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 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 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.
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.