that make up a multiracial, diverse, and pluralist democracy. This moment is an organized and strategic part of a long-range game to ensure the permanent death of whatever semblance of democracy we’re holding on to.

The fights are indeed here. And, in the words of Lilla Watson and the Aboriginal activist group Queensland, “if you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

This moment is existential to our democracy. We cannot neatly separate our efforts towards educational justice from the fights for other civil and human rights.

If Roe v. Wade is overturned, this decision will impact everyone. As a Black woman, I can’t help but be acutely aware of who will pay the steepest costs of this decision. Pregnant and parenting people who exist at the intersection of marginalized identities and who already experience far too many compounded oppressions and violence; women and girls of color, native women, folks in under-resourced communities will pay the most. In the spirit of Ubuntu, my fight is your fight. The political is indeed personal. We deserve the right to make choices that are best for our own bodies and lives.

In November of 2021, I shared a message that still rings true today, “…as 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.”

Back then, I implored us to commit to joining the fight to stop holding white tears in higher regard than Black life.

Frankly, this moment feels like another page of the same chapter.

We must use our voices and platforms boldly — through deploying resources, strategizing, mobilizing, and organizing. We must join efforts that are already happening and follow the lead of those most proximate to the issues.

At the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, we will continue to take this approach, while also targeting specific resources on advocacy, organizing, and direct-service efforts. We will also continue to stand for teaching the truth of our history so that our young people are equipped with the knowledge and skills they need to engage, make decisions, and thrive.

And while doing this, let’s collectively reach out and build community, feeling all that we need to because we’re human. Let’s channel that righteous outrage into fuel so that we are protected and supported in making decisions about our own bodies, lives, and health so our multiracial, diverse, and pluralist democracy doesn’t die.

The fights are here. We are needed. You are needed.

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.

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Intersectionality in Action: A Conversation with Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw



Known for her foundational work around critical race theory and intersectionality, Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw will join us to discuss her work and how she is advancing conversations about intersectionality in our communities and nation. In an intimate conversation hosted by Incoming Interim Nellie Mae President & CEO Dr. Gislaine Ngounou, we’ll hear about the work. Professor Crenshaw is leading through The African American Policy Forum, and through efforts like the #SayHerName campaign and Black Girls Matter initiative that center the experiences of Black women and girls.

What does critical race theory and intersectionality in action look like in public education? What can funders glean from these concepts to inform their practices?

The Nellie Mae Education Foundation champions efforts that challenge racial inequities and advance excellent, student-centered public education for all New England youth. 



Dr. Gislaine Ngounou
Incoming Interim President & CEO

Gislaine joined the Nellie Mae Education Foundation in 2019.

With more than fifteen years of experience working across the education sector, Gislaine brings to the Foundation a breadth of experience that includes work with nonprofits, individual schools, and school districts. Most recently, she served as the Chief Program Officer for Arlington, Virginia-based Phi Delta Kappa International, a professional organization for educators.

In this role, she designed and led programs that supported school district leaders, provided leadership coaching surrounding issues of equity and social justice, and created and facilitated an ongoing community that allowed system-level leaders in districts from across the country to learn from one another.

Prior to her work at Phi Delta Kappa, Gislaine worked for school districts including Hartford Public Schools, Montgomery County Public Schools, and Kansas City Missouri School District. She is passionate about social justice, racial equity, adult learning, youth and community empowerment, system change, and increasing educational opportunities for all students.

Kimberlé Crenshaw
Co-Founder & Executive Director

Kimberlé Crenshaw is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of the African American Policy Forum, and the founder and Executive Director of the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies at Columbia Law School. She is the Promise Institute Professor at UCLA Law School and the Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor at Columbia Law School.

She is popularly known for her development of “intersectionality,” “Critical Race Theory,” and the #SayHerName Campaign, and is the host of the podcast Intersectionality Matters!. She also is a columnist for The New Republic, and the moderator of the widely impactful webinar series Under The Blacklight: The Intersectional Vulnerabilities that the Twin Pandemics Lay Bare.  She is one of the most cited scholars in legal history and has been recognized as Ms. magazine’s “No. 1 Most Inspiring Feminist;” one of Prospect Magazine’s ten most important thinkers in the world; and even listed in Ebony’s “Power 100″ issue.

