Watch the video that accompanies this transcript here.
This is the transcript of the Nonprofit Leaders Panel from the 2021 Carl & Marilynn Thoma New Mexico Education Funders Southern Summit. To learn more about this convening, please refer to the introductory post for this blog series. To find out about our panelists and facilitators, reference the bios presented here.
This transcript has been lightly edited and abridged for clarity and concision.
Bernadette Smyth: Hi everyone and welcome. I want to say thank you to the Thoma Foundation, and to Sarah and Christine for organizing this, and Frank and Danielle for facilitating and moderating. My name is Bernadette Smyth; I’m with Grant County Community Foundation in Silver City. We’re a small community foundation that was started in 2012 and was run primarily on a volunteer basis until last year when they hired me. For a small community organization, they really punch above their weight. We cover a four-county area around Silver City: Grant, Catron, Hidalgo, and Luna. We’ve done well in leadership; we’ve brought together nonprofits that didn’t talk much before. We have held community conversations around issues like collaboration, the census, and broadband work. We run a yearly event called Give Grandly. It’s a giving day in Grant County and the surrounding areas and this year alone we collected $260,000+ for nonprofits. 100% of that goes to the nonprofits and over the last eight years we’ve collected about $1.5 million in funds for area nonprofits.
I talked to a few nonprofits in the area about young people and what was going on. One person pointed out that traditionally we think of young people moving out of rural areas, because it’s much more exciting to be in a city, and I grew up in a rural area in Ireland, so I understand that. But there is this shift taking place. We have this ten-week online entrepreneurial program called Co.Starters that we started about a year ago. They found that in the past year, over two-thirds of the people who have been through the program are under thirty. They’re seeing more young people in the area are staying or coming back and more people are moving from places like Oregon, Seattle, and California to Silver City. They’re very earthbound; they are very into growing things, making things by hand, recycling. One of them started a “glamping” business between Silver City and Pinos Altos. From talking to people in the area and from my own experiences, I think we need to be looking at education more holistically. Because if we want to keep young people in rural areas, there’s more to education than just getting a degree or not getting a degree. Many of them want a skill that they can turn into a business. We need to look at infrastructure and ongoing business supports. That’s the situation in Silver City and Grant County.
I’m a transplant from Ireland but I’ve lived in New Mexico on and off over the last 20 years. I’ve lived in a lot of different places in America, too. But to me—and people laugh when I say this—New Mexico, and particularly Southern New Mexico, is the place that is most like home (which is Ireland). Not the weather, obviously, because the weather is crap in Ireland. But in every other way – the culture, the people, the daily attitude, the approach to living—it’s very similar. Welcome to you all and thank you for being here.
Sarah Rovang: Welcome back to those of you who were able to join us last night and for those joining us for the first time, we are thrilled to have you here with us. We had an insightful and wide-ranging panel discussion last night around the state of education in Southern New Mexico.
Some of the big themes that emerged include the understanding the history of this place and its communities to inform the future, the importance of seizing this moment in the pandemic to build back better, and how to spark joy in the learning process through project-based learning and the arts. We are hoping that some of these same themes might color our conversations as we move through our program today.
Today we are delighted to have a truly stellar panel of nonprofit leaders who will help ground this work about potential funder interventions in education in Southern New Mexico. And I will leave it to our session facilitator, André Gonzales, to give a little bit more context and introduce those panelists. I’m now going to turn things over to Frank Lopez to give a brief recap of yesterday’s panel.
Frank Lopez: Good morning, everyone. I wanted to pause for just a minute and acknowledge what a tough year it’s been with COVID. In New Mexico, compared to other states, we’ve really thought about COVID and how to handle it. COVID has affected not only the health of our people but our culture. I’m from this area, and part of the culture of this border area is that when you see someone you haven’t seen for a long time, you hug them! With the reality of COVID, it took that piece away from so many people. Up north, New Mexico has the second largest Native population as a percentage of our population. COVID hit Navajo country tremendously hard, and it hit the colonias of Doña Ana County, too. I want to acknowledge how hard life has been for our young people, for our students, for our parents, and for all of those who work in the nonprofit sector and the work that you do. I’m grateful for everybody in this room and that you came today for this in-person meeting.
My name is Frank René Lopez. Yesterday I moderated a panel with an amazing group of people. We held a deep conversation, which I won’t do justice to in this recap that I’m about to share. This is just to paint a picture of some of the things that were discussed yesterday. Yesterday, we had some amazing speakers that included Terra Winter, Dr. Mónica Torres, Lucía Carmona, Julia River-Tapia, Dr. Tim Hand, Erica Surova, and Dr. Dulcinea Lara. I think you could see the love they have for our people and children.
We heard about poverty, the digital divide, and the deficit model that still affects our students and children. We heard about challenges to get into college. We heard about history, specifically the history of this region. We heard about culture and historical trauma. We heard about colonization. We heard about the deep value of language and art in education. We heard about ancestors of this region and embracing the earth.
On the question of, “what is the state of education from your perspective?”, one comment was that education today is better than it’s ever been but our students are still far behind. Education has really come forward but we still have work to do. There was also a very powerful comment that what we know today depends on the story that we embrace. It also depends on where the story begins. We know a lot about education but the story of each child is different, the stories that different educators believe affects the outcome of the children, the story that children and students believe affects their lives.
You may have noticed that I often say “our children” or “our community.” I am from this region but in the work I did here and now in the Northern part of the state, I always say that the more we can say, “every child is my child, all children are our children,” the greater are chances are of lifting up all children.
In response to the question of “if you had a magic wand, what would you want for students and children,” one person said wellness, including access to food and education. Another person said they would want a world where students do not have to choose between food and education, where their needs are met so that they can then focus on education. Another person at an elementary school wished for an adequate building, a fulltime counselor, and a fulltime nurse. And for those of you who have looked at the impact of having a fulltime nurse at a high school, you know that that changes the world of those children’s lives. Another panelist said that if she had a magic wand, she’d want free childcare for parents and better pay for teachers. Another person said that she would harness the power of art and creativity, and this was really intertwined with the idea of culture and language. And she went on to say that there’s a strong connection between history, culture, and education. If we could spark the imagination of children and really bring creativity into our educational world, we could transform education.
