One Good Job, On Real Education Reform

January 31, 2014

PCAS Visual Model, AED, June 14, 2006. (Donald Earl Collins and Lynda Barbour).

PCAS Visual Model, AED, June 14, 2006. (Donald Earl Collins and Lynda Barbour).

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.

Union Square, Manhattan (about two blocks from NY office on Fifth Avenue), November 14, 2005. (Postdlf via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via Creative Commons 3.0.

Union Square, Manhattan (about two blocks from NY office on Fifth Avenue), November 14, 2005. (Postdlf via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via Creative Commons 3.0.

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.

Current Lumina Foundation logo (at least their 3rd change in eight years), January 31, 2014. (

Current Lumina Foundation logo (at least 3rd change in eight years), January 31, 2014. (

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?

Bearing False Witness At Work – It Can Hurt

November 16, 2013

Hannah Arendt on false witnesses, November 16, 2013. (

Hannah Arendt on false witnesses, November 16, 2013. (

I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the fact that this week ten years ago, I endured what was the beginning of a three-month period of a hostile work environment (one that was already not-so-optimal to begin with). It was brought on by my then immediate supervisor’s paranoia and jealousy, and intensified by his then undisclosed bipolar disorder. I’ve written about my three years of hell with Ken before on this blog, most notably in “The Messiah Complex At Work, Part 1″ from a couple of years ago.

What I haven’t really discussed at all was how I felt about all of this as I went through it. As a man, as a Black man, as a person who believed in social justice, including in a workplace in which we funded social justice projects. I’d only been accused of sexual harassment one other time, by a boss whose best friend had been harassing me at work for the better part of two months, in the early part of ’89. Now, fourteen years later, here was Ken, at an HR meeting he set up, accusing me of saying things that I never said, of thoughts that I never had.

I was already used to being guilty before being innocent. With police. In a public setting, like a supermarket or bookstore. But not at work, and for the most part, not while I was at Pitt or Carnegie Mellon. Why? Because I tended to be at my most guarded while at work back then. In fact, during an exit interview the year before, a former program assistant at New Voices said that I needed to be “more open” at work if a team like ours was ever to reach its full potential. She may have been right. If only I had bosses who were more open, more relaxed, less accusatory, and in Ken’s case, on his meds.

Archie Bunker from All In The Family (1971-78) screen shot, June 2013. (

Archie Bunker from All In The Family (1971-78) screen shot, June 2013. (

There are few things worse in one’s job or career than reckless false accusations. Even if proven completely untrue, there are some who’ll choose to look at those accused with less trust and more suspicion. And Ken, for all of his bluster about social justice, had proven himself to be as much of a bigot as former executive director at Presidential Classroom, an openly admitted bigot. He could’ve accused me of insubordination, of wanting his job, of not doing my job well enough. Instead, Ken relied on the whole hyper-sexualized Black male motif, as if my testosterone was dripping right out of my penis, like some animal in heat.

Of course, some of you will say, “He had untreated bipolar disorder. He didn’t know what he was doing. Cut him some slack.” No, I can’t and I won’t. As I’ve noted in another post regarding Ken’s condition, bipolar disorder doesn’t equal insanity or irrational behavior necessarily. I worked for Westchester County Department of Community Mental Health between ’89 and ’92, and for Western Psychiatric Institute & Clinic at Pitt between ’89 and ’91. I became pretty good at understanding the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders. I did learn a thing or two from having Dr. Juan Mezzich as a boss while I worked at Western Psych between my junior year and first year of grad school at Pitt. 

Kingda Ka, the world's tallest roller coaster, Six Flags Great Adventure, Jackson, NJ (Exit 7A, NJ Turnpike), September 23, 2006. (Dusso Janladde via Wikipedia). Released to public domain.

Kingda Ka, the world’s tallest roller coaster, Six Flags Great Adventure, Jackson, NJ (Exit 7A, NJ Turnpike), September 23, 2006. (Dusso Janladde via Wikipedia). Released to public domain.

One of the things I learned was that bipolar disorder generally exaggerates existing thoughts and behaviors. The psychosis can often be exasperated by stressful situations. For those with the illness, the highs are way too highthe lows so low that suicidal thoughts can become prevalent. If one tends to be paranoid, the paranoia becomes heightened, as was the case with Ken. Still, even with bipolar disorder, he was acting on his bigoted and paranoia template, there long before bipolar disorder manifested itself in him as an adult.

