At BES, our “why” has always been about equity, excellence, and access for students. But we’ve been far from where we need to be in terms of setting and living a defined, ambitious vision for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). In early 2019, we took action — for our staff, our leaders, and the schools we help to build, excel, and sustain.
We recently sat down with BES’s CEO Aasimah Navlakhi to talk about the changes BES has undergone over the past year.
BES announced last fall that it had re-branded. What was the reason behind the change, and what has the organization done since that announcement?
“When I assumed the role of CEO, I met with BES leaders past and present to find out what we’ve done well and could do better to support schools to reflect and respond to community need. These conversations illuminated a gap between BES’s stated mission and lived values, which served as the catalyst for the change in our name from ‘Building Excellent Schools’ to Build. Excel. Sustain.
Over the past 18 months, we partnered with Onward to evaluate our programs and internal operations through a DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) lens, took part in a robust strategic planning process, and committed to becoming an actively anti-racist organization. I felt in my gut that this path forward was the only way that we could support leaders to truly transform education for the students in their communities.”
What did the work with Onward reveal about how BES had fared in the past when it came to DEI — and how the organization could grow in this area?
“Something we noticed right away was a gap between BES’s vision for equity and our approach to talent and coaching. As a result, our talent team overhauled our selection process to align with this vision, and our program teams began auditing their approach to coaching, starting with centering the voices and needs of leaders of color.”
A majority of the leaders BES trains identify as people of color, and the majority of new hires at BES over the last year are people of color. Beyond just ensuring diversity in programs and on the team, what else should BES be doing to become an anti-racist organization?
“Bringing more diverse voices to the table is only step one. We must now examine our systems, practices, and policies and adjust them to ensure that those voices and perspectives are heard and honored. As we continue to work at the individual level, we must begin to assess and dismantle systems of power that have upheld and perpetuated white supremacy culture. This looks like redefining our assumptions of what a leader must look or sound like; it means setting specific goals around participant racial diversity but extends to ensuring that there are no negative gaps in program experience for leaders of color compared with white leaders; it manifests in the steps we take to seek out and learn from different approaches to the work we have been doing for decades. Other specific steps we’re taking include participating in ongoing individual, small group, and organization-wide training to tackle issues of DEI and making this a part of all the training and coaching we do.
We realized that in order to build and support anti-racist schools, we would need to examine and revise our organization’s beliefs about what makes an excellent school and an excellent leader, and how we define and measure student success. This informs our leadership training on community-centered school models and design elements, like character education frameworks, that meet the diverse needs of all students.”
BES now offers three distinct Fellowship tracks. How do these align to BES’s new commitments?
“Our goal at BES has always been the creation of more high-quality seats for Black and brown students who have been overlooked and underserved for far too long. For years, we have done this by training leaders toward opening fresh-start, standalone charter schools. We’ve now expanded our support to serve even more communities in ways that are responsive to and reflective of local need. Beyond the traditional Build Track to open fresh-start schools, Fellows can now replicate or expand an existing charter school through the Growth Track, or found a high-quality in-district school through the Autonomous School Track.
In addition to the three tracks, we’re also diversifying the types of school models we support through the Fellowship, to ensure that schools are tailored to meet expressed community needs.
This year’s cohort includes Phillip Hon, the founder of a proposed diverse-by-design school in his hometown of Stockton, CA, and Josh Pinto Taylor, who is participating in a two-year community co-design fellowship pilot in partnership with redefinED atlanta. Through this partnership, he will open a charter school built in collaboration with a local design team made up of community stakeholders.
We’re excited for the year ahead, working with communities more closely than ever before. Our student, family, and community voices must take priority as we are designing schools. It is only then that education can be truly transformative and dismantle historic systems of injustice.”
What does “build, excel, sustain” mean for the future of BES’s work?
“Simply put, it’s not enough to support the school founder to build a community-centered school. Ensuring that locally responsive schools start strong and can excel and sustain their results requires support for the existing leader and a well-equipped leadership bench to drive the school forward as it grows. To meet this need, BES offers a continuum of programs, including our yearlong, cohort-based Leaders for Emerging Networks of Schools (LENS) program for new and emerging leaders, and a la carte leadership coaching services for leaders at every stage in their journey.
This year, we’re extending our support in new ways: from executive leadership recruitment and two-day school and leadership audits, to designing and delivering custom training modules for cohorts of leaders in a district or affiliated with a local incubator or charter association. We’ve also re-envisioned our Leadership Intensives — beginning in January 2021, these two-hour virtual workshops will focus on operational leadership and adult management, both high-leverage areas that equip leaders to move the needle amidst present challenges.”
With all the changes BES has gone through, how do you ensure this work is built to last?
“We had to be thoughtful and creative about how BES can sustain its work over time, because our students and their communities deserve it. We’ve just completed a robust strategic planning process to help us do just that, through which we engaged with a variety of stakeholders, gathering diverse input at local, regional, and national levels. This process resulted in our 2020-2023 strategic plan, which lays out four main priorities, with goals and metrics attached to each.
Our first priority is to support public school leaders at all stages of their careers and in a variety of school models and settings. Our goal is to support at least 300 leaders each year, impacting 100,000 students.
Next, we are committed to practicing anti-racism in our work and ensuring our leaders do the same. We will also broaden our reach to establish BES as a well-known leadership development organization in order to impact even more communities.
Finally, we are committed to sustaining our work via an operationally efficient budget that relies on increased earned revenue and a diverse base of philanthropic support.
We also know that we cannot do this work in a vacuum. Many of us in the education space are reimagining and reassessing our work as we navigate a global pandemic and a long overdue racial reckoning. Our work will be built to last when we collaborate with partners and peer organizations toward achieving shared goals. We’re eager to learn from the work of others in the field and encourage them to reach out if they share the vision we’re hoping to actualize through our strategic plan.“
It’s easy to get discouraged during this unprecedented time. How does the BES team stay motivated and committed amidst uncertainty?
“What’s the alternative? As Lin Manuel Miranda wrote, ‘This is not a moment; it’s the movement.’” We cannot be satisfied with the status quo and we mustn’t let up — the stakes are too high. We are energized by the actions and advocacy of BES leaders who have navigated challenges with grace and strength. Their dedication inspires tremendous hope in us. We are also inspired by the students and families we encounter every single day, whose words and actions remind us why we do this work. We aim to be an organization that similarly inspires our leaders and partners.”