Teach For America (TFA) has transformed the education landscape since its inception in 1990. Tens of thousands of young Americans, many of whom would have not otherwise taught, are now teaching in schools across this country. Other Teach For America alumni and former staff members are leading schools, districts, state education departments, education and other nonprofits.
Over the years, Teach For America has attracted a great deal of attention (both positive and negative) for its impact on the education landscape. It’s received a fair degree of attention for organizational effectiveness (e.g., TFA was featured as a case study in Jim Collins’ Good To Great for Non-Profits). And while aspects of Teach For America’s culture have been touted, there’s one that hasn’t been acknowledged for its deep importance: the organization has developed and nurtured thousands of badass women – BAW. These women are so badass that they don't have time for self-promotion; they are too busy being badass in service of students, families and communities to send out a press release.
Women are not only killing it at Teach For America, they are achieving at high levels while raising children, leading and strengthening their communities and living fulfilling lives. Over 50 percent of senior leaders at TFA are women. In some key moments in Teach For America’s history, the organization’s leadership team has been more than three-quarters female. Teach For America’s national office and its 30+ regional offices are teeming with these badass women.
So, who are these BAW? What are they like? I worked with and learned from many of them while I was on staff at TFA from 2001-2009 when the organization grew from one that supported over 1,500 teachers and almost 10,000 alumni to one with over 7,000 teachers and over 30,000 alumni. But there were some things they all had in common. The most important being a grace they maintained in the toughest of moments. A constant will to listen and think critically. A humility that was always unexpected and appreciated. A sense of humor, the will to share and examine themselves consistently. And lastly, they shared a remarkable ability to get shit done. People try to convince you that TFA is filled with dispassionate people, but you don't see this combination of self-awareness, skills and values every day and, frankly, you don’t see women thriving at work the way they do at Teach For America.
Of course, the Queen Bee of all BAW is Wendy Kopp, Teach For America’s founder and current board chair. Wendy’s patriotism and sense of justice led her to found Teach For America after graduating from Princeton in 1990. Her commitment to students and families moved her to build and grow Teach For America to a best-in-class organization. Wendy is badass, all day, everyday. Her vision for the future and sense of American optimism is badass, but so is her quiet and determined leadership style. She sets an extraordinary example for me and for those around her, especially when faced with adversity. If Wendy, and now Elisa, led any other organization in the social sector seeking change for low-income communities, they’d be praised. Instead, the attacks on Wendy and Teach For America roll on relentlessly. But even in the darkest of moments, Wendy never steered from her values, and she is forever focused on a world where a child’s zip code doesn’t determine his or her future. Meanwhile, while building TFA, Wendy got married, had four kids, wrote three books and co-founded the global venture Teach For All. If that’s not badass, I don’t know what is.
When I think BAW, I also think about Elissa Kim. Elissa manages Teach For America’s recruitment team. Over the last 16 years, she and her team have produced an 18 percent compound annual growth rate in applications. Anyone who has worked on any type of recruitment effort should agree: that type of growth is extraordinary. Guess how Elissa has spent her free time over the last few years? Running for and securing a seat on the Nashville School Board, fighting for more resources and better teachers for students in her local community.
And then there is Aimee Eubanks Davis. Aimee achieved countless goals at Teach For America—like growing the staff from 200 to 1,500 and leading the effort to ensure Teach For America lived up to its diversity ideals. As the organization’s Chief People Officer, she modeled being a “people person.” She infused the organization with her tenacity and warmth. And, she did so as she gave birth to and raised three young children. She never made it sound easy, but she did it. Aimee now runs a new nonprofit, Braven. Braven partners with educational institutions, volunteers and employers to help college students from underrepresented backgrounds land strong first jobs.
Teach For America’s current CEO, Elisa Villanueva Beard, has no shortage of badass qualities and is well-equipped to lead the organization into its next phase. As a 25-year-old BAW, she was put in charge of the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) region, the rural community where she grew up. The region was on life support. It had raised less than $50,000 the previous year - an amount so paltry that the site couldn’t be maintained if things didn’t turn around. By the time Elisa left, the region had forged strong relationships with its district partners, community leaders and philanthropists and was raising more than $1 million annually. And Elisa had no management or fundraising experience. But through her hard work, force of will, strong management and leadership, she made it happen. Many hundreds of additional corps members have taught in the RGV—and thousands of kids have educational and life opportunities they wouldn’t have had otherwise as a result. Elisa is the mother of four rambunctious boys, a huge Dallas Cowboys fan and a former basketball player. If Elisa is not a BAW, who is?
There are countless other BAW who started their careers in social impact at Teach For America and are now doing other amazing things within the organization and outside of it. To name just a few:
Brittany Packnett, Teach For America’s Executive Director in St. Louis, who is playing a key role in the Black Lives Matter movement and was recently tapped to serve on a White House taskforce on 21st century policing.
Katie Cunningham, a former staffer and college recruiter extraordinaire, who is now the COO of Families for Excellent Schools, helping to bring together coalitions of families, policymakers and funders in service of quality schools.
Sapreet Saluja, a former staffer, who now runs The Sikh Coalition, a community-based organization that fights for the civil and human rights of Sikh Americans. The Sikh Coalition was founded in the aftermath of 9/11 after a series of violent attacks on Sikhs.
Maia Heyck-Merlin, former teacher and staffer who founded and runs The Together Group. Maia trains teachers and leaders around the country on getting organized and keeping “together” in face of busy work and professional lives.
Iris Chen, a former teacher, who held various leadership positions at Teach For America and now runs NYC’s Fund for Public Schools. Iris builds private partnerships to support the City’s education agenda.
Jovian Irvin, a former staffer, who works with individuals to “live on purpose” through coaching and trainings on diversity, leadership and managing through lines of difference.
It’s no accident that Teach For America has fueled the careers of so many extraordinary women—it’s by design. The organization’s belief in women and its hard-charging but flexible culture makes it possible for women to thrive while pursuing other life goals. I’m so grateful for all these BAW—and the many more whom I’ve worked with directly or admired from afar. Through their example, they allow each of us to be just a little more badass, every day. Who inspires you to be badass?
This post was written by Reshma Singh, Corps Knowledge advisory board member. She writes from New York City.