I understood all of this, even as I went through months of accusations and arbitrary changes to my work schedule. But that didn’t mean that there wasn’t a part of me that felt rage, wanted revenge, wanted to take the physically and emotional stunted twerp and stuff him in a garbage can. Or that I didn’t come to work at AED every day between November ’03 and February ’04 with thought that I should just quit, turn around, go home, watch my newborn son Noah and figure out my next step. Most of all, there were times I wanted to choke Ken until he told the truth, that he was a jealous-hearted bastard who lied about me to HR in order to put me in my place as a Black guy working under a White guy.

But I didn’t. I didn’t because I knew that I was right. I knew, somehow, that things would work out in my favor. I knew that God and the universal would vindicate me. If my life is proof of anything, it’s proof that my truth wins out in the end. Those thoughts dictated my actions and counteracted any feelings of rage or violence I had during those cloudy days. To Jonathan Martin and so many others out there, I think I know how you feel right now. Please hang in there, and hang on to the truth.

Defining Loyalty

August 16, 2012

Gov. Mitt Romney and ‘blind trust,’ June 7, 2012. (

One of any number of concepts I’ve had trouble wrapping my head and heart around over the years has been loyalty. At least, what others in my life have defined as loyalty. For the most part, loyalty for the vast majority of these folk has meant surrounding themselves with yes-men and yes-women, to have people around them who’d prefer the method of going along to get along. True loyalty, of course, is more about supporting a person and their ideals, ideas, calling and purpose, and not just agreeing with their every word and deed, no matter the contradictions, no matter who it hurts.

I’ve seen it in my own life, so many times, in high school, college, grad school, academia, the nonprofit world, and in church. Over and over again, people who believe that leadership means everyone should fall in line and follow someone else’s vision, without question or contribution. It’s the ultimate form of American entitlement, the one thing that all people in authority — secular or spiritual — have in common in our society and culture.

Republican operative Ron Christie, the ultimate yes-man, November 9, 2010. ( In public domain.

One example of this was my former boss Ken, who complained about what he claimed was my lack of loyalty to the New Voices Fellowship Program when I made the decision to move on to another position at the end of ’03. He talked about loyalty as if I was a feral dog who needed to be broken and tamed in order to be useful. I said that loyalty “isn’t just about the person, it’s about the work that needs to be done.”

But I’d go a step further than that now. Loyalty in the workplace requires not only the ability of two or more individuals to trust each others’ judgment and quality of work. It also requires a synergy of vision, a sense of purpose that obligates the people in question to provide transparency, constant communication and certainly criticism in the journey to make any vision a reality.

I remembered this a few years after moving on from New Voices, at an interview I had with the head of the Center of Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He began with the question, “So how are you going to contribute to my vision of building the kind of world-class center that will attract the attention of scholarship everywhere?” The director lost me with his emphasis on “my vision.” I’m thinking, “I don’t know you, but somehow, I’m supposed to trust your vision purely because you say so. Are you kidding me? I’m to be loyal to you just because — you’re Black, you’re a decade older than me, you’re at an Ivy League university? Really?” To this day, that was the weirdest interview in which I’d ever been a part.

I saw this also at the church to which I’d been a member of the longest in my adult life, Covenant Church of Pittsburgh (which was in Wilkinsburg, by the way). From ’91 to ’97, I attended services, was part of the men’s choir, tutored high school students and went on retreats. I sometimes turned a blind eye to the occasional hypocrisy around sex, money and marriage in sermons versus what I actually witnessed.

One February ’97 Sunday after I finished a year’s worth of battles with my dissertation advisor Joe Trotter — another person who wanted my false sense of loyalty (see my “Running Interference” post from April ’11)  — I couldn’t take it at CCOP anymore. After a month-long drive to raise $250,000 above our normal tithes and offerings to buy a plot of land to build a megachurch in Monroeville, our pastor made an announcement and delivered a fiery sermon. The announcement was that God had told him to now up the ante to a three-million dollar campaign for money to build the church on this new property.

