Andy Dean Photography/shutterstock
Andy Dean Photography/shutterstock

Even before the pandemic and the protests that followed George Floyd’s death, foundations around the country were ramping up their support for racial justice.

The Nellie Mae Education Foundation (NMEF), New England’s largest education foundation, has been at the forefront of this movement. At the beginning of this year, as IP previously reported, NMEF made advancing racial equity in public education the focus of its funding strategy, and committed to making grants of $10 million to support that effort.

Then 2020 happened, and the Nellie Mae Educational Foundation decided it needed to do even more. The foundation recently announced an additional $20 million allocation that will support “work addressing anti-Black racism and COVID relief, especially as both relate to our public education system… We recognize that the fight for racial equity in public education is intrinsically connected to the fight against anti-Black racism.”

“It’s been a journey”

The Nellie Mae Education Foundation was created in 1990 by the Nellie Mae Corporation, a nonprofit student loan provider. In recent years, NMEF has taken a deep and deliberate dive into issues of racial justice, and how to incorporate them more effectively in its efforts to promote education equity.

“It’s been a journey, and it’s good hard work that I’m proud of,” says Nick Donohue, NMEF’s President and CEO. The foundation’s staff and board members were deliberate about promoting diversity internally, initiating staff-wide conversations about race, consulting with activists and advocates outside the organization, and reading everything on racial equity they could get their hands on.

Donohue said the response was mixed when the foundation unveiled its new funding strategy. “We received positive feedback, but there were also people who questioned our redirection: ‘What about all the other work you used to do?’” he says. But as the events of this year unfolded and issues of racial reckoning began increasingly to dominate the public conversation, other foundation and community leaders became interested in NMEF’s approach. “We looked like we were prepared and in the right spot at the right time,” Donohue says. “So it became a more positive reaction, like ‘how did you get there?’”

Equity in education

Meanwhile, NMEF staff and board members began wondering if they could and should be doing even more. Increasing public awareness of racism, spurred by police violence against Black people and stark racial disparities in the impact of COVID-19, presented an opportunity for the foundation to double down on its efforts to tackle institutional structures that limit educational attainment for students of color. Says Donohue, “We asked ourselves, can we do this in a way that reaches beyond our core interest around education to help reshape some of the cultural context and the way people of color are treated in our society? Not just by the police, but in education institutions, as well?”

The foundation ultimately settled on an additional $20 million, which it is distributing to a variety of schools, communities and nonprofit organizations. According to NMEF, “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.”

A few of the organizations NEMF is funding include the Movement for Black Lives, Waterbury Bridge to Success Community Program, NAACP Empowerment Programs, and Progreso Latino (see the complete list of grantees).

The foundation is also providing funds to 10 New England school districts with large numbers of students of color, particularly those in communities where COVID’s impact has been particularly severe. Some of the districts need funds for essentials like PPE and better connectivity, but NMEF asked administrators to consider how they could use the support to benefit students of color. “There aren’t a lot of strings attached,” says Donohue. “But we want to know how this is going to be consistent with our principles, which are attending to the triple pandemics of economic loss, disease infestation, and racism.”

Beyond Survival 

One NMEF grantee, the Abolitionist Teaching Network, opened its (virtual) doors on July 6 of this year. The organization was co-founded by educators Bettina Love and Brandelyn Tosolt.

The Abolitionist Teaching Network (AFN) grew out of Bettina Love’s book, “We Want To Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom,” which was published last year. The book drew a lot of attention, and people kept asking the same question: “I read your book, now what do I do next? What is the next thing?” Love and Tosolt decided that the ATN was the answer to that question.

The grant from NMEF will allow Tosolt and Love to institutionalize the organization, which means hiring staff to help them. It will also allow them to launch the activist-in-residence program, which Tosolt calls ATN’s signature project. The program will identify and support community organizers who are already working locally to make education more inclusive and equitable. ATN will also provide grants to educators “who strive to disrupt inequalities and injustice within their schools, communities or both.” The categories of educators included in the grant description are broad and unconventional, including single mothers, early education teachers, community caregivers and formerly incarcerated youth mentors.

The organization’s mission, to “develop and support educators to fight injustice within their schools and communities,” seems to have struck a chord: After just a few months, the group has a large social media following, and they’ve received inquiries and donations from around the country

“I can’t tell you how many $5 donations we’ve received,” says Tosolt, who is now a member of the ATN board. “The level of excitement for what we’re doing is through the roof.”

Tosalt is grateful for the grant from NMEF, and says that philanthropy has a key role in sustaining the work of organizations like hers. “A lot of education funding out there corresponds with traditional ideas about education: How do you teach reading better? How do you teach math better?” she points out. “We’re looking at the essential values that lie beneath the curriculum, which is an approach some funders aren’t used to. But without philanthropic support, we won’t be able to continue this work.”

Just One Step

NMEF’s Nick Donohue is realistic about how much NMEF can accomplish. “I have pride in the work we’ve done, but I don’t want to overstate it. We’re not the first to do this, and it’s just one step in the fight against anti-Black racism.” And while he’s pleased that so many philanthropic organizations are stepping up in support of racial justice, he’s cautious about what it means for the future—and about how far many philanthropies are willing to go in examining their own policies and practices.

“I have some hopes that this is a trend in philanthropy, but I don’t think there is enough demand to make that a slam dunk,” he says. “The reality is that this still looks like it could be a boutique moment for some philanthropies. But the idea that you can make things just and good for all people without confronting how white supremacy confuses the public systems we’re trying to change—and confuses the philanthropies trying to change those systems—that just seems unrealistic to me.”

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