Educators for Black Lives

Educators have demanding careers. Teaching and learning during the COVID-19 pandemic has presented another set of challenges for educators. Being thrust into adapting to virtual learning is no easy feat. While navigating the challenges of COVID-19 within their virtual classrooms, educators also took on the role and responsibility of reassuring Black students and their families that their lives mattered. As a result of the murders of Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, George Floyd, and too many others at the hands of police officers, we’ve seen educators facilitate and engage in necessary and courageous conversations around racism and anti-Blackness. Many of these conversations have been led by Black educators who do the heavy lifting while remaining overwhelmingly under-represented and undervalued in public schools across the United States.

Like countless educators, we have seen the videos and hashtags that have spread across social media in recent months. We’ve seen the devastating impacts of COVID-19 across the world, and we know that this pain and devastation is only heightened for the Black community, where the impacts of this virus disproportionately fall. We have also witnessed the uprising against anti-Black racism in New England communities and across the globe. We hear both the pain and hope in the rallying cry of Black Lives Matter. We, alongside other philanthropic organizations across the nation, have been reminded that while COVID-19 is new, systemic racism affecting Black communities and anti-Blackness are foundational to the United States. Inequities persist for many Black communities who have been underserved and defunded for generations — Black educators and students matter.

At the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, our mission is to champion efforts that prioritize community goals that challenge racial inequities and advance excellent, student-centered public education for all New England youth. We are committed to using our power and privilege as a philanthropic organization to support efforts that challenge racism and anti-Blackness.

Earlier this year, we announced our new grantmaking strategy that puts our focus on advancing racial equity in public education. However, with the onset of the pandemic, we realized this wasn’t enough. We created a rapid response fund, Racism is a Virus Too, to address both Asian American Pacific Islander communities impacted by anti-Asian racism and xenophobia as well as other communities of color disproportionately impacted by the virus.

Today we are proud to announce the recipients of another rapid response fund, Educators for Black Lives. In response to the incredible work of the Black Lives Matter movement and the pervasive issue of anti-Black racism, the Nellie Mae Education Foundation is supporting educators who have been at the forefront of facilitating necessary and courageous conversations and practices centered on eradicating anti-Blackness in their virtual classrooms, schools, and communities across New England. These projects are rooted in challenging anti-Blackness and centering the voices, perspectives, and experiences of Black people. We are proud to support all of these educators and organizations and look forward to continuing in the work of advancing racial equity with them.

You can learn more about our Educators for Black Lives grantees below:


Educators for Black Lives was originally published in Nellie Mae Education Foundation on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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.

Interview Series with Pa’lante’s Romeo Romero Sigle Pt. 1

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 one of a four-part blog post about Pa’lante.

Pt 1.

Can you start off by giving a basic introduction of Pa’lante?

Pa’lante is a school-based organization that works with students, community members, teachers, and staff to rethink our relationship with the school-to-prison pipeline — dismantle it, work against it, fight for a different way of having education in predominantly communities of color, and develop youth leadership and youth organizing. During the school day we host restorative justice circles that are based in indigenous circle practice. We try to use that practice to repair harm that happens in the building, to give students an alternative to traditional discipline. And then after school we’re thinking about those systemic issues that affect students, like why are students fighting, why are students getting pushed out, why are students suspended? We know it’s because of racism and youth oppression and all the different –isms that affect our world, and students come together every year and choose a specific issue to research and take action on to make the school a better place.

How long have you been at Pa’lante, and what growth have you seen over your time there?

I’ve been with Pa’lante for three years, and a lot has changed. The heart of the program has always been the same which is just building up a liberatory space for young people to exist. But we have grown a lot. We’ve expanded to the second Holyoke High campus [the Dean campus], which is a technical school which has several hundred students, whereas the main campus has 1400 students.

