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Making a Difference: The Impact of Annual Meetings

Every year the Johnson Scholarship Foundation hosts two annual convening of select grantees.  The first is in June and welcomes representatives from the Disability Resource Centers in the twelve state of Florida universities.  The second one, held in October, is for representatives from the colleges and universities providing Foundation business and entrepreneurship scholarships to Indigenous students.  In both cases, the Foundation pays all expenses (travel, lodging, food) for two representatives per school to attend these day-long meetings.  The Foundation provides the meeting space, plans the agenda for the day, often brings in expert speakers, facilitates the meetings and, in the case of the October meetings, hosts an after meeting dinner.  A minimum of five Foundation staff, consultants, and Directors attend each of these meetings.  So why would any foundation go to such trouble and expense to host these annual meetings?  The answer is simple: They make a difference.

First and foremost, they make a difference for the grantee representatives, many of whom tell us their meeting is the one time a year that they are able to actually meet and talk with others at different schools doing the same work they do.  Our post-meeting surveys are full of responses like:

  • This meeting always gives great information about scholarships, challenges & successes of other campuses.
  • Great feedback from other campuses to be considered on our campus
  • It is great to not only hear what others are doing, but to be able to network with them and see what they have experienced and hear their problems and successes.
  • Always great to share ideas with others in the same field
  • I always take ideas back to our campus
  • I enjoyed the comparisons/contrasts between my office and othersAnnual Meetings Quote Graphic

When we ask what they wished they had had more time for during the meeting, the
overwhelming response is the desire to spend more time talking with each other. “I learned so much through the various conversations and sharing opportunities,” reported an attendee from Florida Polytechnic University.  “It often turns into the most valuable part of these events,” added a representative from New College of Florida. “So many people had so many great thoughts/ideas!” raved another June meeting attendee.

So what does the Foundation get out of these meetings?  A lot, as proved by the fact that we keep providing these opportunities and our own people keep wanting to be involved.

Listening to our grantees share their experiences gives us a far greater appreciation of the work they are doing.  As our President, Malcolm Macleod, often expresses, the Foundation is making the investment, but these people are the ones doing the work.

Meeting people face to face creates stronger personal bonds and makes dealing with issues and concerns over the phone the rest of the year much more comfortable for both parties.

Listening to and talking with the grantees make the grants “real” for our Directors.  Reading a program summary can never compare to actually knowing the effects of a program that the Directors voted to fund.

The Real Deal: Extraordinary Results at Providence St. Mel

The Foundation’s mission is to assist disadvantaged people to obtain education and employment. We frequently invest in early education because it is the key to post-secondary success. One of our better investments is in Providence St. Mel, a private school in Chicago.

Providence St. Mel has an enrollment of about 600 students, from pre-kindergarten to grade 12. As the name suggests, the school was started by the Catholic Church and, until 1978, was owned and operated by the Sisters of Providence. The Catholic Archdiocese discontinued funding for the school and wanted to obtain the building and land for other purposes. Instead, the Sisters sold it to a group headed by the school’s principal, Paul AdamAdvertisement for Providence St. Mels.

Paul Adams was born in 1940 and brought up in Alabama. He attended Alabama State University and was active in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. He could not get a teaching job in Alabama and moved to Chicago in 1971, to take up employment as Director of Guidance at Providence St. Mel. A year later he became principal.

Paul Adam’s campaign to raise money to buy Providence St. Mel attracted local and national attention. President Reagan visited the school in the early 1980s and came back later for a second visit when he remarked that educators across the country who don’t know what to do should come to Providence St. Mel. The Governor of Illinois has visited and made similar comments, as has Oprah Winfrey. President Barack Obama visited the school years ago, when he was a State Senator and a book by noted educator Samuel Casey Carter profiled Providence St. Mel among the best 12 schools in the nation, from 3500 studied.

Providence St. Mel is a political and media darling because it produces unusually good outcomes for disadvantaged students. Last year 100% of its high school graduates qualified for university entrance to tier one institutions. Standardized test scores are well above national averages.

So what is the secret to this success?

Predictably, Providence St. Mel succeeds because it employs basic sound principles of education in a systematic and straightforward manner. Teachers are selected with care and monitored. The good ones are rewarded. The weaker ones are weeded out. Teachers are supported professionally. Students are accountable. When a student is not performing, advice and criticism come from the teacher, not the parents. Students spend more time in the classroom and academic standards (and disciple codes) are rigorous.

Providence St. Mel is a private school and receives no government support. It gets its money from tuition and private grants and contributions. Students are subsidized according to need but every family pays something, regardless of financial circumstances.