I don’t think I did justice to what was said. The folks who were here last night have spent many, many years in the education space and know so much more. I’m passing it over to André!
André Gonzales: Good morning, everyone. I want to thank everyone to being here and really committing to being in this space and in community with one another. As Frank said, my name is André Gonzales. I’m a proud product of Las Cruces Public Schools, graduate of Centennial High School in 2016; I went to Picacho Elementary and Vista Middle School. In my time at Centennial I worked with Mike Milam to establish the Student Advisory Council for Las Cruces Public Schools, looking at how we could really empower our students all the way from kindergarten up through high school graduation.
Before I go any further, I want to thank the Thoma Foundation staff once again and Sarah Rovang for this work. Where I’m at right now at Weave: The Social Fabric Project at the Aspen Institute we’re really looking at how we can empower and support work that is rebuilding social trust in local communities. We’ve seen in the last five years that indicators for social distrust and disconnection are skyrocketing, in terms of addiction, opioid deaths, children not going to school, parents not showing up for after school programs. We’re looking at how we can support these individuals and these organizations that may not be recognized by traditional nonprofit or philanthropy models. Whether it’s the mother in New Orleans who decided to leave her cushy job as a health care administrator to establish a ministry to help youth recovering from Hurricane Katrina, or it’s the single mother of two in Chicago who was getting ready to leave the inner city and decided “no, it’s not for me, I’m not going to be one of those mothers who leaves the city” and decided instead to commit herself to founding an afterschool program for Chicago’s inner-city youth. Or maybe it’s Shorty in Baltimore who works many, many odd jobs and every single penny that he makes goes towards making barbecue to feed Baltimore’s children. Those are the types of projects that we love to support and convenings like this are a part of that, they’re a part of weaving the social fabric within our communities.
I want to present this [lapel] pin to Sarah for really helping to rebuild and highlight the voices in this community. We hear quite often that it takes a village to raise a child, and I think this is really an opportunity to take this village into a cultural, economic, and empathetic revolution and renaissance. This is an incredible opportunity, and I really cannot be more grateful to be here in community with you all.
Shifting over to our panelists, I want to ground this conversation a little bit because I think it’s really important that we have this specific conversation about the role of nonprofits and nonprofit leaders in our communities. Here are just some high-level statistics:
Here in New Mexico alone, there are over 9,100 nonprofits with 48,000 employees and $15.7 billion in assets. So nonprofit organizations here in New Mexico and particularly here in Southern New Mexico play a vital role not only in providing these wraparound services to our students but also helping to further spark the economic development and wellbeing of our communities. This panel—they are the ones doing the work on the ground. They are the ones moving the needle here in Southern New Mexico. I want to let our panelists introduce themselves. Tell us about yourself and your work, but also your “why.” Why do you do this work? It can be draining and exhausting, so what keeps you going?
Lori Martinez: My name is Lori Martinez; I’m the Executive Director of Ngage New Mexico, a nonprofit that serves as a catalyst for the advancement of all the people of Southern New Mexico, which is broad! Our focus is on education in Doña Ana County across the prenatal to career spectrum through the work of the SUCCESS Partnership I’m really happy to see so many people in the room today who we get to work with. When he was at Ngage, Frank Lopez led us on the path we’re currently on now, focusing on education. The mission of the SUCCESS Partnership is to see education outcomes transformed across the prenatal to career spectrum in Doña Ana County. We’ve done a lot of work in early childhood, spearheading the creation of the Early Childhood Coalitionin 2014. Also the Community Schools Initiative in Las Cruces Public Schools was born out of the SUCCESS Partnership. We released it later to LCPS, who has taken it and ran with it, growing the program. What is almost as important as what we do is how we do it. We utilize collective impact. For those of you who aren’t familiar with collective impact, it’s about how you leverage community in a cohesive way so that we’re all moving in the same direction together; getting key people, key stakeholders in place to achieve some amazing goals that we wouldn’t be able to do on our own. Just this week we launched a countywide K-12 coalition that will finish building out this infrastructure within the SUCCESS Partnership. We’re also working on a children’s museum which is a massive project all by itself. I’m a social worker who has been in Doña Ana County for almost 20 years. I’ve worked across education all the way up to higher ed so it’s really special for me to now be doing systems work across that whole education spectrum. I am very privileged in my position at Ngage New Mexico and within this community.
Dr. Katherine Ortega Courtney: Good morning, everyone. My name is Katherine Ortega Courtney, co-founder and director of the Anna, Age Eight Institute at New Mexico State University. We are the first institute funded by the New Mexico legislature for the prevention of childhood trauma and adverse childhood experiences. Yes, that does relate to education because if we do not prevent that, we will not have successful educational outcomes. We have a simple but audacious mission and that is to ensure that 100% of kids and families have access to ten vital surviving and thriving services. The surviving services are everything that you need to survive, like food and housing. On the thriving side, there are things like quality education and schools that really push us to the next level. My “why” is that I went to school to get my doctorate in psychology to prevent and treat substance abuse. I grew up in Española, New Mexico, which is well known for its substance abuse problems, and I wanted to do something about it. Through my research and career, I came to the idea that in order to actually prevent substance abuse, we have to go way, way back and start when kids are born and provide them with support and the thriving communities they need so that can grow up and not have trauma and not look to substances to deal with that trauma.
