Want to Support Education Leaders of Color? Help Them With Fundraising
Soliciting donations is typically not part of Black women educators' experiences before running a school. They learn it's a crucial first step they often have to figure out on their own.
When I first decided to open a charter school in metro Atlanta, I had already spent years as an educator. I had worked with thousands of teachers as a coach and as part of Teach For America’s summer institute team.
I had a great idea for PEACE Academy charter school—the type of school that is needed to support students in the area of Atlanta where I have lived for 10 years. I talked with local families and community members about what they want in terms of education.
So I have that lens. I have the passion. I have the experience. I have a support system. What I didn’t have was a critical component of starting a school: familiarity with fundraising. Based on conversations I had recently as a speaker and attendee at SXSW EDU and TFA’s School Leaders of Color Conference, I’m not alone—especially as a Black woman.
When opening a school, Black women are generally engrained in the community, knowledgeable about the curriculum, and skilled administrators. However, you also have to know how to raise money for your school. Without funding, it is unlikely that your school can open. But Black women are often not employed as professional fundraisers. Although 54 percent of fundraisers are women, most of them—77 percent—are white, according to the career site Zippia.com. That means Black women typically have to master fundraising and making connections in a short time—something difficult to do while juggling the other responsibilities required to open a school.
Even at SXSW EDU, meeting funders can be a challenge. Other women I spoke to at the event shared similar stories. After one of the last sessions I attended, I talked to a woman who asked how she was supposed to make fundraising connections there. Someone had told her she would be able to go to the conference and raise money for her school. However, the conference is a space to network and build relationships that might result in funding. That purpose is unclear if you do not have a foundational knowledge of fundraising.
Close the Opportunity Gaps That Black Women Face to Start Schools
Organizations should do more to close gaps in knowledge and awareness of fundraising and to increase diversity in school leadership. Invite potential grantors to an event, such as a mixer, with community and school leaders to foster making connections. Invite Black women to spaces we’re not currently in to meet potential funders. I experienced an example of this a few weeks ago at other national conferences for school leaders. One event included a session with a panel of four philanthropists where the participants were able to network with them, ask questions, and share their perspectives. Opportunities like that help us learn how to be strong candidates for funding to open a school.
You can’t quit your job to focus on starting your school unless you have funding—something I learned firsthand. I thought joining an incubator, which helps people through the process of starting a school, would come with funding but that’s generally not the case. There are startup models that pay leaders a salary for a year, but they may dictate certain characteristics of the school. I joined the Georgia Charter Schools Association Incubator. I was not connected with funders, but the program allows me to be more flexible in my school design. PEACE Academy, which will open this summer, is the first charter school in Georgia that has an Afrocentric curriculum.
There were four people in my cohort of the incubator. Two of them had funding and were able to open their schools to full capacity. The other two of us, including me, had to split our time fundraising for our schools and working our full-time jobs. Fundraising savvy would have been a huge benefit during this startup time. Instead, I had to figure things out on my own, and I did: I raised almost $2 million for Peace Academy.
The journey I started in 2019 to open a school has been tumultuous. But the fact that I, a regular woman, have gone down this path speaks to the possibilities. It also speaks to the challenges.
To get to this point, I sought information about grant opportunities and found resources such as the State Charter Schools Foundation of Georgia, which produces a monthly newsletter that includes grant opportunities. I had to learn how to write a grant. I reached out to people I knew on the TFA staff for contacts to help me secure funding. The executive director of TFA’s Metro Atlanta region helped me make connections and advocated for me in spaces where grantors may have been involved.
Lighten School Leaders of Colors’ Workload to Encourage Their Success
We all know or can imagine how difficult it is to be an educator. And many of us know how hard it is to be a Black woman in America. When you put those two together, when you’re a Black woman who is an educator, you can imagine the toll that takes. You can imagine the tax that requires. If you are a supporter, an ally, or a funder who deeply believes in this mission and who wants to see more school leaders of color succeed, you need to think of ways to make their professional journey easier while still expecting excellence.
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If we want more people of color in leadership positions, we need to give them additional support. Organizations often say they want diversity and greater representation, but they often fail to enact support systems that honor people of color in those spaces. They still expect Black women and other people of color to fully operate in white-dominant cultural practices. That begs the question: Do you really want me in that space, or do you just want the status or the marker of me?
We also have to evaluate whether the spaces we create for leaders of color are conducive to making them feel comfortable. Evaluate your practices to determine whether they make Black women and other people of color want to stay and have a path to success. Equity audits are a great tool for that.
Many leaders of color for charter schools are doing amazing things. In many ways, that’s true for Black women even though we are carrying more than our counterparts. Providing direct fundraising support is one critical way to make the road to school leadership a little bit smoother for us.
The opinions expressed in this piece, and all others in our Opinion section, represent those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Teach For America organization.
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