Man on a leash, June 12, 2010. (dtoy2009 via In public domain.

Before I had time or faith to absorb that bit of information, my pastor delivered a forty-five minute sermon that blamed Wilkinsburg’s fifty-percent unemployment rate, gang violence and despair on “homosexuals and whoremongers.” I’d heard other statements and similar sermons like this before, but not for nearly an hour, not after an appeal to worshippers to give more than one-tenth of their gross income to CCOP for a new church.

I knew for a fact that some of my fellow CCOP members were giving as much as one-fifth of their disposable income already. I also knew that their were some CCOP members who were in the closet. To require loyalty to a vision without building a consensus on such, while also denigrating the very people from whom you demand loyalty was just downright disgusting to me. So I left CCOP, never to return.

This year’s presidential election cycle, particularly on the GOP/TPer side, seems to demand the same kind of blind loyalty that my former boss, potential boss, former dissertation advisor and former pastor all wanted from me or people like me. I learned a long time ago, though, that what people like Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan want isn’t loyalty. They want lap dogs, people willing to overlook their own interests in order to help them achieve theirs.

Breakdown: The Messiah Complex At Work, Part II

January 7, 2012

Cosmo, from Nicktoons' Fairly Odd Parents, a reminder of Ken, January 5, 2012. (

The saying goes that a lawyer who represents him or herself at trial has a fool as counsel. This is also true of a supervisor who believes that the only ideas worth pursuing are his own, unadulterated ones. Especially one in the midst of a nervous breakdown, who who’d know since the late-1980s that he had bipolar disorder. This was the case of my last days at New Voices in January ’04, as I prepared to move on, and as Ken prepared to flip out (see my “The Messiah Complex At Work, Part I” from November ’11).

The seven weeks between the weird November meeting with Ken and others and his breakdown were tension filled. I worked out a schedule that allowed me to take until the middle of February — three months — to find another position at the Academy for Educational Development or elsewhere. Beyond that, I did my job, and found Ken constantly snooping in my office, monitoring my telephone calls, and double-checking my times in and out of the office in the meantime. It was as bad as it was during my first weeks working for him in December ’00 and January ’01.

I’d long suspected that Ken had some mental illness, either bipolar disorder or paranoid schizophrenia (as I noted in my “Working At AED: Alternate Sources of Fear” post in June ’11). And in the year prior to January ’04, I’d made some of my suspicions known, to superiors like “Driving Miss Daisy” Sandra, my former Center Director Yvonne. I’d even taken two New Voices colleagues out to lunch that summer — a month before the birth of my son — to warn them about the signs I’d seen of Ken become more maniac and paranoid than usual.

But I didn’t realize that Ken’s condition knew no bounds. So it was that on the morning of Wednesday, January 7, that Driving Miss Daisy had called us into an impromptu meeting with Ken. We went into the seventh floor conference room, not knowing why we were meeting. Ken came in last, after I’d spent about five minutes updating Driving Miss Daisy about the preparation status for the New Voices gathering at the World Social Forum in Mumbai.

His face was flush, the color of freshly caught and gutted salmon, and sweat ran through his hair like he’d just run his five-foot-two frame a couple of miles in a sprint. He came in, sat down as I continued the update, then started to cry. Ken said, “Sandra, I’ve got to go,” and then left in a rush. By the time we had adjourned, Ken had left the building.

I wouldn’t see the man again for another five weeks. In the meantime, several AED higher-ups brought me up to speed on what had occurred between the time I changed my son’s diapers and disembarked from the Metro at Du Pont Circle that morning. Ken and Driving Miss Daisy had met with AED’s president and CEO that morning about the status of the project. During that meeting, Ken had gone off on the head honcho, accusing him of sabotaging the project, of sabotaging him as the project leader, of being a corrupt, money-grubbing president. Of course, I found a letter in a printer two days before which summarized some of these

Georgetown University Hospital, Washington, DC December 16, 2008. (

ideas, but I’d no idea that Ken had printed it or planned to use it.

The next revelation dropped that Saturday, although I wouldn’t learn of it until I came back to work that Monday, January 12. Ken had left me a message Saturday morning, around 8 am, apologizing for the hell that he had put me through the previous couple of months. Then, as his voice started to crack, Ken said, “I love you, Donald!” I heard a sniffle, and then a click on the message. Within that week, I learned from one colleague in human resources that Ken had checked into the psychiatric ward at Georgetown University Hospital, and from another person that it was Driving Miss Daisy who’d driven him there.