Hope Morales: Good morning, everyone. My name is Hope Morales. I’m normally a third grade teacher. I was actually a teacher in the Teach Plus Policy Fellowship the first year Teach Plus came to New Mexico. I currently serve as the Teach Plus Executive Director. We have three programs in New Mexico. We have 15 of the best teachers across the state participating in our policy fellowship. We have recently expanded and now include a Teach Plus network of 600 teachers across the state. We also have a Change Agent program, which is like a coaching program. We ran this program in Deming, New Mexico and in Turquoise Trail Charter Schoo l in Santa Fe. We currently have applications open and will be doing this program in the Farmington School District. My “why” is because I was supposed to become a statistic. I was born to a teenage mother. My father did ten years in prison for crossing drugs across the state line. Despite the challenges, despite the assumptions that were made about me, and what I was supposed to do and what I was capable of, I became the first in my family to graduate high school with honors. I was the first to go on to college and earn both a bachelors and a master’s degree. So, it was very important to me to stay in my community, not only to tell kids what was possible, but to show them what was possible. I quickly became a teacher leader and with Teach Plus, I was able to amplify my voice. Teachers are the ones who have to implement policies in their classrooms. We work with the students, we know their struggles, we know their needs, and we have great ideas to offer to the system. The Teach Plus Policy Fellowship, our network, and Change Agent allows us to help train teachers on how to leverage their voice and experiences to tell their stories and most importantly to be part of the solution so that all students have access and opportunity across the state.
Daisy Maldonado: Good morning, everyone. My name is Daisy Maldonado and I’m here in the capacity of the Director of the Empowerment Congress of Doña Ana County. Empowerment Congress is currently being incubated by the Community Action Agency of Southern New Mexico (CAASNM), but as we grow into our own organization, it’s our mission to work within the colonia communities of Doña Ana County; to work with both community members (adults) and youth, supporting them as they exercise their agency so that we can transform those communities into healthy, resourced, and equitable places to live, work, and play. I want to emphasize play today. When Empowerment Congress first started in 2013 there was a youth program and since then we’ve transformed it and it is very much art-based. It’s intended to be fun and interactive, and most importantly to engage young people in their communities and at school. We’ve been able to accomplish three public art pieces within the colonias, as well as two art pieces within Las Cruces Public Schools. My “why” in terms of why we have incorporated youth along with art is because I (and EC) believe that when people are involved in their own community, and forming the destiny of their community, and when they take ownership, it can be totally transformed. Last night Dr. Lara and Dr. Torres talked about the stories that our young children are told and what that causes. When we go into the colonia communities and interact with people and talk with those folks, it is very clear the story they have been told. It really hurts my heart. I know what it’s like to be counted out; they’re always counted out. And then youth are viewed that way in school and their families believe that, and it just passes on to the young people… and they deserve more. That’s why Empowerment Congress exists and that’s why we’re here today to talk about what we do and how we can change that narrative and really invite those who are counted out, disregarded, and disenfranchised into the conversation so that they can have the life they deserve in these smaller, ignored communities.
Tracy Bryan: I have no idea how to follow that, but I will try. I’m Tracey Bryan. I’m the President and CEO of The Bridge of Southern New Mexico. We were doing collective impact before it was called that. We had a conversation within our Chamber of Commerce where we looking at the fact that among the business community less than half of our students were finishing high school in 2007, and they’re going, “where’s our workforce coming from?” The economic development community was saying, “When people tell us or ask us about our skilled and ready workforce, we don’t have a good story to tell.” Rather than pointing fingers, these business and economic development people went to the education community and said, “How can we help?” It surfaced a conversation that the business community funded called the Regional Education Initiative. It went on for about 2 years before being formalized in 2009 as a nonprofit called the Bridge of Southern New Mexico. You are looking at all of its employees right now, but I have a board of 21 leaders in the county. We’re a county initiative in business, education, economic development, and government. The reason we want these leaders is that they have millions of dollars in resources and programs and people. When we decide to do something together, they don’t really have to go back and ask for permission. They can just mobilize their assets toward our collective goal. We were the ones that championed the Early College High School movement—not our school, it was a LCPS school. But what happened when we recognized the issues that were getting in the way of students finishing high school, everybody took responsibility to do their part—be it in business or education. The Bridge has two goals and only one of them has slightly changed. Our original goal was to have the highest graduation rates in the state. We have now added college [graduation] to that goal. Our second goal is to build a skilled and ready workforce, suitable for businesses here but also to drive economic development. We are the first in the state to develop a connected set of career pathways for our economic development targets. We are the first to have come up with a comprehensive plan for workforce development to reach those targets. We’re the first in the state to implement the U.S. Department of Commerce Foundation’s Talent Pipeline Management approach to have an employer-driven voice to align employer needs and education. It’s not me. It can’t be me. It’s what happens when all the people who are sitting at the table take responsibility.
One of the most recent innovations is the Blended Senior Year , where at Santa Teresa High School, 34 students (and we’re in the third cohort now) took their senior year of high school as their freshman year of college. The students have succeeded wildly, but the pilot was a little bit hindered due to the pandemic.
My “why”? I am the kid that we put in the middle of the room and ask, “What does that kid need to succeed?” I am that kid. It’s easy for me to do, I’ve lived that story. It is a joy to work in this community with incredible people and to have the opportunity to let this community show the rest of the state how to do it. And I think we do that everyday because of the power of collaboration.
AG: Daisy, you brought up an issue that segues perfectly into my next question, which concerns narratives around education and child wellbeing. My question to the panel is: what narrative or what narratives around education and child wellbeing in Southern New Mexico or around this state do you think need to be confronted right now in this moment?
DM: I think [we need to change] the narrative around our young people and their capabilities. When we go into the schools [with Empowerment Congress, we see that people are] taking the standard and saying, “our kids are not there yet, so we’re going to take it down,” as opposed to “we’re going to bring [kids up] to the standard.” [Schools are] not taking a holistic approach, and are blaming the families and youth, telling them that they’re lazy instead of looking at them as a whole person, who is also part of another system, and figuring out why they can’t come to school or why they are not performing to the standards. Again, what do we need to do to bring them up rather than just lowering the standard to where students can pass or graduate?
