Interview with Ellen Wang, Program Officer at the Nellie Mae Education Foundation

We had the chance to sit down with Ellen Wang, a program officer at NMEF and member of our Equity Leadership Team, to talk about her journey through the foundation’s strategy and equity work.

Can you tell me a little bit about your background before coming to NMEF and how its shaped your own viewpoints and thoughts around racial equity in public education?

I didn’t grow up in America. I was born in Taiwan, and raised in Saudi Arabia and Malaysia. While race is construed differently in those countries than it is America, I grew up with friends from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, although we all shared similar class privilege. As an undergrad at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, I struggled to find an affinity group as a third culture kid. Having been exposed to American schooling abroad, I didn’t feel a sense of belonging with other international students, but at the same time, since I hadn’t grown up in America, I didn’t feel like I connected with the experiences of ABCs (American-Born Chinese) either. I remember coming across the student table for the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action Integration and Immigrant Rights and the Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) and feeling an immediate connection with the student organizers, who were a racially and socioeconomically diverse group. I had found my home, and it was through this space that I developed the critical consciousness around racial equity and social justice that shaped both my personal and professional worlds.

From your viewpoint, why is it important that NMEF has been engaged in equity work over the past year?

Given the power and privilege that philanthropic institutions hold, I believe it is a moral imperative for the Foundation to heighten racial equity through its grantmaking practices. I think that as an education philanthropy, we have an opportunity to target our investments in a way that addresses opportunity gaps for historically marginalized youth in the New England region.

How you have you personally experienced this equity journey at NMEF? Has anything surprised you?

I have been waiting for the Foundation to embark on this journey, and am so pleased that we have embarked on this path. When I left the nonprofit sector for philanthropy, I was hoping that I would find myself in an organization that not only saw an urgency in addressing racially disparate outcomes, but was bold and brave enough to act on that urgency. Living in a country where White mainstream society continues to wedge minority groups against each other, and as someone who is often seen as a “model” or “palatable” minority, I personally feel a sense of duty and obligation to be an ally in this work, by centering the voices of those who have historically been marginalized in this country. As I do this work on a professional and on a personal level, I continue to reflect on and unpack the anti-Blackness that exists in the Asian American community, as a result of our own experiences with racism. My motto is “always learning”.

What are your hopes for how the equity process will inform our organizational strategy review and development?

I’m hoping that we will undergo the equity process with great intentionality, and always with a laser focus on the young people — the Black and Brown youth who have been historically marginalized and continue to experience persistent gaps in opportunity. I also hope we can enter this work through an assets-based approach that acknowledges the strengths and assets of the communities we serve. Lastly, I will make a plug for data disaggregation. Although it is not usual practice, I hope that by using disaggregated data to inform our strategy, it will help us to move beyond the Black-White binary, and provide more factors for consideration in how the Foundation allocates its resources. This is especially true for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) communities, where aggregated data masks the long-standing disparities that individual AAPI communities continue to face.

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

In my opinion, I think that one of our biggest learnings has centered around unpacking the difference between equality and equity. I hope that we can come to understand that a focus on equity may potentially mean a focus on a smaller subset of young people, and allocating more resources for this smaller subset, but that the gains we make through more targeted approaches will ultimately benefit all of us.

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

I think that philanthropy as a sector can not only benefit from examining its work through a racial equity lens, but in many ways should be beholden to it. Regardless of whether the sector is the workforce, education, transportation, or health, etc., we need to increase institutional giving opportunities that prioritize racial equity.