We also have launched this alumni fellowship program, which is really in line with our mission of creating a leadership pipeline that can be an alternative to the school-to-prison pipeline. We were noticing that these students we’d been working with would graduate and sometimes would be just left out to dry; you have this really supportive community at school, and then sometimes that transition out of high school into the “real world” can be hard. So we decided to put resources into creating an option for alumni once they graduate to come back and work for the school, which simultaneously helps them because they get to stay connected and get job experience — but then it’s double wonderful because they’re young folks who have dealt with the struggles that can relate to the students at the school in a way that a lot of the adults who are in the building just don’t.

In the past couple of years we have taken up a lot of projects that have been really successful — there’s tangible positive things that have happened every year when students come together to ask for what they want. This past year, we organized against a random search policy that was proposed, and we ended up rolling back that policy so it’s no longer in place. We were able to create this whole oral history project with what we call the Hidden Legends of Holyoke — those Latinx community organizers who have been there doing the work long before Pa’lante existed and connecting our young folks with older organizers and doing some oral history and getting that into a permanent installation in the buildings so that student have access to their history. So I’ve definitely seen the school change around us as more young people feel empowered to transform their school.

So you mentioned one end of the leadership pipeline as students graduate — but how do students get involved in Pa’lante in the first place?

Students do have to do a written application, then we do what we call an info session, which is an opportunity for them to learn about our work, but also it’s an interview process to see how people are showing up in the space — we do social justice education activities with them and see how folks are engaging with each other. Once someone gets into Pa’lante, they are a peer leader for their entire high school career if they want to be. We do recruitment, we do outreach to all the classes, and then together we just make decisions based off of people’s passion, people’s commitment, diversity in the sense of getting folks from all different parts of the school so that no matter where a conflict arises there’s someone connected to that part of the school. And most students do stay until they graduate.

Next Friday, we’ll explore the meaning of restorative justice, Indigenous circle practice, and Pa’lante’s Youth Participatory Action Research Projects. Stay tuned for more!


Interview Series with Pa’lante’s Romeo Romero Sigle Pt. 1 was originally published in Nellie Mae Education Foundation on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Sharing Our Commitments

Photo Credit: Tim Dennell

Over the course of this year, we’ve witnessed the deep inequities in our society laid bare by the two pandemics of COVID and systemic racism. We’ve seen how these forces have disproportionately negatively affected Black, Brown and Indigenous communities. As a philanthropic organization, we know we have a duty to use our power and privilege to do more to combat systemic, anti-Black racism, especially in our public education system. The truth is that the reality of this double pandemic has forced us to apply a magnifying glass to the deep inequities of our public education system and our society at large.

We cannot go on as business as usual. We know that we have continued work to do in ensuring that our internal culture and grantmaking practices are not reinforcing white supremacy culture. This requires being relentless in acting and putting our money where our values are. Our stated value of operating with a racial equity lens means that we must take necessary urgent action in this moment while planning for this work in the long haul.

Therefore, in addition to our planned grantmaking in 2020 and the early interventions taken at the beginning of the pandemic, we are today announcing an allocation of an additional $20M this year to support work addressing anti-Black racism and COVID relief, especially as both relate to our public education system. These grants are in addition to the more than $10M we are distributing this year as part of our previously adopted strategy.

It is evident that COVID and the fight against anti-Black racism will require the contributions of many organizations and individuals — therefore, we are increasing and expanding our support through a broad array of additional investments to communities, local, regional, and national organizations, and schools as they continue to do incredible work to address the needs faced by those they serve and represent.

We recognize that the fight for racial equity in public education is intrinsically connected to the fight against anti-Black racism. Through these additional investments, we are supporting the important work of organizations at multiple levels of the ecosystem working to fight for a more just and equitable future.

We recognize that our actions are just a step. We are actively exploring how we might use additional monies in the years to come. This means looking beyond traditional allocations to better show our long-term commitment to our values and mission: championing efforts that prioritize community goals that challenge racial inequities and advance excellent, student-centered education for all New England youth.

At this time, we are continuing to be in conversation with others as we grow in this work. At this time we are not accepting unsolicited proposals, but if you are interested in introducing your organization to us we invite you to fill out this form.