HM: It’s really about the expectation, access, and support for our students. At Teach Plus we really try to highlight the importance of students having access to a high-quality teacher. We have been ringing the bell for several years really trying to focus on the teacher pipeline. In 2020, New Mexico had 561 teacher vacancies. In 2021, that has increased to more than 1,000 teacher vacancies across our state. In Southeastern New Mexico, that’s 209. And in Southwest New Mexico, 102. Think about your children, your grandchildren, your nieces and nephews being in a classroom with a long-term sub (hopefully a long-term sub) for the full year. Sometimes it’s many subs throughout the week or the month. Research shows that if a student doesn’t have access to a high-quality teacher one year but does the next, that teacher can probably close the gap and get them caught up. But, if a student year after year does not have access to that high-quality teacher, it is so hard to close the gap. I think it’s really part of two buckets: opportunities and access for our students and then thinking about the teacher pipeline from the teacher perspective.
Teachers need a community of support as well. Our teachers in the classroom are wearing so many hats. They aren’t the expert in everything and they’re trying to be and they’re burning out. That’s part of the reason that vacancies have gone up so much. Educator training? Our students have changed, their needs have changed, our communities have changed. We have to do a better job of training our teachers; our early teachers, even our veteran teachers. We can’t stop. Educator voice is also very important. I’ve been out of the classroom for five years now. Things have changed so much. I can’t really give testimony to what’s happening in the classroom because it’s been too long for me. Our leaders in Santa Fe and our legislators across the state, even if they’re educators or retired educators, it’s not the same as when they were in the classroom. We need to bring the best educators to the table in all parts of the conversation. We need to bring them together in a community through our network to share those best practices and ideas. Our goals are the same, bringing everybody to the table, all the stakeholders, because our students deserve it. They deserve opportunity and access to a high-quality teacher.
KOC: I wrote two things down and [Daisy and Hope] said those exact two things that need to change. The first one is that we need to change the narrative that there is something wrong with our kids and families for why they are not succeeding. Our system is not designed to support our kids and families with what they need. Our teachers should not be playing social worker, counselor, or food distributor. Schools need to have those supports so that the teachers can teach and the kids can learn. We have kids who are going to school with 8, 9, 10 Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) from a very, very early age. Those kids act out and get labeled the “bad kid” and they live up to that expectation. Our teachers cannot handle that all on their own. Our schools need to be able to help identify these kids before they end up in child welfare and give them the tools they need to survive and thrive. Also, we need to get rid of the narrative that where you’re from gets you less tools to survive and thrive. I’m from Española, where growing up there was the expectation that we would not be anything, that we would not do anything; schools aren’t good. We’re set up to fail. We need to change that. I’m here in front of you today. You’ve probably heard of the Space Chile Challenge, by Jacob Torres? That guy was in my class. We can do anything if we’re given the opportunity.
LM: That’s awesome. Our education system and our society are steeped in a deficit model of thinking. We think about what we don’t have and can’t do, instead of what we do have and can do. The strengths that we have can help us overcome the difficulties that seep through to our children, as Daisy said. They get the message that they are not enough, and never will be. We were trained the same way, and we need to unlearn this idea. Working in early childhood we learn about neuroplasticity. We can retrain our brains to think from a strengths perspective and to look at the assets we have in our community and embed those into our systems. We need to tackle the question of “why not?” We have opportunities now. The pandemic is devastating, as was brought up last night, but we now have a huge opportunity to rethink our systems and build back better. When people say, “you can’t do that” the first question we should ask ourselves is, “well, why not?” We need to combat that discomfort. We can be so uncomfortable with change and the unfamiliar. This time can be a challenge, but also a tremendous growth-space. We can be intentional about building asset-based systems and thinking. We hear a lot about how we don’t have sufficient leadership, but if you look at a group of kids for a while, you’ll see the leaders emerge. We’re just not looking for what they are bringing to the table. We have the leadership and the human assets; they just need the tools to be successful. Those are some of the huge narrative pieces that require a shift on our part.
TB: I think I would say yes to everything you just heard but from The Bridge’s Perspective, we as a state told our kids for a really long time, “there are no jobs here.” And then we were stunned that we experienced an exodus of young families. I live in Doña Ana County where the first commercial spaceport exists and where the Road to Mars goes through White Sands test facility, where the largest, most important military installation for testing and evaluation is on the other side of that mountain [points], where the sixth-largest port on the U.S.-Mexico Border is just down in Santa Teresa, where there’s so much opportunity in healthcare, where Electronic Caregiver—a technological disruption to healthcare—seeks to become the first Fortune 500 Company in New Mexico. Do we tell our kids that story?
It is about narrative. We talk about it as an ecosystem of opportunity because not only are those opportunities here, everything you need to achieve them is here. We’re lucky. We have New Mexico State. We have Doña Ana Community College, which I have had a group of high school students tell me is the “dumb school.” That’s where you go if you’re not smart enough to get into NMSU. However, I’ve been in the DACC lab spaces and I’m not smart enough to be in them, I’m pretty sure. But we are not telling these stories. When we think about the definition of college, we all meant “university” for a really long time and it’s not that. It’s so funny – just this morning before I came in here, Georgetown University, whose Center on Education and the Workforce I adore, Anthony Carnevale’s group put out a list of eight things in a report called “If not now, when?” It’s about how youth systems don’t work together. Everything The Bridge has been advocating for is here. A few days ago, there was a report called “Question the Quo” and it was a survey of 4,000 14-18 year-olds. It’s the same stuff.
The narrative will tell our children what they’re capable of and what’s available to them but we perish for lack of knowledge. Our solution was to bridge the awareness gap with our NewMexicoTrueTalent.org website. We took advantage of the branding campaign and our message is, “You’re going to get to build the New Mexico we all live in, and we are absolutely committed to you and you have everything you need to be successful here.” And we share information so that if you want to go build a rocket that’s going to Mars [you will know] what degrees they want out there so I’m not wasting my time getting a degree that has no value. Or maybe I just need a career credential because they hire far more engineering techs with two-year degrees than they do four-year engineers. It’s about information and information is power. We’ve been really intentional about wanting to get that information in the hands of our students.