Families realize that Providence St. Mel can provide a ticket out of poverty. Students come to believe, correctly, that with hard work they can be the equal of anyone.

Providence St. Mel is the real deal, a place where good people and good ideas intersect to produce extraordinary results. It is an excellent investment for anyone seeking to assist disadvantaged people to obtain education. Check it out at

Class of 2016 graduates

Class of 2016 graduates

Diversity Includes Disability

One of the keynote speakers at the COSD conference in October 2008 was Dr. Paul Longmore, a critically acclaimed historian and the Director of the Institute on Disability at San Francisco State University, now named the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability. The thesis of Dr. Longmore’s speech was that history shows us that we require the “minority model”, and not just the traditional “medical model”, to understand and address the situation of people with disabilities in America.

At the time, most disability advocates subscribed to the “medical model”. This concentrates on fixing the disability. In order to help people with disabilities to become productive, participating members of society, we need to give them medical treatment and/or equipment. Treatment and equipment are necessary but they do not fully address the experience of people with disabilities.

In particular, the medical model cannot account for society’s prejudice against people with disabilities. Dr. Longmore gave numerous examples of public opinion over the last 100 years. So-called authorities have ascribed the following personal characteristics to deaf people: foolish, improvident, and given to drunkenness. “The Blind” have been described as “dishonest”. Feeble minded people were regarded as a menace and were incarcerated in order to protect the public. One of the leading orthopedic surgeons of the early 20th Century emphasized the need for special moral training for the physically disabled, without which they would be dangerous. At the time, many American cities had laws to prohibit people with physical disabilities from appearing in public.Ability Not Disability illustration

Prejudice against people with disabilities can be best understood by comparing their experience with other minority groups. Prejudice against minorities (including people with disabilities) is irrational and comes from fear and ignorance. It cannot be explained or cured by treating the person with the disability. The cure is to change existing attitudes by education and communication.

An illustration of this has been led by our friends at the Statler Center of the Olmsted Center for Sight. Through their Business Fundamentals, Hospitality, and Contact Center Customer Service programs for students and adults, the Statler Center is bridging a gap between people with disabilities and the workplace. Adaptive technologies and creative training techniques equip the blind and visually impaired to learn essential skills and develop their independence, professionalism, and confidence. Simultaneously, attitudes are shifted toward recognizing the unique people-oriented abilities and valuable self-motivation that blind and visually impaired people offer to their field of work. As the Olmsted Center says, there is now available a world of possibilities never before dreamed!

Society needs to understand that people with disabilities, like many other minority groups, have a distinctive experience that enriches us all. Values derived from people with disabilities are useful. For example, contrast the ethic of individualism and independence with the disability experience of human interdependence. Or take the concept of universal design, which is based on the idea that there are differences among us and there is no “standard” person or way of doing things.

Dr. Longmore believed that we are witnessing the birth of a new social order in which values that come from the disability experience (and other minority experiences) are celebrated as part of human diversity. But changing deeply rooted patterns and values is neither quick nor easy.

None of this is news to people with disabilities. However, for me the “minority model” is a perspective which gives a deeper understanding of the experience of people with disabilities and will help us to better serve them.

statler center logo

Social Justice Through Education

This week we re-post an article by Cheryl Crazy Bull, President of the American Indian College Fund. The American Indian College Fund is an important grantee partner of the Foundation and we had a chance to see Cheryl (and a lot of other good friends) earlier this month in San Diego at the Annual Conference of Native American’s in Philanthropy.

The Foundation’s mission is “to assist disadvantaged people to obtain education and employment.” A big part of our grant making – over $19 million to date – is directed to indigenous peoples, mainly for education.

Cheryl Crazy Bull’s article resonates with the Foundation’s mission. The status quo is iniquitous and it is untenable. Indigenous Peoples in the United States and Canada (or anywhere else) should not have to endure subpar social and economic conditions. Education is the means by which Indigenous Peoples can achieve a decent standard of living and scholarships are indeed an instrument of social justice.

We also share Cheryl’s admiration of tribal colleges. The Foundation has been providing scholarship support to students of tribal colleges for over 20 years and they form an important part of our investment in education. Our scholarships are not restricted to the best and the brightest. They are available to anyone with a passing average. Like the tribal colleges, we believe that education must be available to anyone who needs and desires it.

We have noticed positive change over the past 25 years. Tribal economies have improved as have education rates. There is still much to be done. We commend Cheryl’s article to you and implore our fellow education funders to include grants for scholarships to Indigenous Peoples in the portfolios.