There are any number of lessons that I or anyone can draw from this experience. For me, of all of the jobs I’ve held, this one was the most bittersweet experience, and in retrospect, I probably should’ve said no to it when it was offered to me in November ’00. That everyone with some authority who worked with me or Ken should’ve but didn’t notice the signs of his manic-depressive behavior.

That no matter my integrity or proper professional behavior under the circumstances, that I’d end up the bad guy. After all, my staff went to Mumbai without me — Driving Miss Daisy’s decision — while I went on to hold down the fort and found another position at AED. And don’t tell me race wasn’t involved. A tall mentally stable and heterosexual Black male versus a short, bipolar and semi-in-the-closet White male? Only in this world does the latter keep his position another six years after this and several other breakdowns.

That said, one thing stands out above all else. It’s a sad but important lesson about the difference being true to yourself and lying to yourself, about finding the right balance between life and career.

The Messiah Complex At Work, Part 1

November 12, 2011

Heinrich Himmler, ala Messiah Complex, 1938. (German Federal Archive via Wikipedia).

Today marks eight years since my former immediate supervisor Ken (see my “Working At AED: Alternate Sources of Fear” post from June ’11) forced me into a meeting with the head of HR and his “all-wise” boss Sandra “Driving Miss Daisy” in an effort to strip me of my Assistant Director of New Voices title at the now defunct Academy for Educational Development. All because I did my job while he was out of the office tacking on a couple of extra days after we’d attended the Independent Sector Conference in San Francisco the week before.

But this wasn’t about me or me doing my job as I’d been doing it for three years. No, this was about Ken in the middle of a period of emotional and psychological instability, and about me no longer trying to work around his moments of mania and depression. After all, I had a newborn son to worry about, a job search to keep secret, and a book I was determined to publish. Couple that with a fifteen percent cut in funding from the Ford Foundation for the New Voices program, and there was no way I’d make it through my last months with New Voices without Ken reacting irrationally.

Anglo Corned Beef, November 11, 2011. (

It didn’t help that Ken suddenly wanted to do a New Voices conference in Mumbai, India as part of the World Social Forum with no significant planning that August, while I was out on maternity leave. It also didn’t help that Yvonne, our center director, chose early retirement in June over being kept into “Driving Miss Daisy’s” box of highly talented and experienced but underutilized managers of color.

Most of all, it didn’t help that I was completely honest, for once, in my assessment of my performance in my annual review that October. I dutifully reported my recent publications in The Washington Post and a semi-scholarly journal, presentations, teaching of graduate courses at George Washington University, and so on. During that meeting, Ken all but told me he was jealous of the kind of year I was having professionally. He even asked me where I wanted to be in five years. “I want to be director of my own project, of something like New Voices,” I said, again being all too honest.

So, during a week in which we had zero babysitter coverage, where I’d taken the week off to take care of my three-month-old son, Ken insisted that I come into the office. All so I could listen to an hour of accusations, insinuations and wild speculations. He accused me of undermining his authority because I relayed State Department travel warnings for Mumbai to New Voices Fellows. He told me how “amusing it was” that I had titled my position Assistant Director, even though that was the title of my position when I applied for it, interviewed for it, and accepted the position three years earlier. And even though he’d been introducing me as his assistant director for three years.

He accused me of sexually harassing a New Voices Fellow and two staff members back in ’01 over two conversations that he had heard about third hand, and not from a staff member. One was about a strange site visit conversation that had nothing to do with anything approaching sexual harassment. The other conversation, it turned out, was about me and a former staff member’s gastrointestinal illnesses, something we had in common. Ken also accused me of wanting to take his job, of believing that I could do his job better than he could. Only on that last part I agreed, with a definitive nod of my head.

So when he asked me to accept having my title as Assistant Director stripped, along with the commensurate duties that went with that title (including supervisory authority), I said, “No, I think it’s time for me to move on from New Voices.” It left Ken in shock. Heck, it left me in shock, thinking about how we’d make it without my income if I couldn’t find another job over the next three months. The HR director and “Driving Miss Daisy,” though, weren’t surprised at all.

