Yesterday marked ten years since I accepted the position of deputy director for a brand-new, embryonic initiative known as Partnerships for College Access and Success (PCAS). Who knew that, given the circumstances, this would turn out to be the best full-time work of my nonprofit sector years, with a good boss, a large measure of autonomy to make decisions and to brainstorm new ideas? And to put together a plan that, in the end, was about getting more low-income/first-generation students and students of color into and then through college? Looking at where corporate education reform has moved since, it’s a wonder that this initiative got off the ground at all.
There were two problems with this new position, neither of which were related to the job itself. One was that it kept me at the Academy for Educational Development (AED – now FHI 360), an organization that had screwed me in terms of pay and had left me in a hostile work environment with my then immediate supervisor at New Voices. I was a bit burned out from having to work in this environment of cynicism, distrust and bipolar disorder by the end of January ’04. Two was that my new boss, Sandy, would be more than 200 miles away from me for most of the time that we were to work together, since the job didn’t pay enough for me to consider a move to the New York City area.
A week into January ’04, I interviewed with Sandy for the first time. After weeks of interviews with two other organizations — not to mention three years with AED — I actually had low expectations as my Amtrak train arrived at Penn Station. Somehow, though, being in the city again, riding the 1 down to 14th Street and walking over to Fifth Avenue did take me out of my metro DC malaise.
I went up to the eighth floor and realized that I already knew two people at the NY office, one whom had overlapped with me during my Pitt/Carnegie Mellon grad school days. More importantly, though, I met Sandy. After three years of working for duplicitous people, at least Sandy was honest, maybe too honest, about the job and about her thinking regarding the people around her. For me, this was definitely refreshing. Maybe this was the Mount Vernonite/New Yorker in me that yearned for old-style New York honesty. It caused me to relax and to talk passionately about my writing and education, about what reform really should look like, about my disdain for data as the answer to everything, about the need to reach students and then help build the skills necessary for college.
After two hours, I learned a few things. Sandy could be a bit scattered, sometimes even sound a bit paternalistic, like a good, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, ’60s-era liberal can. Meaning she could rub folks outside of New York the wrong way, like the potential funders for this initiative. But Sandy wasn’t stuck in that moment, either, and the fact that her ideas for this new initiative were wide-open was wonderful for me. PCAS was so new that the grant money wasn’t quite in yet, and the folks at Lumina Foundation for Education wanted more clarity as to what we meant when we said partnerships.
So when I was offered the position three weeks later, I wasn’t actually surprised. I came pretty cheap, didn’t need to learn how AED worked, and had experience with providing technical assistance and in higher education (particularly in teaching teachers about the history of K-16 education and education reform). Still, how was working in DC with my boss in NY with a team of technical assistance folks scattered throughout AED (not to mention consultants, Lumina Foundation, the eventual grantees, the independent third-party evaluator in Philly) going to work successfully?
Ultimately, it was about having a foundation that was open, at least initially, to trying out new ideas. It was because we selected grantees with a variety of nonprofit organizational experiences around college access, youth development, workforce development, grassroots organizing and high school reform. We entrusted them to know their local context, their school district and college/university connections better than we could operating in DC or NY. We worked as hard as we could to help these organizations build real partnerships with their local high schools, school districts and colleges, because we and they wanted to reach students and encourage their pursuit of a college degree. And I had a good boss in Sandy who trusted me to do my job and to grow the work.
It was a good four-year run, one that ended in no small part because neither AED as a whole nor Lumina were interested in increasing college access and retention for underrepresented students. They were both interested in finding out where the dollars were or in leveraging those dollars to remake K-16 education. In AED’s case, it became about data and data systems, because of course, that’s where a lot of the Gates Foundation money for education has been since ’06. For Lumina, a change in leadership at the beginning of ’07 meant a shift away from a diversity of initiatives to a big focus on research grants into making college more affordable through student loans.
My last day at AED as a full-time staffer will be six years ago tomorrow. The grant funding from Lumina was almost done, and after seven total years, I needed to build a future beyond AED for myself. I learned a lot working for and with Sandy and did a lot working on PCAS. The sad truth is, though, that an initiative like the one we were able to put together, make work and grow wouldn’t happen in today’s corporate reform environment. And where does that leave someone like me?