Education Pioneers’ Founder & CEO Scott Morgan announced on May 1 that he is stepping down after nearly 15 years of leading the organization he started. His successor is Melissa Wu, currently the organization’s Chief Program Officer. We asked them to sit down and reflect on the leadership transition in mid-June. What follows are excerpted highlights from the conversation, edited for readability and length.
On the Vision of Education Pioneers
SCOTT MORGAN: Founding and leading Education Pioneers (EP) has been the greatest honor of my life, and it will always be a part of me. I can’t believe it was nearly 15 years ago that I drove up to Sacramento to file EP’s incorporation papers, armed with a vision and a logo that my mom drew. I figured I needed to stay with the organization for at least five years to get it going and make it strong enough. And here we are 15 years later. (Which I’m glad about!)
When I started, my vision was an organization that would transform the education sector through talent: leaders who could problem-solve outside of the classroom from all levels. This outside support—partnering with people very much focused on what’s happening inside the classrooms—was the driving purpose. It benefits ALL of us to make sure that every student, especially those from low-income communities and communities of color, has the opportunity for an excellent and equitable education. That was clear to me. But if I’m being honest, I never dreamed of EP being exactly what it is today: that vision backed by a powerful nationwide network of 4,000 education changemakers, supported by more than 60 equally passionate staff members.
MELISSA WU: Fifteen seems to be a magic number for us right now: I’ve been at EP for 15 months, and I’ve spent 15 years working in the education space. Over those 15 years, I keep coming back to how contextual the challenges and opportunities are that schools, students, and families face. It’s what makes me excited about our large and growing cadre of transformational leaders who can tackle these challenges in partnership with their communities.
On Shared Values
SCOTT: I’m proud of how we’ve advanced our mission over the years as a values-driven organization. That was important to me when I founded EP, that we connect Pioneers across all levels who care deeply about and exemplify our core values and that it drives our work on a daily basis.
MELISSA: Scott, our shared appreciation of EP’s core values is an important part of what made the two of us such a good team. Especially in this work, I think having clarity on core values is essential. I am personally drawn to EP’s core value of courage, specifically as it relates to the courage to lean in to honesty and candor. I firmly believe you cannot get to solutions without having the courage to name the problems we face. Naming big challenges can serve as the spark for us to tackle them—for example, the lack of diversity in leadership in the education sector—on behalf of students and families. EP has an opportunity to lean into this value both internally—how we’ve approached our work, decisions we’ve made—and as we think about our work in the sector with Fellows, Partners, and Alumni. Progress on those challenges is going to come from optimism, collaboration, and action.
It’s my intention to continue the legacy of core values through my leadership, along with the passion and optimism for what education could be that are so ingrained in EP culture.
On the Importance of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Education
SCOTT: We do ourselves and our students of color a sizable disservice when we fail to embrace and center diversity, equity, and inclusion in the education sector. The warm and inclusive embrace that I felt when I taught at St. Jude High School in Montgomery, Alabama was an incredible gift. It made me feel that I was meant to be there, even as my life experiences differed so greatly from students who I was teaching. I carried that experience with me into my work at EP, striving to lead with humility and questions. Embracing diverse perspectives and experiences is absolutely essential so that we can learn, grow, and move forward together.
MELISSA: I agree; diversity, equity, and inclusion are critical both to the outcomes we are working towards AND how we do that work. There is so much farther for us to go, but I’m so proud of the work you and the team have led to bring diverse talent into the education sector and support them once they’re there. Not everyone realizes that over our 15 year history, EP has inspired and developed more than 2,000 leaders of color (53 percent of our EP Alumni network) and we will continue to build a pipeline of leaders who reflect the communities we serve.
SCOTT: Especially when the need is so great—we know that in the fall of 2014, the percentage of students enrolled in public elementary and secondary schools who were White was 49.5 percent. And we know that leadership in organizations that participated in our report, “From Intention to Action,” does not mirror the student base. At the director level, only 39 percent of leaders are people of color. At the vice president level, the number dips to 18 percent. And at the CEO level, 25 percent of leaders are people of color. We need to do a much better job of diversifying leadership in education to better reflect the communities we serve. [Be sure to check out “Unrealized Impact,” a report released in 2017 by NewSchools Venture Fund, Promise54, and Bellwether Education Partners, for updated data.]
MELISSA: On a more personal note, diversity and equity are long-standing areas of focus and interest for me, going all the way back to one of my very first research efforts in high school. I have a deep desire to continue interrogating the systems and structures that perpetuate inequity, and thinking about how to make education a major lever in realizing the promise and great hope of an equitable society. Leading EP with equity at the center of my work will ensure we as an organization are continuing to address inequities in education, working at all levels for students who currently lack the opportunity and support to reach their full potential.
On What’s Next
MELISSA: As I step into the CEO role, I will be focused on sustaining the organization’s momentum and reach while driving new impact and finding the organization’s path to long-term sustainability. A critical part of that is to catalyze our powerful network of Alumni. I’ve seen the potential of our network long before I joined EP, as many people in my own network have been EP Fellows at different points and we hosted Fellows during my tenure at TNTP. Now that I am on staff, I am continually inspired by EP Alumni and all the people who I’ve worked with in my time at EP. We have so much to build on as we move forward.
SCOTT: I honestly couldn’t be more excited about what’s next for EP. Melissa, I’ve seen you orient those around you towards the potential of our work at EP. Like how you came in and immediately recognized we needed to reinvest in core programming, and then delivered on the Impact Fellowship within a year. So impressive. Your love and passion for the work that we do is always present. I’ll forever be a fierce champion of EP.
We are excited for you to continue to get to know Melissa! Stay tuned for more blogs and stories about Melissa in the coming months.