The meeting Ken had forced made my secret decision to move on an open one. Either way, it was inevitable. As I’d written in my journal after my annual review with Ken a couple of weeks before the meeting:

Mr. Magoo screen shot (and a serious lack of vision), June 23, 2011. (

“The most telling comment that my Director made during our fundraising effort came when I asked about his vision for our project. ‘I don’t know what the project’s vision should be,’ he said. I realized at that moment that everything we had worked for would fail, no matter how sound our ideas. My Director’s vision for the project did not extend beyond his need to feel needed, to feel as if he alone could keep our project – and by extension, himself – alive. I concluded that this was a dangerous position to find myself in professionally, and that it was beyond time to go.”

The World Is Not Enough

June 15, 2010

Mount Everest from from Kalapatthar in Nepal. Photo Source: Pavel Novak Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic

A few years ago, at my social justice fellowship job in DC, I worked with probably the worst program assistant in all my years of work. He was a twenty-two-year-old graduate of U Virginia or some other four-year institution in the heart of the Confederacy, and this was his first professional position. In eight months’ time, he managed to screw up in every conceivable way. He sent out professional emails with the signature, “Scooby Dooby Doo.” He’d address me with, “Yo, wass up,” as if we were friends. He slept in one day during our summer conference, and showed up hung over and in the clothes that he’d worn the day before another day. He couldn’t even do a mail merge without turning it into the German loss at Stalingrad. It took all of these screw ups and more before my boss was ready to entertain firing him. My former boss’ lament was, “He’s young. He’s just trying to figure things out.”

It’s one of the biggest and most hypocritical statements I’ve heard, and not just at my former job. We make excuses for youth — at least some youth — because we believe that somehow, some way, these folks will one day find themselves and take over the reins of our society and world. If this were a universal thing, that would be fine with me. But it’s not. If you’re educated, middle class or affluent, White and male — and sometimes female — the above is what people say about you when you screw in ways that would’ve gotten me fired inside of a week, whether at sixteen, nineteen or twenty-two.

The fact is, we live in a society in which for those folk whose concerns have grown beyond money, food,

Bungee jumping off the Zambezi Bridge, Victoria Falls, Africa, 1996

shelter and basic education and health, the everyday world isn’t enough. We think that youth and young adults have the mandate to search for themselves and screw up at all costs, because, well, the world is already theirs to inherit.

We don’t make excuses for poor White males, or Blacks, or the millions of undereducated youth regardless of race, gender and wealth the same way we do for the likes of the fully advantaged. Do we normally call it a mere mistake when a young woman of color gets pregnant at seventeen, or when someone like the author and poet R. Dewayne Betts (of his memoir A Question of Freedom) somehow ends up an accessory to a violent crime at sixteen? Of course not! We condemn both, treat them like they’re full-fledged adults, and hope that they rot out of our sight, media and mind.

From Holden Caulfield in the late J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye to the real-time Chris McCandless in the movie and book Into The Wild, the well-off mandarin class has embraced the contrarian and narcissistic perspectives that some youth have of our flawed and brutal world. Instead of fighting for a better world, the fictitious Caulfield and the real-life McCandless both went off in search of a reality that never existed anywhere except in their own minds. Ultimately, one took his own life, while the other put themselves in a position to lose his in not-so-wild Alaska.

Wooden sailing boat Kleine Freiheit – 70 year old gaff cutter

I don’t object to the likes of thirteen-year-old Jordan Romero climbing Mount Everest with his father. Nor do I object to sixteen-year-old Abby Sunderland’s attempts to circumnavigate the world solo, despite the dangers of such. What I do have problems with, though, are the underlying assumptions and reasoning behind such feats. This isn’t just about man versus nature or about finding oneself through an epic struggle. Really, it’s about the reality that our world — at least for the kinds of folk that I’ve described here — isn’t enough for them anymore. It certainly wasn’t enough for their parents.

We celebrate these youth as if this is the way to live, and that right and wrong and consequences don’t matter. At some point, we need to get over our affluent obsession over youth, over ourselves and our collective lamenting of the state of our world, if we ever hope to grow up and fix whatever ails us and our world.


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