Introducing Our 2019 Community Advisory Group

Nellie Mae Ed. Fdn.
Strategy Review
Published in
5 min readMay 6, 2019


Dear Friends,

In January, we shared with you the new Mission, Vision, and Values that the Nellie Mae Education Board of Directors adopted to guide the continued development of our organizational culture and grantmaking strategy. Today, we are excited to share another important development — the engagement of our 2019 Community Advisory Group. Members include:

Niamiah Jefferson, Student, Providence, RI

Mealaktey Sok, Student, Providence, RI

Stephanie Chapman, Student, New Haven, CT

Brycyn Thompson, Student, New Haven, CT

Infinite Culcleasure, Parent Organizer, Burlington, VT

Carlos Alvarez-Rojas, Coalition Leader, Boston, MA

Rich Mutts, Parent Organizer, Meriden, CT

Hillary Bridges, Youth Organization Leader, New Haven CT

O’Sha Williams, High School Teacher, Providence, RI

Karla Vigil, Teacher Advocate, Providence, RI

Christie Nold, Middle School Teacher, Burlington, VT

Gladys Vega, Community-Based Organization Executive, Chelsea, MA

Mario Florez, Educator, Hartford, CT

Grace Valenzuela, Organization Director, Portland, ME

Judy Dow, Educator, Essex Junction, VT

Chanda Womack, Youth Organization Leader, Providence, RI

We know that we cannot accomplish our mission alone. We plan to collaborate with a wide array of partners and ensure that community insights are consistently integrated into all the work we pursue. The Community Advisory Group is one important way we are doing that.

The Community Advisory Group was designed specifically to attract individuals with deep relationships and networks in the communities they represent. Their task, in addition to providing their perspective and guidance on our emerging strategy, will be to engage with their own networks and carry that feedback with them as they serve in this role. This Community Advisory will work with Foundation staff and Board through January 2020, at which point a new collection of Advisory Group members will fill new roles, which will in part be shaped by their predecessors.

Meaningful change demands a collective effort and shared problem solving. That’s why one of the new values our Board adopted is focused on building reciprocal relationships. We will continue to ask ourselves how our work will ensure that affected communities on the ground are driving change. While we have experience, knowledge and perspectives to share, we also recognize that we do not have the solution, or even fully understand the problem.

The members of the Community Advisory Group will work collaboratively to offer unique perspectives on the nature of the work the Foundation ought to be pursuing. We are committed to being less prescriptive and more open to what communities themselves indicate is most relevant to them. Nellie Mae staff will listen and engage in authentic and equitable partnerships, remaining mindful of our duty as a philanthropic organization to understand when to step up and when to step back and of our responsibility to use our power and privilege to contribute to transformational change.

Our Community Advisory Group and a large number of Foundation staff met in person for the first time last Saturday April 27th. It was a powerful event defined by a combination of relationship building, information sharing and deep collaboration. The result? A next step toward more detailed plans for the Foundations grantmaking made better by the participation of community representatives. But maybe more importantly, the event indicated another step forward in the evolution of the Foundation’s culture. Where we might have focused only on business, we heard personal stories. Where we might have informed, we listened.

In addition, to the invaluable contributions made by participants, we all benefitted as educational change leaders and as people. And through the lens of lived experience, filtered by a shared commitment to racial equity, we were able to see — together — the clearer outlines of our work ahead.

Over the coming weeks and months, with the support of Community Advisory Group members and taking into consideration the insights gained from other planned engagements with members of the communities we serve, we will develop proposals for our Board to consider of what a grantmaking approach might look like in service of our new Vision, Mission, Values, and strategic goals. It is our intention to have plans for implementing this strategy in time for the 2020 grant year.

We know that while the talented and diverse members of the Community Advisory Group offer us a valuable perspective on a number of issues, their input isthey only one of the forms that authentic community engagement can and must take as we continue to develop our grantmaking strategy and organizational culture.

We also know that it takes time and attention to build the kinds of respectful, strategic and reciprocal relationships our values and principles demand. Only this will allow Foundation staff to engage with community honestly and deeply. It will also take humility on our part, courage and time to build the trust necessary for candor, to face challenges and to make the most of the precious time we are all spending together.

And many questions remain: What does a truly respectful and reciprocal relationship entail? How do we share our own knowledge and experience in authentic ways? Given the imbalance of power defined by our current control of money, what are there the limits of the deference to which we aspire? How do we as Foundation staff “show up” differently, in ways aligned with our values? How do I act differently as white leader of of an organization dedicated to racial equity?

Despite these questions, the first meeting with this fantastic group of dedicated people reinforced the idea that in addition to being the right thing to do, engaging community is a good thing to for our Foundation’s strategic interests, our interests in building an organization whose actions align with its espoused values, and ourselves as human beings.

Lastly, while the formation of this group is a significant milestone and its existence will help us answer many of our remaining questions about our pathway forward as a foundation, I want to acknowledge the uncertainty that inevitably comes with this process. We have not yet determined what, specifically, we will fund and are not accepting unsolicited proposals. With the support of our community advisors, we are developing a plan to implement our new strategies. And we know that there are many of you with an interest in these plans. We have tried to remain as transparent as possible, including about what remains in question. We will continue to communicate with you along this journey, and we invite your continued engagement and patience.

Our journey remains one focused helping New England communities grow excellent educational opportunities. This regions’ future depends on the quality of systems of public education and the capacity to produce racially equitable educational results. We are grateful and better as a Foundation for the partnership of our Community Advisors in defining our new path forward so that we may make the strongest contributions possible to the educational future of New England.