I’ve been in your world. I come to the nonprofit world from the philanthropic world and one of the nonprofits we worked with in a community where the students’ expectations were literally to get shot by the time they were 18. This wonderful program founded by two retired people told kids that “no one rises to low expectations.” And they turned around the lives of children with a narrative. It’s amazing. So, the power of narrative as we all do our work together is really, really important.
AG: It is very apparent that Southern New Mexico can really be a hub for leadership for different programs, initiatives, collaborations, resources, that can be expanded throughout the state, that we can go one step further. Often, we hear “What can we provide? What do you need in order to expand your work?” When I get asked that, I don’t even know what’s possible. I’m operating in this scarcity model where I don’t even get to consider what’s possible. What collaborations are possible here in Southern New Mexico building off the leadership that we’ve already seen? What are the pie-in-the-sky collaborations, relationships, and resources that we can bring together here in Southern New Mexico to make that happen?
HM: I told you I was scared of public speaking, and now I’m the first one to grab the mic! Our teachers are problem solvers and they have direct daily access to students each and every day. When COVID hit, our teachers immediately worked together to create COVID resource documents. They were printable packets sorted by grade level, kindergarten through 2nd, 3rd through 5th, middle school, and high school. They were documents to support virtual learning. We had more than 1,000 parents and teachers access and print out these documents for their children. I think one of the gaps is that we’re not including teachers as this important stakeholder group. There are all these wonderful programs and resources for teachers so they don’t have to own every hat in the classroom. The challenge is that they’re not always aware of the resources, of who the experts are. We need to do better about connecting them and building the community. That is one of our goals with the Teach Plus network. We have 600 [participating] educators across the state. We have thousands more to go to build into our network but we’re able to connect directly with the experts and the resources so when they go into class and identify a need of their students, they can immediately implement or make that connection. I also wear different hats. I’m on the Chavez County CASA Board, on the Leadership Roswell Association Board, and I serve as the local school board president. By wearing all of these hats I’m better able to work with all of my teachers in my community in order to connect help them connect with available resources. Other people don’t wear as many hats as I do, so we need to better build systems and communication efforts to make sure that they have access to the knowledge and resources they need.
KOC: Our flagship initiative at the Anna, Age Eight Institute is called 100% New Mexico and our mission is to ensure that everyone in a county has access to ten vital services for surviving and thriving. It is possible to bring together people from a county to form ten task forces each focused on one of these sectors under an overarching structure. I want to give a shout out to two amazing women who are in this room right now who are doing this work in their counties; Sharon Sessions and Kasandra Gandara. They are doing it and it is happening on the local level. Collaborations are possible and the community is there. What we need to do is set aside the idea of who gets credit for what. We need to be able to say, “This is our community, this is what we need; funders, help us.” Don’t worry about who is funding what, let’s all come together and ensure that 100% of our families can survive and thrive in our county and we’ll all get credit and we’ll all do better for it. I’ve worked in several collective impact projects and what always ends up holding it back and getting it stuck is the question of “Where is my logo on the flyer?” It doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, if a kid has access to food that they didn’t have, or if a kid graduates college because of a foundation, isn’t that what we’re here for? Collaborations are entirely possible, so let’s set our egos aside and not care who gets credit for it.
DM: I would say that our panel needs to talk to yesterday’s panel! Most of those folks are not in the decision-making seats. Collaboration is absolutely 100% key and trying to go into the public schools as well as the university and the community college as a nonprofit has been an uphill battle. There’s lots of bureaucracy, things take time, but a lot of the “no” we have received has been in that area. So instead of going through the schools, which would be an easier process, we went into the community to access youth.
I saw last night [on the data sheet that Erica Surova compiled] that in terms of the degrees sought at NMSU and DACC… the number one degree at NMSU is Criminal Justice. What does that mean for our community? Where are young people graduating with a Criminal Justice degree working and why is that the first option? My experience being on high school campuses is that there are border patrol recruiters, there are police recruiters, and law enforcement. Working in criminal justice is sensationalized but we have a lot of young people coming out of the school with that degree as opposed to knowledge and a degree that could get them a job in the area. One of my organizers has that degree and right now he’s working in the community and we’re trying to figure out things like how to get a paved road, but part of why he got that degree was the sensationalism and access. If I don’t have access to the school administration or the students but the border patrol does, I would say we have to start there.
TB: This community collaborates like mad. And part of that may come from the narrative about the northern part of the state versus the southern part of the state—everybody’s got those narratives. But we just [collaborate]; it’s in our blood. Anything you want to do here, you will have collaboration. We’re more than happy to come alongside to accomplish your mission. But how can you accomplish your mission while helping us with what goes on down here? I think the model of the Bridge is very representative of something I’ve heard La June Montgomery Tabron [President of Kellogg Foundation] say, which is “Philanthropy can pilot, but policy is sustainability.” If you fund a pilot where we can prove something, now we have something to offer from a policy perspective that can get built into somebody’s budget, somebody’s legislation. That’s really, really important because the legislature is not out pursuing innovative, wild ideas… but y’all are. You’re part of that ecosystem and that’s an important role that you play. At the Bridge, I tell people all the time that our job is to partner, to pilot, to prove it, and then to pass it to somebody to sustain it. The Early College High School, as an example, is part of Las Cruces Public Schools; they fund it; the Bridge doesn’t fund it. We just looked at the data and promoted the fact that it was working really well. That’s an example of how policy is sustaining an intervention. In a way it’s holding us to account, and in another way it’s you guys setting the stage for using this as your learning laboratory to test out your own theories. The people at this table, we know who to call because we’re already connected to everybody in the world. I talked to Kasandra Gandara years ago about Resilience Leaders and Anna Age Eight before it was AAE, and that thing has just caught fire in our community in a relatively short period of time. So when you all as funders are thinking about what you seek to accomplish on behalf of your mission and the improvement of the lives of children, this is a really excellent place to do it.