Social Justice Through Education a Shared Sentiment for Empowering Nations

By: Cheryl Crazy Bull, President of the American Indian College Fund

I was inspired to see Hilary Pennington’s article, “Rethinking scholarships as social justice” in the Ford Foundation’s Equals Change blog. Her article examines the approach in action through the implementation of the Ford Foundation’s International Fellowships Program, which spans 22 countries and a decade to support emerging leaders who face discrimination because of their gender, race, ethnicity, religion, economic status, or physical ability. Her essay opens the door to discussing and examining further why scholarships are particularly important to indigenous people as tools of social justice and opportunity.

Here at the American Indian College Fund scholarships are the underpinning for social justice in American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) communities. Scholarships support students in their path to better lives for themselves, their families, and their tribes.

Pennington speaks to the importance of educating leaders in marginalized communities to further social justice in some of the world’s poorest countries. Countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East were routinely plundered for raw earth minerals, timber, rubber, and oil. The history of colonization undisputedly left a swath of poverty and dis-empowered individuals in its wake with regard to political contributions, education, and control over the nation’s resources. The College Fund shares The Ford Foundation’s mission of social justice through scholarships and empowering citizens from nations that were weakened through colonization, however, we focus within the borders of the United States. Like peoples of other colonized nations, AIAN people were and still are sovereign nations, and in many cases their experiences parallel those of peoples living in countries in Asia, Africa, and South America as external nations imposed political systems that excluded and oppressed original inhabitants to wrest control of valuable land and resources.

American Indian and Alaska Native nations in the United States remain sovereign nations. They have a special relationship with the federal government based on treaties. Tribes share the experiences of other former colonized nations. The struggle continues today because the political and social inequality rooted in colonization has led to deeply entrenched poverty among indigenous peoples. The many other issues in the news: health care inequalities, substance abuse, lower high school and college graduation rates, and the like, are all merely side effects of endemic poverty (The U.S. Census Bureau reported its 2014 one-year estimates at 28.3% of AIAN people are living below the poverty line, compared with 15.5% of the overall population). Rather than treating the many symptoms related to poverty, the American Indian College Fund believes that education is the answer to empowering individuals and creating thriving Native communities.

Pennington referencing significant recent scholarship gifts to prominent institutions says it remains to be seen whether scholarships reach non-traditional candidates to “actually challenge entrenched systems of inequality,” stating that too many scholarships reach students who are already at the top. At the American Indian College Fund, we know that in addition to the best and the brightest students in AIAN communities there are many deserving students who have aspirations for a higher education. These students, too, can and should be encouraged to make important contributions. In Native communities where poverty is endemic, it is AIAN students who are often left with few options for a higher education.

While scholarships provide access to institutions of higher education, their symbolic value cannot be taken for granted. Scholarship support, coupled with the student services developed for AIAN students by tribal colleges, signals to our students that they are seen, that they are heard, and that we stand with them. We agree that non-traditional students are necessary for any movement to dismantle systems of oppression. Thirty-nine percent of the students the American Indian College Fund supported in 2014-15 with scholarships were first-generation students, and of those 49% had dependents and 38% were single parents. In addition, the students we support are non-traditional in that they are older, with an average age of 29.

Current and future leaders of social justice movements for racial and gender equity have and will continue to have tribal college degrees.

Tribal colleges and universities were created during the Civil Rights movement by tribal nations for just that purpose. Tribal leaders saw the need to educate the next generation to prevent “brain drain” and to lead their communities in business, health care, law, education, and science. These leaders knew that access to an affordable, quality higher education while preserving their cultures was the key to their endurance and success. Today the American Indian College Fund provides monetary support for 35 tribal colleges and universities serving AIAN communities nationwide and also provides students with scholarship support to attend them. It is interesting to note that tribal colleges and universities led the way with grass-roots, tailored education programming that reached deep into the community, serving the needs of many community members other than just students, in the same model that the United States Agency for International Development has found to be most successful today. Led and staffed by dedicated local community members, tribal colleges have also established culturally based early childhood education programs, health clinics, libraries, adult education courses, and more, which has expanded the sustainability of Native communities, their cultures, and their traditions.

Like the Ford Foundation, we find that scholarship recipients develop the skills needed to make a positive global impact and find solutions to increasingly complex world challenges, such as environmental degradation and sustainable business development. Indigenous communities are often ground zero for observing the effects of global climate change, and Native scientists educated at tribal colleges and participating in NASA and College Fund research programs are studying first-hand the impacts on water and soil quality, impacting not just the community and region, but the entire nation.