Healing and Agency: Restorative Justice at Work (Romeo Romero Sigle Interview Part 2)

We got the chance to talk to Romeo Romero Sigle, Assistant Director of Pa’lante in Holyoke, MA, about the history of the organization, Pa’lante’s current youth-led and anti-racist work, and how the group has adjusted their practices and strategy during COVID-19. This is part two of a four-part blog post about Pa’lante. You can read part one here.

What would you describe is the meaning of restorative justice, and has it/approaches to it changed over time?

The program really came about because in Holyoke we had the fourth highest suspension rate of Latinx students in the entire country. And there became this critique of the traditional discipline system and people were researching alternatives and came upon the idea of restorative justice.

The restorative justice movement was started in the 80’s and 90’s, looking at how to transform criminal justice systems, and it was slowly brought into schools after that. The idea of restorative justice is that rather than punishing people when harm happens, you can bring people together and put together a community to figure out what amends or what care needs to happen. If two students fight for example, and you suspend them, then they come back but nothing is resolved. Whereas if you do a restorative justice process, you can get to the root of the issue — why were you fighting, what do you need to feel safe in the building — and you can repair those things.

And in some situations I think that’s sufficient. But in the last ten years or so this idea of transformative justice also came about, and our program really strives to embody that as well. Transformative justice is more interested in thinking about the conditions that created harm in the first place, often thinking about systems of oppression and what can we do to create a world in which harm doesn’t have to happen the way that it happens currently. So we do both of those things, we offer lots of healthy conflict options for students and we do youth organizing to think about the structures in the school that make it so students are feeling like they need to fight with each other and fight with adults in the building, and take some of it off of the interpersonal and more on the structural.

Can you go deeper into how indigenous circle practice works?

The basis of our program is learning this indigenous circle practice. The idea is the more we get into circle, the more that we embody a way of being that really centers everyone’s humanity, everyone’s dignity, everyone’s sovereignty. We learned this practice from our teacher Dr. Sayra Pinto, who studied with Mohawk folk, Wampanoag folk, and Tlingit folk, so we really cherish the heritage and the tradition that we were able to adopt this process from. And I think that the restorative justice movement as a whole has learned a lot from indigenous people, and in some cases has co-opted circle practice in such a way that you can see circle being used as a form of control and punishment, and we don’t believe in that. And it’s really different than most things that happen in school, because you’re sitting in a circle rather than listening to a teacher at the front of the room, and when you have that talking piece, you can’t be policed. It really is a lot about choice and agency and choosing how to heal your own heart with the presence of a loving community.

Can you talk a little bit about the Youth Participatory Action Research Projects?

Every year the students take up what we call a YPAR project, or youth participatory action research. This is where students think about what’s going on in their schools, what kinds of injustices they’ve witnessed, what they might want to put their energy into changing, and then once they choose a topic, they research the problem. And then once they’ve done some research, they decide to take some action to make change. The very first YPAR project we did was around an in-house suspension room that they called the “student support room.” And so students did all of this research about what an actual student support room would look like, and they were able to make a proposal to school leadership to change the whole room. Now you walk in there and there’s art on the wall, and there’s comfy chairs to sit in, and art supplies, an exercise bike, and there’s multiple therapeutic professionals to talk with students about what’s going on for them. And it’s a space that students can access any time in the day, and if they need longer term support, they get connected to what they need. So that’s one example of a YPAR project where students were like “this is a problem and we want something different” and they were able to make that happen. And I was talking a little bit about the random search policy — that was our YPAR project from this year, and the Hidden Legends was our YPAR project from last year.

In our next installment, we dive into the community’s reaction to Pa’lante’s work, how staff members challenge adultism, and the influence of the Young Lords’ legacy on Pa’lante’s work.

