Kent McGuire and Na’ilah Suad Nasir: Pioneers in education philanthropy

This conversation is part of a series featuring Hewlett Foundation staff and partners discussing race in our work and lives. It features Kent McGuire, program director of our Education Program, and Na’ilah Suad Nasir, president of the Spencer Foundation. Kent and Na’ilah have been colleagues and academics in the same education and philanthropy circles for years. They recently sat down together via Zoom to discuss their journeys, how things differed for them as leaders of color, and how education impacted their career directions and their personal motivations. Read excerpts and watch video clips from their conversation below. 

Kent and Na’ilah share stories about how serendipity and pragmatism often intersect when it comes to careers in education.

Building a Career in Education

Kent McGuire: I thought, very early on, as early as when I was at the University of Michigan, that I was going to find myself in business or on Wall Street. My interest in economics morphed into an interest in the economics of education. And off I went from there.

Na’ilah Suad Nasir: [“Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality”] was life-changing for me, which is kind of ridiculous to say, like this academic text, but it was the first time I had read a book — that I didn’t realize was scholarly work but was scholarly work — that reflected my reality so deeply. I was one of a couple of Black kids in the honors classes, because I advocated for myself to be in those classes. And so that book really spoke to the reality I was living as a high school student, which piqued an interest for me in education. I always thought I would be a teacher, that was my plan.

Kent and Na’ilah reflect on how being hired as leaders of color in legacy organizations is both daunting and requires trust.

Being a Leader of Color in Philanthropy

Kent McGuire: I felt like I was in a better institutional context to work on the problems the way I understood it than go to Hewlett. But then I met Larry Kramer. He persuaded me that this is a place you can come to, and if you do your best thinking and work hard, you’ll have the tools to go after the things you care about in the ways you want to go after them. So I said yes.

Na’ilah Suad Nasir: It’s important in any job to be working in a place where you feel like you can trust leadership. But I think it’s particularly important when you are a leader of color, leading an organization that hasn’t historically been led by a leader of color, because that trust in your sensibilities, in your values, and you brought to Hewlett a deeper and fuller kind of equity lens from my vantage point. And so knowing that the hire isn’t just about so that they can check the box and say, okay, we got one, right? That is actually about really honoring what that means for the perspectives that you bring. And in some ways, your deep equity lens requires a much more complex diagnosis of the problems of education. But then also it has to be much more ambiguous solutions. And how has that, first of all, is that right? And second of all, how has your equity lens impacted the approach you’ve taken strategically?

Kent McGuire: I do think it’s right … I’m inclined to say it this way, Na’ilah, I’ve endeavored to reveal the complexity that is real, that is actually there. Right? Which, of course then makes trying to work on it from a philanthropic perch more complicated, right? The incentives, oddly, in philanthropy, I would argue, push you to run away from the complexity.

I’m sort of proud of the moves I’ve tried to make to engage the complexity that is real. And I’m more than a little anxious about how to develop the impact story that I know Hewlett wants to be able to tell. Right? We work for defined periods of time, which gives me even more urgency with respect to that. I don’t want to be one of the few people of color to sort of come in and lead a program and then do it so badly that the only thing I persuaded the foundation is they should turn their attention to a different problem.

Na’ilah Suad Nasir: I hear you, I hear that, because that’s always the anxiety, right? That like, I’m not going to live up to this thing, especially when your hire has these symbolic aspects to it where people are really rooting for you and wanting to see what you’re going to do that’s going to be different. But I imagine the more realistic risk around the impact measurability problem, is that when you’re working on these complex problems of inequality, of racial inequality, you plant the seeds that then get built upon. And whether those seeds are changing the discourse of how we’re diagnosing the problem of building new kinds of knowledge-sharing networks and collaborations for school leaders, that stuff is … The things we are going to do that are going to create real change, there’s a longer time horizon to that change.

I guess the question is, are we comfortable understanding that problems like racial inequality that took generations to build and seed into the fabric of the United States, may take generations to get out of? And our job isn’t to fix it, because that’s not feasible, and if we think we can do that, then we’re fooling ourselves and trying to fool everybody else with us. But our job is to turn the tide and figure out what some of the core building blocks are. And that feels like in some ways, what’s been so special about this time, about this kind of post-2020 with the pandemic and the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. There’s all of a sudden a more widespread recognition that these problems are big and deep and long-standing, and we have to dig in.

