The Wisdom in Transitions: A Time of Reflection in Gratitude
After four years at the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, and a tenure that includes serving as Vice President of Strategy and Programs and Interim President and CEO, the time has come for me to put a period at the end of this chapter. It’s been an absolute honor to be a servant-leader in this organization during these critical times we live in.
There is so much I am proud of.
- We have designed a strategy that is not only ensuring that direct services and supports are provided to students, but that also tackles root causes of inequities that get in the way of justice, equity, and the building of an educational ecosystem that is just and excellent.
- We have made more than 1650 grants totaling approximately $90 Million since 2019.
- We have been more explicit about our commitments to racial equity and justice in ways that have allowed us to build deeper relationships and credibility. We cannot do this work without being honest and clear about how white supremacy harms specific communities while also harming us all. Therefore, a commitment to racial equity in public education also means confronting anti-Blackness, Indigenous violence, antisemitism, xenophobia, the plights of Asian people, Latinx communities, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, and many more.
- We have been nationally recognized for the ways in which we have incorporated community voices and leadership in the design and implementation of our work; and for our communications and narrative shift campaign around #TeachUsEverything to counter the rise of anti-Critical Race Theory rhetoric and attacks on public education.
- We have been invited to join colleagues at many tables across the country; this allows us to continue to learn while also sharing the stories of work and modeling new ways of being/doing for philanthropy.
- We have built partnerships and collaborative efforts with others who have co-funded and amplified the work of our grantees, leveraging Foundation assets to secure more resources and to help build the sustainability of our partners’ efforts.
- We have supported and even influenced deeper conversations about the interconnectedness of public education, democracy, power, and movement building – in ways that are catalyzing new ideas both in our region and nationally.
- We have hosted increasingly popular webinars through our #EdEquityTalks on topics of racial equity, public education, and justice that continue to generate interest and have brought together thousands of people to learn and be in community.
- We have attended to our own robust internal learning—building systems that allow us to function more effectively and implementing policies and processes that reflect our racial equity principles and practices.
- We have also stayed the course through many challenging circumstances – a persisting global pandemic, rampant racism and violence against our communities, and internal leadership transitions that generate challenges as well as opportunities.
As I enter the in-between space that exists between endings and beginnings, I hold and cherish the wisdom of lessons learned:
- I maintain that this is not our money to control. Truly bringing about justice in education and beyond through philanthropic strategy requires that we confront historical and ongoing harm, systems of oppression and extraction, and root causes of inequities and injustice. As such, we are compelled to return these resources to the communities they belong to—for healing, repair, restoration, and renewal.
- Those closest to the work, challenges, and pain hold knowledge, experiences, and solutions that should drive decisions and actions. Herein lies the power of community-driven approaches in design and implementation.
- Confronting complex issues and root causes of inequities in public education demands that we view the ecosystem as inextricably linked to the larger umbrella of a struggling democracy and society. Therefore, education philanthropy must work with others within the field and across sectors and leverage the entirety of available assets as grantmakers, conveners, and strategic partners who hold power, platforms, and influence.
- As Grace Lee Boggs reminds us, we must transform ourselves to transform society. Philanthropic organizations and those inside them must individually and collectively engage in ongoing internal reflection, learning, and unlearning. Leaning into the discomfort, messiness, beauty, and power of this internal and self-work is what gives way to a true and embodied practice of the core values and principles we purport to hold and manifest externally. It is the glue and fuel that holds people and work together when things get hard.
- Brave spaces and liberatory governance—across sectors including philanthropy, school systems, and nonprofit organizations—that allow room for intergenerational practice, principled disagreement, and truth speaking are critical. There is wisdom in elders and there is wisdom in younger folks. Let us continue to make room to find, see, and honor both.
- Healing, rest, and joy are non-negotiable to sustain humans in this costly yet rewarding work, to practice healthier ways of being, and to truly get free and live well in a just society. Let’s boldly invest in these non-negotiables at all levels of our organizations and communities.
As I shared in my end-of year message in 2022, I am inspired by the unwavering commitment our partners model in the work towards justice and liberation. I continue to learn from the power and resilience of grassroot organizations and communities leading the way to ensure that democracy is protected and rebuilt in ways that allow everyone to live safely and to thrive. I am filled with gratitude for all the partners whose efforts dismantle inequities and move schools and communities closer to racial justice in public education and beyond. I am reminded that young people are powerful, brilliant, and critical to the transformation of society; therefore, we must continue to amplify their voices and leadership.
I give thanks. To the phenomenal team I have had the privilege and blessing to do this work with daily, I salute you. I give you your flowers. To all of those who made possible the opportunity to lead this work and organization during these incredible times, I am deeply grateful. To the young people, educators, leaders, and communities I feel blessed to call partners, guides, and teachers—I honor you. Thank you for seeing me and for making space for me to lead in ways that felt authentic to the core of my being—as a Black woman who lives at the intersection of many identities and cannot help but see the world and the work through layered lenses. #Ubuntu. I am because we are. We are because of each other.
My hope for the Nellie Mae Education Foundation is that the organization will continue to center a love ethic in the work to bring about racial equity and advance a just public education system; the kind of love ethic that ancestor Bell Hooks describes as the practice of freedom through care, commitment, trust, responsibility, respect, and knowledge.
As we have heard from so many in the field, Nellie Mae’s work is critical.There is a powerful story emerging of transformative work happening. The house of democracy is on fire and the fights are many. The attacks and challenges within public education are certainly a part of the larger work at hand and sustained change, as we know, takes time. Yet I am still filled with hope—in the work that has been happening to support building culturally responsive education, ending the criminalization of young people in schools, advocating for the increase of inclusive policies, fighting for equitable resource allocation, and pushing for meaningful changes in how schools and organizations listen to community voices.
So, why leave and what’s next? I recognize that the time has come. In life, I strive to show up at the intersection where faith meets values and purpose. I am reminded through 2 Timothy 1:7 that “God has not given me a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” My decision to close this amazing season of work and leadership is not an easy one. I depart with pride, many lessons, and a continued fire burning deep within. Nellie Mae is forever linked to my story. I am and will remain a champion of the organization and its work. I give honor to all who have poured into me in every chapter that has shaped me. I hope I have made the ancestors proud. I hope I have made God proud.
I look forward to rest and time for reflection, healing, and dreaming. I look forward to existing in the glorious space that makes room to be fully present, to listen deeply, and to be in community. I look forward to authoring and manifesting the next chapter when the time comes.
As I begin to imagine the contours of this new journey, I see continued work to practice freedom and create a just and liberated world that allows each of us to flourish. So, I enter this new space grounded in the wisdom of an ancestral mother who taught me to answer a calling…a calling greater than my fears.
In love and community,
Dr. Gislaine N. Ngounou, former Interim President and CEO, Nellie Mae Education Foundation