Healing and Agency: Restorative Justice at Work (Romeo Romero Sigle Interview Part 2) was originally published in Nellie Mae Education Foundation on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Community Connections, Youth Leadership, and the Shoulders We Stand On

Community Connections, Youth Leadership, and the Shoulders We Stand On (Romeo Romero Sigle Interview) Part 3

We got the chance to talk to Romeo Romero Sigle, Assistant Director of Pa’lante in Holyoke, MA, about the history of the organization, Pa’lante’s current youth-led and anti-racist work, and how the group has adjusted their practices and strategy during COVID-19. This is part three of a four-part blog post about Pa’lante.

Has the school been generally supportive of the work Pa’lante is doing or has there been pushback?

In our history there was a lot of pushback. There’s definitely a large mass of people who really believe in policing and high surveillance in schools and I think restorative justice is a really scary alternative for people who really feel safe by those kinds of measures. But I think we’re entering a new era where it feels like the administration really wants to work with us and sees the value of the youth leaders who are a part of Pa’lante. And we’ve also reached a tipping point with the staff as well — now more of the staff is supportive than not. And that’s not to say that we never have problems, but those problems are more easily resolved versus it feeling like we’re constantly pushing against folks in a confrontational way.

Have you seen pushback or acceptance of restorative justice from the Holyoke community over time?

People are really proud that we have Pa’lante in Holyoke. A lot of teachers come to Holyoke because they hear there is a restorative justice program. Parents who have been involved in circle I think really see the benefit of it; we have had one or two parents involved in our community advisory board. For the most part there’s positive feelings, particularly around the Latinx community in Holyoke. I think there’s a different side of Holyoke that’s more old-school, and so we’ve had some issues with white supremacists, like doxing people and things like that. But for the most part we have a positive reputation in the community.

And I think we have a dream that there be more fluidity between the school and the community. Right now circle practice isn’t something that just anyone can do because it’s primarily housed within the school, but we have a dream of figuring out how to offer this to everyone who lives in Holyoke. But that’s a dream that we haven’t quite figured out the logistics for.

How do you and other adult allies ensure that the work Pa’lante does is student led?

Lucky for us, we’re all very steeped in circle practice which really disrupts hierarchies and power divisions. Any time a decision needs to get made, the final decision usually gets made with the whole group. It’s not like staff gets no say — we get as much of a vote as everyone else, but obviously we’re outnumbered by the students, and students are ultimately going to be the ones making the decisions. Oftentimes making any type of decision for the program requires multiple rounds of students sharing their feelings. We don’t have that strict or formal of a process, but we definitely take youth leadership seriously. We also have a youth advisory board and they’re the ones who make either smaller decisions or make the proposals that go to the big group.

Students have actually pushed back on us in certain ways. There’s certain things where we were just like “students probably don’t want to be involved in thinking about the budget” for example. But this past year students were like “why don’t we know anything about Pa’lante’s finances?” and we were like “You’re right! Let’s make the budget into a teenager friendly document and share it with you.” They can ask for transparency and we’ll respond. As adult allies, we also know we have to constantly work to undo our own internalized adultism, because regardless of the fact that we really strive to be youth-led, it’s true that the adults have power.

Your name Pa’lante is inspired by the Young Lords grassroots movement. What about their legacy inspires or informs your philosophy and practices?

What really inspired the connection between Pa’lante the organization and the Young Lords is the fact that the Young Lords was primarily led by Puerto Rican people. We also have students from lots of different Latin American countries, but we do have a very strong Puerto Rican presence in Holyoke, and I think there’s a lot of deep pride for the relationship between Holyoke and the islands of the Caribbean. And when the program got started, it just made sense to connect students into that longer legacy and remind them of whose shoulders they stand on. Also because they were youth organizers and organizing is a really important part of our program, which is really different than a lot of restorative justice programs out there, I think we really wanted to stress the importance of when young people come together, they can enact change.

We went on a field trip to New York two years ago and we got to meet a Young Lord and a Black Panther, and they took us on a tour of Harlem. And the Young Lord was really really proud and excited that students had taken up the name Pa’lante, so it was a really cool connection to make.

In our final installment, we delve into the impacts of the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and anti-Black racism on Pa’lante’s work, and how restorative and transformative justice fit into the movement for anti-racism.

Community Connections, Youth Leadership, and the Shoulders We Stand On(Romeo Romero Sigle… was originally published in Nellie Mae Education Foundation on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.