LM: It feels like there is something special going on in Southern New Mexico. There are a lot of collaborations, and for any number of reasons. Some of it is the North versus South [dynamic], some if has to do with community values, and the way this region is laid out. But for all of you as funders, I would encourage you to nurture that. And then come join us, come talk to us, come help us create those spaces in the community. I think any one of us at this table could answer the question André asked about what collaborations are possible. Everyone in this room has a million ideas but… who’s not in the room? We’re the ones making the decisions, we’re the voices at the table, and these innovative solutions come at the local level.
I think about what’s going on at the state level and we’re in the middle of a statewide lawsuit because the state has failed to abide by our own constitutional mandate to provide a sufficient and equitable education for every student. The state is fighting that out on at the [state] level and will be for a while. When we think about transformation, I’m convinced that it happens at the local level. I think philanthropy helps create space. So come, partner with the nonprofits that already know people in their community, listen to the voices who aren’t at the table, and help us create the space. [For instance], to have teachers come in and tell you, “Why are you thinking of leaving the field? What would help you to be able to really thrive?” When people hear the word collaboration some people think “That’s not for me.” So how do we create a context where when we talk about collaboration people realize, “Oh, they mean me; I need to be at the table”?
HM: They just made some great points and I wanted to add on to that about collaboration with decision-makers. It’s great to talk about something but actually having the decision-makers at the table and part of the conversation and collaboration is important to policy! That’s how we get things changed in the classroom for our students and teachers. I just wanted to share a couple of quick examples of our teachers in action—our Policy Fellows. When the state had to implement the ESSA Plan , 8 out of 11 of their recommendations were included in the state plan. Part of that was to push the annual testing window back by ten days, giving teachers more instructional time before their students were going to have to take a test. When the Public Education Department released their COVID guidelines back in 2020, our teachers were able to flag issues and PED immediately updated language in the guidance to districts. One issue was that teachers weren’t allowed to go back into their classroom to access textbooks, resources, things they needed to teach virtual learning whether it was from their home office or from the school buildings. That wasn’t the intent behind the guidance. We started training teachers across the state on virtual platforms like Google Classroom and Canvas before anybody else. But then the state also implemented that to make sure that teachers were receiving training.
One of the things we focus on is our student and teacher demographics. We are a majority minority state, but the demographics of our teachers don’t match that of our students. When we were searching for data just to better understand it, we couldn’t find it. It wasn’t out there. We had to do info requests from the state and really dig deep just to learn more about our own population. Based on our reports and recommendations whenever the state rolled out the new New Mexico Vistas data website, you can now see the student and teacher demographics by school, district, and state, and that was because of our teacher voice and advocacy. It’s important that those decision-makers are also part of it, and looking at the policies, systems, levers, and implementation that we can help that to change, too.
AG: What does an ideal funder-nonprofit leadership relationship look like, and how do you make that relationship sustainable so that we’re not going into this boom-and-bust cycle?
TB: I think we even see that in state policy where we fund this genius idea for a year and then we don’t fund it the next year. I can’t tell you how many conversations with community where I’ll go, “Hey weren’t we doing this thing for young moms?” “Oh yeah, but the funding went away.” That’s up to you all [funders] to decide: do you want to make a little longer-term commitment to ride it out, especially as it relates to evaluation, to see what happens? I don’t know if any of you knew Dr. Kevin Boberg, an amazing thinker. He said, “It’s not about outputs. It doesn’t matter how many kids we serve, it doesn’t matter how many meals we serve, it matters what happened because we did it and really measuring outcomes.” Perhaps there’s an opportunity there as you think about your funding if you see a three, four-, or five-year commitment to riding a grant out so that some wonderful thing that was just starting to show results doesn’t just go away because of funding. The work that I was doing in San Diego [before I was at The Bridge] was amazing because here was this little family foundation that had found just an enormous model for community building and community development. And the next thing we know, we had Anne E. Casey and Robert Wood Johnson coming to the table. There was something really special going on and those relationships have enabled that work to continue for more than the fourteen years I’ve been in New Mexico. So maybe part of sustainability is expanding the group of people who care about that issue and are mission-aligned and it doesn’t have to be you only.
DM: Totally agree with Tracey: long-term commitments in terms of funding and more, to be honest. And it’s not because we’re greedy, money-hungry people. We are also people who are trying to live and survive in the area and so when nonprofit becomes “Oh, you work in nonprofit, I understand…”
TB: Where’s my checkbook?
DM: You’ve got a little tiny shoestring and you have to make it last. Multiple funding streams and more funder collaboration would be great. And for longer, too. And another thing that I said earlier about how the work really breaks my heart in the communities is that there’s an incredible amount of distrust in the colonia communities with both the county as well as somewhat with the schools. When Empowerment Congress goes into these communities to work with young people, they show up with suspicion, asking, “How long are you going to be here? How long is this going to last? We’ve seen this before: people knock on our door, they ask us for this and that and then they’re gone.” And André is right. One of his colleagues, Alexis, was working with Empowerment Congress a few months ago and now she is in DC and it’s great. She went to UNM for her studies, and she came back to be with her family after graduation looking for a job and I wished I could hire her but I could not provide her with the salary to keep her in Southern New Mexico. What an incredible asset we lost because I didn’t have the funding to get there because I didn’t have the proof that my model works because we just started this process. It would be nice [to see] some commitment beyond six months or a year. And again, I’ll be honest… $25,000 or $50,000 is not sustainable at all because then you have to report for that. It’s a lot of work for a little bit of money. And $50,000? Really? What I am going to do with that money? Maybe I can fund one position for a year and if I’m going to pay taxes and benefits, that person is going to take home maybe $36,000? It’s not an incentive for people to stay and/or engage in nonprofit work if we continue to lowball and not value their work.