Kent McGuire: Hewlett does take the long view. This nuanced dance between picking really important, complex problems and working on them over time, while bringing fresh eyes to those problems along the way.

There’s a measure of personal accountability about the things I want to make sure happen, but I’m not worried Hewlett is going to turn and run … In fact, one might argue that the foundation is visibly making bigger commitments around questions of race, inequity, and justice that extend beyond the Education Program.

Kent and Na’ilah share the importance of mentorship and what it means to be “pioneers” in academia.

Pioneers in Academia

Kent McGuire: I was curious what that was like. What being a woman with kids while trying to move up the academic ladder, how that felt. How did it feel?

Na’ilah Suad Nasir: And I was not only a woman, right? I was a Black woman. I was a Black woman who at the time was a practicing Muslim. So my hair was covered and people just didn’t get that confluence of things. And as you point out, I was a mom. I feel like, I think partly because I approached it, like, oh, this is a great job. What I wanted was a job. And being a professor is an amazing job. You have summers off, you can balance the needs of your kids with work. I had this rhythm where I was commuting from the East Bay to Palo Alto. So I would get up at maybe six in the morning, leave the house by 6:30, get to campus. And then I would get back in time to pick the kids up from school, dinner, bath, feed, family time, and then I would write from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. I didn’t do that every night because I would have been exhausted. But that was my rhythm, that was when I got the writing done was kind of in the middle of the night. And I was really grateful to have a job that allowed me to balance things in that way.

But it was, I mean, Stanford was relatively conservative. I realized early on that my being there mattered, because students needed to see someone who was young-ish — I was 28 when I started with Stanford. Who was a person of color, who was a woman, who had kids, because there weren’t that many examples at the time of women who had careers in the academy and families. And that mentoring of students and what it meant for me to be there for the students, was the thing that actually really I connected to first in that line of work. It’s like, oh, it matters that I’m here. It matters to make this place more humane for students. I had amazing mentors … We used to host dinners for the Black faculty at Stanford across departments. We’d do it at [Arnetha Ball]’s house, I would cook, and so we built community there.

Kent McGuire: I’m jealous of you in that respect because I just don’t think I had that really, no mentors. It’s not that I didn’t get advice, but I made a lot of my decisions by committee. And then I’d enter into an extended conversation with them about, “Does this make sense for me to do? Why? What do you think would happen to me?” And I did that a number of times, but I can’t point to a person or two who was available for me in those kinds of ways. I don’t know if I wasn’t good at looking for them or if they just weren’t there.

Na’ilah Suad Nasir: It’s not a whole generation, but there’s enough time there, that by the time I was coming through, there were folks in places who could create and provide that. You were like, generation one, in terms of integrating these professional spaces, I imagine. So you were probably that for those that came after you.

Kent McGuire: That has been an obligation I feel ever since is to be for a whole bunch of people what I did not have. I always felt like I was creating new space. Roles I wasn’t sure I was supposed to be in but willing to figure them out if it would give me a new angle on how to work on the things I cared about.

Kent and Na’ilah discuss where they see opportunity and challenges, as well as cause for optimism, in education scholarship.

Opportunity and Optimism in Education Research

Na’ilah Suad Nasir: I have been struck with how faculty life has shifted over the past decade, where I think it used to be that scholars had a little more time to think, and a little more bandwidth to think together. I think one of the big problems is that scholars are siloed. And that workload issue contributes to the siloing. Because there’s just not the bandwidth to have the same kinds of intellectual exchange and conversations that folks would want to have. And siloing is part of just par for the course in the way universities operate. But siloing by discipline, by generation, by department, by school — that kind of siloing doesn’t facilitate working on or solving the big problems of our society. Because you really need sociologists, psychologists, and economists and a story. You need all of the perspectives to think about what might be a productive direction forward.

Kent McGuire: The incentives all run toward working in isolation of others. And the kinds of problems I’ve always been interested in working on are the ones you can’t work on alone.

Na’ilah Suad Nasir: Which are the most important ones. And that’s, I mean, that’s the wonderful opportunity about Spencer, because those incentive structures you speak to, we can work on that, that’s something we can work on. And I actually think there are many university leaders, deans, provost, presidents, who are also very interested right now in cultivating the context by which scholars can work deeply on the big problems of our society. So I think there’s a nice potential movement there that we can build on.

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