Gislaine Ngounou is worried about the future of democracy and public education in the United States.
Ngounou has spent her career in and around education, from the Kansas City school system through Hartford Public Schools and PDK International. These days she is serving as the president and CEO of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. Nellie Mae was founded in 1990 with a mission to “stimulate transformative change of public education in New England.” These days it is focused on a mission to use “its power and privilege as a philanthropic institution to advance racial equity.”
That stance has drawn the enmity of some conservative groups. The right-wing Influence Watch, for instance, claims the foundation is “oriented around furthering critical race theory-aligned policies in the region’s public education system, because anyone who discusses equity and race will inevitably be charged with pushing critical race theory.
That kind of knee jerk right wing is just one of the things that concerns Ngounou. In a wide-ranging Zoom interview, she pointed out that while New England is often seen as a liberal section of the country, they have seen the same kind of right wing pushback that has appeared in other parts of the country. Some school boards have been commandeered by conservative members who are out to undo any initiatives having to do with equity or culturally responsive teaching.
Ngounou also expressed concerns over teacher staffing issues, whether one wants to call it a teacher shortage or the “aftermath and consequences we’re not facing because of the conditions” under which teachers are being asked to work. Teachers are exhausted. “We’re seeing an exodus,” she said. “A faster exodus than we’ve seen in the past. Along with that, all the issues around educator diversity that we’ve always known feel more pronounced.”
It’s not just harder to recruit and retain educators of color, she pointed out, but the pipeline itself is in trouble.
How can Nellie Mae address some of the issues facing education? “I wish there were some silver bullet,” she said. But the foundation strives to take a multi-pronged approach and pay careful attention to what works. Looking for the people who are promoting a counter-narrative to the conservative appeal to fear. Resourcing young people working on political education and culturally responsive curriculum.
It can’t be, she stressed, an inside of school approach only. Expecting educators to solve all the problems is not going to work. The foundation is interested in school and community partnerships, the kind of collaboration that says to a community, “We are going to do this with you instead of doing it to you.”
The stakes, as Ngounou sees them, could not be higher.
“The stakes are the future of our democracy. The well-being of all of our communities and the future of our democracy are so deeply intertwined that improving public education benefits, quite frankly, all of us,” said Ngounou. “What we’ve seen happening in more conservative states like Florida and Texas serves as a playbook, a guidebook, as a pathway forward for people who are really afraid of a plural, diverse democracy, and that’s what the country has become.”