Betting on the Future of Black and Latino Leaders: a Q&A with Jim Shelton

By Layla Avila


Jim Shelton is President for Education at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Previously, Mr. Shelton served as Deputy Secretary of the United States Department of Education under then President Barack Obama. He has also worked at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation where he managed billion dollar non-profit investments targeting increased high school and college graduation rates.

This week, we announced the six recipients of EdLoC’s inaugural Boulder Fund. As we take our own steps into philanthropy targeted toward Black and Latino leaders and organizations, we thought it’d be imperative to pick the brains of those who have been doing the work for years. We sat down with Mr. Shelton to learn about the state of education philanthropy, his role at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), and the type of support leaders of color and organizations they run need in order to solve some of the biggest challenges in our field.

Before the larger push to amplify the voices of Black and Latino leaders in an effort to improve education, you were one of the first advocates. Why did you see this as something to be concerned about so early on?

There are several reasons. There has been a growing mismatch between the kids in the classroom and the teachers educating our kids, the people leading our schools and school systems, and the people leading the reform movement. That mismatch has in many ways been a manifestation of the injustice and inequity we are trying to address through education. In the years I have been involved in this work, I’ve seen many reforms fall flat—in part, because of the lack of understanding and at times lack of respect created by that mismatch. Often, leaders of color would raise their voices to try to change the approach and the outcome, but very few were listened to and even fewer were empowered to lead. If we hoped to transform education, especially in diverse communities, it was obvious that had to change.

Now, you're seeing an emergence of leaders of color who bring an approach that marries their understanding of the communities they serve with the desire and strategies to drive the highest level of outcomes for children and an increasing recognition of the wisdom of their approaches. That is different from previous attitudes and strategies, and I believe it's going to be a more effective method that should be accelerated.

How is philanthropy’s role in supporting and elevating Black and Latino leaders distinct from the role of other folks in the space?

Philanthropists are in a unique position to support leaders in multiple ways. The most obvious is by investing in them and their organizations directly, which begins by ensuring the leaders are known to them and have access to their processes. Philanthropists also have a unique opportunity to ask questions of themselves and others: Who is at the table when folks are brought together to learn about, inform, or set strategy? Whose voices are allowed to be presented as expert? Who leads the organizations we support? If you believe having diverse leadership that reflects the communities you're trying to serve is important, than those are things you should set conditions around, and encourage with your resources.

Do you think the philanthropy field is paying more attention to whom they decide to fund, and whether organizations and leaders are representative of the communities they serve?

The entire education field, including philanthropy, is much more cognizant. Many of the philanthropies making significant investments in education are paying attention. However, there's a question of proportionality. Due to historic inequities and differing theories of action, many leaders of color are innovating from within existing systems, or are leading earlier stage organizations. Almost by definition, this means many leaders of color are not positioned to receive the larger grants many philanthropists make to scale existing school networks and innovations. That's something to pay attention to, and I don't know that many people are doing that.

Now that you're in the driver's seat at CZI, how are you thinking about leaders of color as you set priorities for the coming years?

We’re approaching this in several distinct ways.

First, we are trying to walk our talk by having a team, close advisors, and partners that are diverse. Second, we are also investing directly in creating pathways and support systems to enable more leaders of color to flourish across the sector and within CZI. Third is being willing to take a chance on early stage, high-potential efforts being led by leaders of color — being willing to provide these leaders funds to flesh out an idea and build evidence, and then being ready to provide larger funds to give them the chance to run with their proven idea.

Additionally, when we are looking at organizations to fund, we are asking questions about the composition of the team. Do they have a diverse set of leaders? How do they ensure a diverse set of voices and experiences are included when making decisions? Do they have the perspectives they need at the table to make good decisions? Are they taking into consideration the perspectives of the people they serve? The same questions I want my organization to ask itself, I want the organizations we're working with to ask.

Finally, we believe that communities, and communities of color in particular, are at the center of developing solutions to the problems impacting them. At CZI, we believe our role is to listen and engage communities with humility and respect. We hope to leverage our resources and expertise to work in partnership to identify and develop solutions based on what communities say they want and need. Communities will not only inform the process, they will help shape their own destiny. For example, our Community Fund was created in partnership with local community leaders and residents to respond to needs in the Bay Area related to education, housing, homelessness, and workforce development.

Could you give us an example of a recent leader you’ve supported, and share why you decided to support the leader’s work?

There are a number of leaders that I have been excited to support as innovators and change makers. A couple were pre-seed stage — to give them the time and space to think through a potential breakthrough idea. Some were high potential but early stage and needed not only resources but also a signal that they were not only worthy of, but ready for, the next level of investment. Some were seasoned leaders with long track records of impact who needed new partners for the next phase of their work. And, some were just continuing their great work and taking it to the next level of scale.

One of the leaders whom I smile most when thinking about is Carmita Vaughn, the founder and CEO of The Surge Institute. Carmita is not only a leader of color with a great background working and innovating in the public and private sectors; she brings her boundless energy to supporting and increasing the reach and impact of other leaders of color. She is doing that work because it is her passion, which to me means that if she had not founded Surge and was in a different organization doing entirely different work, she would still be in the business of supporting and empowering other leaders of color.

I am happy to support leaders of all kinds trying to make a difference in the lives of young people and trying to build the field overall... and I do every day. What makes me take a harder or second look at a leader of color is their commitment and potential to have a multiplier effect on people of color or other historically disenfranchised peoples in the sector or the communities that we serve.

Why is “betting on” Black and Latino leaders and organizations so important to you?

Every philanthropist takes risks. One piece of advice I heard from a well-known capitalist when I was on the business side of the world is, "Every business plan is, by definition, wrong at the outset. The only question is, do you believe in the leaders enough that when they figure out the ways in which it's wrong, they'll adjust and find a way to be successful?" As a philanthropist, the people you decide to place your faith in is critically important.

Oftentimes I see people who are not of color, with limited credentials and experience, receiving a lot of the benefit of the doubt. We have to ensure people of color have the opportunity to get the benefit of the doubt, too. Their potential to impact children's lives is just as significant as anyone else’s, if not more.


Full disclosure: EdLoC is a grantee of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.