We are passionate in our belief that a higher education will ensure that the inequities of colonization can be remedied and that our current and future generations in Native communities succeed. Tribal colleges educate teachers who serve as role models in schools in Native communities, where today the majority of teachers are still non-Native. They educate health care providers who integrate traditional and western practices of medicine for effective healing practices for their communities. They educate community leaders like Kevin Killer, a member of the Lakota nation who grew up in Denver but went back to his community to attend and graduate from Oglala Lakota College. Today he serves his community as a South Dakota state legislator. Killer recognizes the importance of education in creating economically sustainable communities, saying, “Oglala Lakota College and tribal colleges in general help provide educational opportunities to members living on reservations. Without these opportunities there would be an even steeper hill to climb towards social justice. Having an institution of higher learning in so many communities around the nation is a privilege that many younger tribal members have only recently gained access to in the last 40 years. Tribal colleges serve as the impetus to many opportunities, including my own story of running for elected office. That would have been difficult at a larger institution.”

Killer is particularly interested in representing young people, as he serves a reservation with many challenges and a high birth rate (in Shannon County, half of the population was under the age of 18 in 2013) and he wants to ensure his constituents receive the representation, health care, and education they need and deserve. This past session Killer sponsored successful bills to create a paraprofessional tuition assistance scholarship program, a Native American achievement schools grant program, and instruction on South Dakota’s tribal history, culture, and government.

We at the College Fund believe that scholarships are the ultimate tool in social justice, helping to heal the wounds caused by poverty and injustice by giving students who otherwise could not afford an education opportunity and hope for a better future. The process is slow and inequality persists today—still only slightly more than 13% American Indians aged 25 and older have a college degree according to the U.S. Census—less than half of their non-Native peers (28.3%) counterparts. But like the Ford Foundation, the College Fund is committed to social justice by creating opportunities for all, and creating awareness about the transformative power an education has on entire communities and the need to support educational opportunities for all.

Global injustices exist within our own borders.  At the American Indian College Fund we stand with Native students to support scholarships and programs that help them get a higher education. We invite you to join us as we help our students to excel and go on to rebuild prosperous Native communities for today and for future generations.

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Hedgehogs & Foxes

Years ago I first saw the idea of the “hedgehog concept” in a business book, Good to Great. The authors had borrowed it from Isaiah Berlin’s essay, “The Hedgehog and the Fox.”

The idea is that the world can be divided into two types of people, hedgehogs and foxes. The fox is graceful, cunning and fleet. The hedgehog is slow and should be easy prey for the fox. But this is not the case. Despite its advantages, the fox cannot overcome the hedgehog. This is because the hedgehog knows that, no matter what happens, all that he has to do in order to defeat the fox is to curl himself into a ball and he becomes an impregnable “sphere of sharp spikes”.

a fox and a hedgehogCheckmate fox.

The lesson for the rest of us is that we must, like the hedgehog, ignore life’s many distractions and see the world for what it is. Like the hedgehog, we must know and understand ourselves. What is it that we have or know that makes us unique? What can we do better than anyone else? If we can understand what we do best (our hedgehog concept), then our program decisions should naturally flow fro
m that understanding.

The UCF Direct Connect project is an excellent illustration. The University of Central Florida (UCF), together with Valencia, Seminole, Eastern Florida State and Lake-Sumter colleges, has worked to build scholarship endowments for students to go to state college and then on to UCF to obtain a bachelor’s degree. Investors, including the Foundation, supported the program through our ideas, experience, money and reputation. This instance of joint philanthropy displays the unique qualifications and endeavors of each participant doing their best work. It is our hope that fundraising for these scholarship programs – and others like them – will continue long after the Foundation’s involvement has ended as others recognize their hedgehog concept and step up in support of the Direct Connect project’s purpose.

A few years ago, the 5 Presidents of the schools each spoke to the value and importance of this project. The most telling evidence of its importance, however, came from an incident occurring before the final agreement date. About a week before the signing was to take place, the foundation board of one of the partner colleges voted not to participate. When this message got back to the college president, she simply overruled the foundation board and signed the agreement. Opting out of this agreement was not an option for this partner college.

Grantee projects may not be dazzling feats of innovative philanthropy. Like the hedgehog, however, they should capture the essence of what we each do well in our area of philanthropy. As a result of following the hedgehog concept, philanthropic programs can make a compelling impact in their unique niche.  We should continue our efforts to nurture and improve this model.