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.
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