February 15, 2022

Introducing NM Southern Summit Reflections Series

The Thoma Foundation’s grants team is delighted to launch our new Research site with a series of thematic posts addressing the outcomes of the 2021 Carl & Marilynn Thoma Foundation New Mexico Education Funders Southern Summit.

In November 2021, the Thoma Foundation gathered fellow funders, nonprofit leaders, civic leaders, and educational stakeholders in Las Cruces, New Mexico to take stock of the current state of education in southern New Mexico and the El Paso region and to identify areas where philanthropy might be able to make the most significant impact for young people, families, teachers, and communities. Over the course of an evening and one full day at the New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum, funders heard from two panels of experts in the field of education and nonprofit work and participated in open and transparent conversations concerning the challenges and opportunities for public education at this potent mid-pandemic moment.

This weekly blog series will present some of the most significant learnings from the Southern Summit, combining materials from a year of research and conversations with leaders in the state together with statistical analysis and the personal stories and lived experiences of Summit participants. A few of our upcoming topics:

  • The Time is Now: Seizing the Pandemic Moment to Build Back Better
  • The Stories We Tell Ourselves about New Mexico Education
  • Rethinking Rural in New Mexico 

As an accompaniment to these weekly posts, we will also soon be making public the video recordings of the Summit panels along with edited transcriptions of these sessions.

Though many of the stories, quotes, and strategies presented in this report come from our panelists and participants at the Southern Summit, most of the statistics that will be discussed in this series pertain to statewide, regional, or national trends. Additionally, in recognition of the partnership and support of our colleagues in the El Paso region, occasionally we address specific conditions in Texas. We also will refer to the work of the Pathways to Opportunity Group and to the accomplishments of some of our grantees in northern New Mexico. As our friend and colleague Frank Lopez is fond of saying, “There’s no such thing as ‘Your side of the boat is sinking.’” We are all in this together.

Context for the Research and Summit

Beginning in 2020, the Thoma Foundation expanded its historic arts-centered grantmaking to include a wider focus on education, including career and technical education (CTE), college access, arts initiatives, and entrepreneurship development. Initial research efforts focused heavily on the state of New Mexico, with the intention to begin there and then expand into other states in our geographic region of interest (including Arizona, Oklahoma, and Texas). To build a picture of the educational ecosystems in both New Mexico and Texas, grants staff embarked on a listening tour with dozens of educators, administrators, policymakers, nonprofit leaders, and other stakeholders. In August 2021, we welcomed a new director, Holly Harrison (formerly of the Mellon Foundation). Under Holly’s direction we continue to research and develop these new areas of interest and learn more about how our philanthropic efforts can support and enrich the educational ecosystems of the very different states in which we work.

As Foundation staff gained familiarity with New Mexico’s education landscape, we also searched for ways to participate in shared learning alongside peer funders. In Summer 2021, the Thoma Foundation joined the Pathways to Opportunity (P2O) Strategy Table coordinated by the Los Alamos National Laboratories Foundation. This group of funders works in seven northern counties of New Mexico to explore how new models of collaborative philanthropy can improve college and career pathways for young people in the region.

Acknowledging that most philanthropic dollars in New Mexico tend to flow to the northern and metro parts of the state, and that no equivalent group of funders like P2O existed in the southern part of the state, we organized the Southern Summit as an opportunity to hear from foundations, nonprofit leaders, educators, and administrators doing innovative work in this region. Ultimately, the summit interrogated which educational objectives and outcomes are most pressing and useful for foundations to address in our grantmaking, and how we can support the creation of high-impact statewide programs and policies through philanthropy. Taking a broad cradle-to-career perspective, we explored the potential roles of place-based funders and statewide/regional funders and how we might better share knowledge and leverage resources. With the recent influx of new state money and ARPA funds allocated to education in New Mexico, this conversation felt particularly timely.

Cookie-cutter solutions for education in New Mexico have largely failed the state’s students and teachers. Recent studies, prominently that produced by the Learning Policy Institute in 2020, have suggested that New Mexico’s cultural makeup and economy require solutions rooted in the unique history of the state. Through conversations with other funders and through the growing network of nonprofit leaders we had connected with, we heard about the particularly dynamic and collaborative ecosystem of grassroots initiatives transforming education in the southern part of New Mexico. Established by passionate civic leaders including teachers and parents, key organizations are proving that New Mexicans can become experts in solving their own educational problems on the ground.

The Thoma Foundation staff is thankful to all the thought partners, community leaders, and tireless educational advocates who helped make this work possible. We are particularly thankful to Danielle LaJoie and Frank Lopez from Groundworks New Mexico for their collaboration and partnership, including in the facilitation of this convening and the pre-work of organizing and connecting with key community leaders. We were also thrilled to spotlight the work of emerging educational policy advocate, André Gonzales, who at the time of the convening was working with the Aspen Institute’s Weave: The Social Fabric Project. André generously acted as our facilitator and moderator and provided key insights during the planning of this convening. We are also deeply indebted to our dedicated educational stakeholders and nonprofit leader panelists for grounding this conversation in their personal experiences and the needs of the community. Finally, we very much appreciate the efforts of our fellow funders and community foundation leaders for making the time and travel arrangements necessary to gather in Las Cruces in person.

The Southern Summit felt thoroughly grounded in the place and culture of southern New Mexico, thanks to our beautiful venue at the New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum and to the local restaurants and caterers who cooked the delicious meals around which we were able to gather and continue our conversations.

The unsung heroes of this work were all our family members, friends, and colleagues who managed family obligations and work responsibilities so that this stellar group was able to come together in person over two days in the middle of a pandemic. This was also very much a team effort on behalf of the Thoma Foundation. Holly Harrison and Christine Dong provided critical input and support throughout the process. And a very special thanks goes to Alli Deri, who spent many hours remotely wrangling reservations and logistics in Las Cruces from our office in Chicago.

Finally, this convening would not have been possible at all without the support of the Thoma Foundation’s founders and board, who saw the value of instigating these important conversations and provided the financial support to see the work through to fruition.

Sarah Rovang, Program Officer