Takeaways from the Leading & Learning Events Series: Focus on Education

September 15, 2021

Building on a long tradition of addressing issues that matter most to the community, and a commitment to engaging in ongoing learning alongside our stakeholders, The Denver Foundation is hosting in-depth discussions of the challenges, opportunities, and community-led solutions informed by focus areas identified in our new Strategic Framework: economic opportunity, education, environment and climate, housing, and transportation.

Our September Leading & Learning event was focused on Education in Metro Denver. The Denver Foundation has been focused on supporting education since our 2011 strategic framework and is continuing this work with a specific focus on Racial Equity in K-12 education, student performance, and school funding. In 2020 Denver Foundation fundholders granted out $18.4M to education-related organizations. 

Special guests, Reilly Carter and Vernon Jones, Jr. (bios below) offered their insights on how philanthropy can help drive constituent-led solutions to K-12 preparedness and school funding while centering on Racial Equity.

Reilly Carter has served as the Colorado Children’s Campaign’s Government Affairs Director and Vice President of Education Initiatives. Her work focused on developing statewide political strategy as well as the creation and advancement of education policy. Most recently, Reilly was the President and CEO for Climb Higher Colorado, an education nonprofit focused on advancing research-based family-school partnerships. Reilly now provides consulting services to a mix of organizations and foundations in Colorado through RPC Consulting. Her work is guided by a commitment to advancing a more equitable system of public education.

Vernon Jones, Jr. leads the charge to abolish inequalities, inequities, and injustices that prevent children in Northeast Denver and beyond from receiving the excellent education that they deserve. He has previously served and led that same charge at Denver’s Manual High School and Omar D. Blair Charter School. He is Jaymie’s proud husband of 23 years. Father of the fabulous five: Savanna, Nathan, Caleb, Lily, and Brooklyn. He is the son of a retired 30+ year Black DPS educator and leader, Ms. Janet. He serves on the leadership team of FaithBridge and in his faith community at Kinship. He is active on the boards of Colorado Humanities and Mentor Colorado.


View A Recording of this Event


View Past Events in this Series


Key Takeaways

Q: How does the movement to advance racial equity more generally intersect with education?

RC: as I was thinking about this question, I was thinking about how oftentimes in education, we sort of pit things against each other and there’s finite capacity to dive in on different topics. And so, I guess what I would say is the movement to advance racial equity should be woven throughout every single thing we’re doing in education. It’s not its own strand. It’s not this thing that you do to this side, but it’s every component, whether we’re talking about school finance or accountability assessment. the way that oppression and racism have shown up in our system is pervasive. I’m pushing myself to think about it more broadly than just being a component of our education work. 

VJ: I think we are acknowledging that the system and structures have not been designed for the success of all people, have not been set up for all people to thrive. We’re seeing a lot of the manifestation of the root problem in the education gaps, opportunity gaps, the disparity in resources, our whole entire society. And so the work is to right those wrongs. that’s the only thing that’s going to transform the education landscape when we are courageously getting at the root of the problem. We got to be able to have the courage and stamina for it And we have to know that it’s going to put us in uncomfortable spaces. And so you have to embrace that uncomfortable base and then begin to move in ways that help racial equity become the norm of our society. 

What does it take to really drive a shift in mindset around racial equity and education?

RC: From going through this work on my own, I’ve learned its process where there’s embarrassment, and there’s hurt, and there’s frustration, and resentment and it’s exhausting work. But I think it’s essential work, and that it should be part of the way that we think about our jobs as they relate to education. And from a funding standpoint, it should be part of what you emphasize when you make grants and invest in things, asking yourself: how am I also investing so you can do the mindset work? Often I don’t think we build space for that and so we just hope that people are doing it on their own or elsewhere. 

VJ: Things change as fast as the dominant culture is comfortable or as fast as the dominant culture’s mindset changes. There are some things that we know right now are not equitable and we should just stop doing them. We have to do that right now with a sense of urgency. As we get into the pattern of those behaviors no longer being the norm, those behaviors actually begin to change our hearts and to help with the mindset shift.

How has education been impacted by COVID-19? What are you seeing in terms of disparities for youth? What are you seeing as opportunities?

VJ: There’s a lot. Not just academic needs, but social-emotional needs. There is a need for grace and space to process and talk about what we actually just went through? Or what are we still going through? What I’m watching and seeing from kids and from staff is we’re going to have to slow down and really dive into wellness. We’re going to have to really slow down and dive into managing the grief process that students, teachers, and leaders are going through. COVID-19 is really exposing to us that we’ve got to take better care of one another. We already had this problem pre-COVID, not enough social, emotional supports within schools, but now I believe it’s magnified because it’s not just students who are in great need. 

RC: This was a pivotal moment where kids had to go online and there was virtual, there was a way to start thinking about the school day and the school experience differently. There is more access to technology than there’s ever been and there are ways to leverage that moment in time, but people are exhausted and scared and we didn’t come to great conclusions on how to do all of that well because it was done in a moment of crisis. We should be thinking about how we can use this as a moment to imagine what it looks like for schools to be more adaptable to the needs of the children it’s serving? I was talking with a mom recently who’s monolingual Spanish speaking and her child did kindergarten completely remote. She was in tears saying, “he’s entering first grade and does not know how to read and did not get what he needed out of the remote learning experience and I am not an English speaker. I can’t teach him how to read in English. I can do all I can do in Spanish and will support him there.” But through a program and a project I’m working we were able to get her tutoring and it’s made a big difference.

As philanthropists, how do we get to the root of the issue? 

RC: It’s a complicated question because philanthropy is complicated. I would say from the specifics of who’s attending or watching a recording of this event: as individuals that invest in this change, you have a level of autonomy that doesn’t always exist at the foundation level. I think that you have an opportunity to say the investment, these dollars, this needs to go to systemic issues. So I would say specifically to philanthropy and getting to the roots in this audience, you folks have a different way to leverage your resources than we see with other funders.

VJ: Fund the uncomfortable. There’s some good stuff you should continue to fund, but there’s some stuff that you know that has just been gradualism, incrementalism, cosmetic stuff. We mentioned before, fund the world that you want. If the world that we want is equitable if the world that we want is just if the world that we want has every kid graduating from high school ready for the choice of college or going into civic service or starting their own business. If that’s the world that we want, then we’ve got to start funding those things in a way ensuring it happens for every child.