HM: Teach Plus is in 12 other states and Teach Plus New Mexico is one of the states that has the most challenging time raising funds just because we don’t have a lot of foundations here, we don’t have a lot of funding. Although when you look at our data, New Mexico is a state in the most need of support for the programs that we do have. One of the challenges is capacity. Knowing what programs work, knowing what needs to be done… I, Hope Morales, from Roswell, New Mexico, am running the Policy Fellowship and Network and Change Agents and have been doing all this stuff by myself for several years. It’s hard to not do that because it’s something that needs to be done but it’s also hard to do because I have three children of my own and I’m trying to serve my community in different ways. Because we were able to raise more money, we were able to get Aimee Para as our fulltime Network coordinator. We have a national coach for our Change Agent program, but I wasn’t able to get a fulltime New Mexico coach to work with our New Mexico teachers. You all hit it: multiyear commitment! It’s hard; the one year at a time thing.
I want to shoutout Michael Weinberg; we have a partnership with the Thornburg Foundation and it has been a wonderful working relationship where we work towards shared goals. He invites me in for the strategic planning. I’m about to share my five-year plan with them for their feedback. Our communication is open and honest, sometimes it’s informal updates, sometimes it’s him connecting me with other organizations, funders, and foundations. Sometimes it’s inviting him to our events to see in action what your support is doing, and he was able to join us for our kickoff weekend and meet our teachers. I think it’s important for me to understand all the expectations so that I meet those early on and throughout. And I think the introductions, whether it’s to other individuals or foundations or decision makers, help us to build those relationships.
KOC: Thoma Foundation, you did a great job of finding a panel that is all on the exact same page. I worked for a Foundation for several years and I was shocked at the hoops that we made our nonprofits jump through. I’m a data person, I’m all about proving that stuff works, I am all about showing impact but like Daisy said… for $50,000? The amount of work that’s involved in that, is it worth it? I think we need to trust that nonprofits are not in it for the lucrative careers! They’re doing this out of passion for their communities. I think there needs to be an element of trust there. We need to develop that relationship and really empower our nonprofits who are out there doing the most important work in a community and let them do their thing. They’re the experts in what needs to be done, they’re the experts in their own organization on how to spend that money and sustainability, too. I think it’s happening. I’m optimistic that these conversations are even happening, and I want to thank all the foundations and philanthropists that are here today listening to these voices because I think that’s huge; to give us a voice and let us speak our truths and feel safe doing so. I think that’s a great step in the right direction.
LM: I agree with that and would encourage you to keep creating spaces where the relationships can build. The buzzword is trust-based philanthropy and I think that should be the norm: multiyear general operating grants. This a question for you funders: how do you want us spending your time? Do you want us able to focus on our mission or do we need to spend a quarter more of our time just focusing on keeping the lights on and the doors open? New Mexico Association of Grantmakers and Center for Nonprofit Excellence, now Groundworks New Mexico, did a nonprofit economic impact study a couple years ago. When you look at the impact that nonprofits bring to New Mexico not only in dollars but in the amount of jobs that nonprofits provide, it’s more than two or three of these other New Mexico industries combined and people don’t talk about that! There is tremendous value that nonprofits are bringing into New Mexico every day but we’re expected to operate on shoestring or less budgets.
We need flexibility. If you can’t do general operating at least do project based with some pretty wide parameters. Again, how do you want us spending our time? Along with that, think about what it is that you’re willing to fund? Funding a grant writer is not sexy but that’s what’s going to be able to make us last. At Ngage, we’ve been very fortunate with our funders but we still have many of the same struggles any other nonprofit does and we’re trying to get ourselves to the next level where we can apply for state and federal funds. Look at the impact all these incredible nonprofits have and imagine what we could do if we were fully resourced. Please think about investing in capacity building whether it’s on a community level or within specific nonprofits that focus on capacity building and recognize the value that nonprofits are already bringing to the table.
The other thing is access to funders. Whether we like it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not, when you have access to the person, you’re more likely to get funded. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen these incredible nonprofits in our community… most of the funders in New Mexico are not concentrated here so that makes it hard from the get-go. There is, for example, an incredible makerspace called Cruces Creatives where the directors haven’t been taking a salary for the last couple years and they’re doing incredible work. They cannot disappear from our community. The wonderful thing about the collaborations you’ve all heard is those of us who have the relationships, who have been able to have access; we work together and we trust each other. I’ve been able to go to funders and use my relationship with them and say, you have to look at what this nonprofit is doing; it will hurt the community if they disappear—please consider funding them. And that’s beautiful that can happen here but we also need [more inclusive] access so that it’s not just the big nonprofits or the more well-known ones that have access to talk to you—it’s the emerging leaders that we need so desperately; it’s the local solutions that are coming to light; they need to be able to talk to you, they need to be able to get a hold of you. That social capital makes all the difference in the world.
TB: In my two foundation forays; one was a foundation that goes on in perpetuity and one was a sunsetting foundation. The sunsetting foundation was constantly asking, “Where will this live beyond us?” You don’t have to be a sunsetting foundation, but how can this be sustained beyond us and be a thought partner with us? Just a thought, because the work that happened in San Diego was just unreal and it was unreal because they always knew that they were not the long-term solution.
AG: Katherine, I read your book last week as I was preparing and on the very first page you really make it clear that you understand that there’s a frustration around the narratives around child well-being and that some people might be turned off by the blunt language that we’re using but it’s very necessary, right? I wonder if you could talk a little bit to that tension between wanting to raise the alarm but also not wanting to come off as though it’s a futile effort. How do you balance that conversation?