Grants will be made in support of the following organizations:

• The Movement For Black Lives ($2,500,000): To provide general operating support

• The Schott Foundation For Public Education ($2,250,000): To provide capacity building and operating support for work focused on racial equity

• Haymarket People’s Fund ($750,000): To provide capacity building and operating support for work focused on racial equity

• MA Immigrant COVID-19 Collaborative: ($750,000): To provide capacity building and operating support for work focused on racial equity

• African American Policy Forum ($750,000): To provide general operating support

• Center for Youth & Community Leadership In Education (CYCLE): ($600,000): To provide capacity building and operating support for work focused on racial equity

• Education for Liberation Network ($500,000): To provide general operating support

• Abolitionist Teaching Network ($500,000): To provide general operating support

• NAACP Empowerment Programs, Inc. ($500,000): To provide core support for their education programs

• Black Futures Lab ($500,000): To provide general operating support

• Black Lives Matter Boston ($100,000): To provide general operating support

• CT-CORE Organize Now! ($100,000): To provide general operating support

• Waterbury Bridge to Success Community Partnership ($100,000) (Waterbury, CT)

• Leadership, Education and Athletics in Partnership (LEAP) ($100,000) (New Haven, CT): To provide general operating support

• Diversity Talks (Providence, RI) ($100,000): To provide general operating support

• United Teen Equality Center (UTEC) (Lowell, MA) ($100,000): To provide general operating support

• FaithActs for Education (Bridgeport, CT) ($100,000): To provide general operating support

• African Caribbean American Parents of Children with Disabilities, Inc. (AFCAMP) (Hartford, CT) ($100,000): To provide general operating support

• Building One Community Corp (Stamford, CT) ($100,000): To provide general operating support

• African Community Education Program (ACE) (Worcester, MA) ($100,000): To provide general operating support

• SABURA (Brockton, MA) ($100,000): To provide general operating support

• Brockton Interfaith (Brockton, MA) ($100,000): To provide general operating support

• Progresso Latino (Central Falls, RI) ($100,000): To provide general operating support

• Coalition of Schools Educating Boys of Color (COSEBOC) ($175,000): To provide general operating support

A handful of these grants are to current grantees to expand their work around COVID and the fight against anti-Black racism:

• Students for Educational Justice (New Haven, CT) ($47,250): To provide general operating support

• Hearing Youth Voices (New London, CT) ($47,250): To provide general operating support

• Citywide Youth Coalition (New Haven, CT) ($47,250): To provide general operating support

• Blue Hills Civic Association (Hartford, CT) ($47,250): To provide general operating support

• Revere Youth in Action (Revere, MA) ($47,250): To provide general operating support

• Student Immigrant Movement (Massachusetts) ($47,250): To provide general operating support

• Worcester Youth Civics Union (Worcester, MA) ($47,250): To provide general operating support

• Maine Inside Out (Maine) ($47,250): To provide general operating support

• Portland Outright (Portland, ME) ($47,250): To provide general operating support

• The Root Social Justice Center, Youth 4 Change (Brattleboro, VT) ($47,250): To provide general operating support

• Outright Vermont (Vermont) ($47,250): To provide general operating support

Additionally, we are currently working to support 10 New England school districts servicing communities with large numbers of Black and Brown children and their families that have been heavily impacted by COVID-19. These grants will address the complex, interrelated problems posed by COVID-19 and anti-Black racism as schools reopen.

We know this is only one important part of how we can show up as funders at this time. We remain committed to learning, adapting, and improving; to showing up as allies working to combat anti-Blackness in our education system, using our platform and privilege to amplify the leadership of our partners, listening to those who are more proximate and directly connected to this work in communities, everyday. We see you. We hear you. We stand with and behind those that live and breathe the realities and impact of this work daily.

We envision a future where all students have access to excellent and equitable public education that prepares them to succeed and thrive in community. Yet, we understand that for many young people, especially our Black, Brown, Indigenous and other students of color — this simply isn’t true. In the words of John Lewis, “Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble.” Let’s continue that “good trouble!”


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