NMEF Board Member Deborah Jewell-Sherman Shares Her Perspectives on the Foundation’s Equity Journey

By Deborah Jewell-Sherman
January 25, 2019

We had the chance to sit down with Nellie Mae Board Member Deborah Jewell-Sherman, who is the Gregory R. Anrig Professor of Practice in Educational Leadership at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Can you tell me about your background — how has it shaped your own viewpoints and thoughts around racial equity issues in public education?

It is a little ironic that my entire career has been in public education because my own schooling was in parochial schools. My mom would sometimes work three jobs because she saw education as the best chance for her children to succeed in life. I think that public schools should be a premier option — not a second choice. This means focusing on excellence and ensuring that public schools are providing what all students need to be successful. Our country has made great strides in doing this for students with disabilities, but we still have a long way to go when it comes to accommodations related to disparities characterized along racial lines.

As a principal and superintendent, I was responsible for many students of color who were deemed unsuccessful, and my job was to ensure that this changed. It is our job as educators to ensure that we set the highest standards for all students to ensure that they have the skills they need to succeed in future careers and participate as active citizens in their communities. We can do this if we use equity as a lens in all of our teaching and learning, ensuring that students get the supports they need to thrive. Schools can’t do this work on their own — everyone needs to be accountable for this work. This is our work as a society. Philanthropy in general has been late to the game in recognizing racial equity as a lens to evaluate grantmaking, so I am so glad I am able to be a part of Nellie Mae’s journey in this work.

How have you personally experienced our equity journey as a Nellie Mae Board Member?

When I first joined the Board, I have to admit that I was surprised that the Foundation didn’t have strategies that really thought about racial equity issues in particular. However, I am so pleased that we recognized as an organization that we weren’t going to achieve our goal of 80% of New England students being college and career ready by 2030 without making a real commitment to taking a hard look at our work through a racial equity lens. This is hard work, and it’s allowed us to really think about how we proceed as an organization. It takes courageous people to have these tough conversations, and I am so glad that Nick and all of the Nellie Mae staff are willing to do this work.

In your viewpoint, what are the most critical things that we’ve learned as an organization through our equity journey? 

I think it’s important that we’ve recognized the need to focus to achieve impact. We need to have those that are the ones facing racial disparities in education help define our strategy. I think we’ve also learned how critical partnerships are, and that as a philanthropic organization, Nellie Mae is able to take risks that other organizations cannot in acting as a voice for social justice.

Do you think that the field of philanthropy can benefit from going through similar processes?

Yes, I think that examining grantmaking through the lens of racial equity is absolutely critical. I grew up in the Bronx in the 1950s and 1960s in public housing. One could say that I’m representative of the students who we seek to serve. Even so, I am very removed from that lived experience now as a professor at Harvard. There is real power in the voices that we seek to serve, and it is important that philanthropy recognizes that. I think we’ve learned at Nellie Mae that we’ve tended to privilege certain voices or strategies because we’ve understood them. One quote that really resonates with me is “the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago; the second-best time is now.” The work of preparing our region’s students — especially those that have been left behind — for college and career is absolutely urgent.

This article was originally posted in Medium on July 25, 2018

Deborah Jewell-Sherman is the first woman professor of practice at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE). She served as superintendent of the Richmond (VA) Public Schools from 2002 to 2008 and built a reputation as one of the most successful urban district superintendents in the country. Since returning to her alma mater in 2008, Jewell-Sherman has served as the director of the Urban Superintendents Program and currently, she serves as core faculty for the Doctorate of Education Leadership Program (Ed.L.D.)

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