KOC: That’s an excellent question. When we originally wrote the book it was very different because we were very angry and wanting to do an exposé on child welfare! We realized that we needed to write this in a positive way that offers solutions instead. There is so much power in stories. That is why it resonated and that’s a way to say things without offending people as much. This is the story of a little girl; this is the way the system failed her over and over. This is not a single person’s fault. This is not about an individual caseworker that messed up. This is the system that failed. When you look at things that way from a more distant lens, it helps create a safer space to talk about it. You’re not going to be able to do life-changing, systems-changing work without offending some people. Yes, there were some people in child welfare who were not happy with us when that came out; we still don’t talk to the Children Youth and Families Department very regularly. Our biggest champion after the book was Sandra, who was a CYFD employee. She got it. And our biggest champions soon after that were people like her, people who were in the system, who understood it, who had the ability to say yes, this is right, I support this work.
The people in the [child welfare] system and in many systems operate under fear and it is completely understandable because at the end of the day, they need to bring home a paycheck and support their families. If they speak out, there is a real danger in losing something and their fear of loss prevents a lot of people from speaking up and speaking out. Philanthropists and foundations—people are often afraid to tell you the truth of what you’re doing because of the power dynamics there. It’s important to recognize that and when you see people shut down or step away from an initiative, so very often it is because of fear. It is because they are fearing their own loss: How is this going to impact me? How is this going to hurt my family? How is this going to hurt my paycheck? That’s real and we need to acknowledge that. And from a philanthropy point of view; if you’re working in a foundation and you’re a program officer and your boss is telling you: “you need to show the impact of this program,” you’re going to do it because you want to keep your job! There are power dynamics everywhere and we just need to acknowledge that change is hard, and it is scary, and it is also worth it.
Not everybody’s going to be your biggest fan if you’re going to do a big change initiative, but if at the end of the day we have safer and thriving communities, it’s worth it. It’s not easy. But you can also find likeminded people—there are a lot of them in the room—they will step out. They will show themselves as champions. In the Anna, Age Eight Institute we focus on the champions; we focus on the Sharons and the Kasandras and the Loris [participants at the convening] and the people who are making change in the communities. We don’t focus on what we call the hydras, who are the people who are trying to block change and prevent things from happening, because they’re always going to be there. But if we focus on what we want to happen, like when you’re driving and you look at where you want to go, that’s the way to make things happen.
AG: We’re coming up to the end of our time but I wanted to leave a moment if any of our panelists wanted to share some closing thoughts.
DM: We’ve already talked about how there was funding for youth development and youth leadership in Doña Ana County here before and money disappeared, and programs disappeared. Empowerment Congress does this work with young people but whenever we are in the communities, that by far is always at the top of the list of what people know they need in their community. What do you need? Well, we need paved roads! It’s not part of youth work but you gotta get to school! If your bus cannot go down a dirt road because it’s flooded, then you can’t get to school. There are no parks in our communities. Where are the art programs? Let’s go back to the statistics. Only 696 young people are pursuing an art program at NMSU, and at DACC, dramatically less, only 165 students. Youth programming in general is incredibly needed in Doña Ana County and the colonias. The infrastructure really needs to be built. In a conversation we had with the SUCCESS Partnership just last week, I said “We should just use the community centers and have a community program there or a youth program after school” and someone who lived and grew up in a colonia said “Oh my god, that’d be great!” Why? Well, what do they do for fun? They don’t have a park, there’s desert all around them… After school, before school, out-of-school programming, whether art-based or any activity for youth, is invaluable and doesn’t happen enough here and isn’t funded enough here.
TB: I just wanted to thank you guys for wanting to have this conversation and wanting to come down here and meet us. It’s really an honor to have you all in our community. Academic outcomes have economic impact. That is the core of this conversation. You all are having a conversation that could change the economic trajectory of Southern New Mexico and New Mexico at large. I just want to encourage you and say thank you! We will help you in any way we can.
HM: I just wanted to thank all of you. It can definitely be intimidating to be in a room full of funders, but your eyes are very friendly and I appreciate that. I just want to remind you there’s not one thing that’s going to fix everything. There’s not that one thing that if we do it in education or in our communities that’s going to change everything. But there are a lot of levers, lots of systems, lots of opportunities, and I think if we work together to continue to impact education from a variety of perspectives, then that’s how we make change.
LM: Three parting thoughts. One is that if we are trying to retrain our brains towards an asset-based way of thinking, we need to rethink how we measure impact. I was really struck by the panel last night and then afterwards at dinner, someone asked Dr. Hand what metric he used to measure a certain outcome and his answer was “hope.” All of our collective jaws just dropped. This is someone who has been in the education sphere, in K-12, higher ed—he’s a data guy; he gets that sort of thing. He’s been the Deputy Secretary of the Public Education Department. But the metric he was looking for was hope. That should tell us all something. What are we trying to measure and why is that important? And that also comes back to funding the long game. Part of what works for us well in Southern New Mexico is things don’t always work as fast as we want them to, but what works sustainably here is that we have all learned to move at the speed of trust. Relationship building is central to everything we do. I cannot emphasize that enough.
The other thing is in data-driven decision making, we depend on the Center for Community Analysis. They have given us data and we know what’s going on in our communities from the data perspective. But one of the things that comes up over and over and over again is these huge awareness gaps. Sometimes the issue that comes up in our community is that we don’t have the resources, but sometimes we have the resources, but people don’t know about them. It’s not just about what parents and community members don’t know, it’s not just about access to resources, it’s about what they experience when they do try to pursue them. The awareness gaps are not just with families, it’s providers; they exist between us, too. How do you create those spaces and those tables so that the communications, the messaging, the relationship building becomes as important as everything else so that we can close these awareness gaps and stop being silent?
AG: That’s a perfect place to stop. I want to thank again our panelists for joining us. One of the things my parents taught me growing up here is, if you don’t take care of yourself, who will? And when it comes to education here in Southern New Mexico, our communities really need to be able to stand up and say, “this is what will work for us.” And our panelists are truly invested in these local communities and doing that work, so I can’t thank you enough.
Transcript prepared by Ashlyn Lee and Sarah Rovang.