Fonda Sutton is a Partner with our Public Engagement investments team.
I’ve spent my entire career working in the public education sector here in the District of Columbia for many reasons, but mainly because I believe in the brilliance of the young people of this city – and the families and communities that they represent. My love affair with this city started years ago, over many trips to visit relatives here. They were family members who migrated to DC, trading the tobacco fields of Eastern North Carolina for stable government jobs and better educational opportunities farther north. I remember Irving Street, NW long before the Target arrived, and the succession of charter schools set up shop on top of the CVS. I played with cousins in the courtyards and stoops of Mayfair and Lincoln Heights, and as a teen, begged my way into a go-go show or two.
What I knew about the public schools in DC, at that time, was the great pride my family members and their friends placed in being Roosevelt Rough Riders uptown or Woodson Warriors at their beloved “Tower of Power.” My early memories of Washington, DC also reflected the heady 70’s and early 80’s of black political leadership and power in the city, and it was a sight to behold for an impressionable, little Black girl from a deeply racist, rural southern town. So, it was relatively easy enough for me to find my way to DC for college, with relatives spread across the city.
When I found myself thrust into the highly-competitive environment of a wealthy, predominately White institution that, at times, felt disorienting, there was still easy access to the familiarity and affirmation of my relatives’ homes and neighborhoods. Being close to my relatives made it easy and rewarding for me to become immersed in work attached to those same communities. The After School Kids (ASK) Program was a partnership that linked university students with adjudicated DC youth as tutors, advocates and mentors. I fell in love with the work of the ASK Program as an undergraduate volunteer and joined the staff after graduation.
Working at ASK was an opportunity for me to be a part of the city I loved, especially working with and for young people who looked like me. Through this work, though, I was deeply disheartened by the poor educational experiences and social supports provided for those young people who could have easily been members of my own family. Looking to help my kids keep up with their schoolwork during detention or trying to get information to share with their case managers, I was completely stunned by the public school system I encountered. Having benefitted from what was, ironically, a very strong rural public school system, I didn’t recognize much in the schools here. At the time, the schools seemed, to put it mildly, chaotic. The buildings were dark, crumbling, scary spaces and the educators that I met – mostly people of color – weren’t the same educators who held high expectations for me and propelled me to spaces beyond a small southern town.
This work and my dismay around the poor conditions of the city’s education system was my inspiration to head to law school. I viewed it as a pathway to gaining a very specific set of skills – to understand the systems and policies that impact poor, Black and Brown young people’s lives and, in true Georgetown University fashion, to serve. Having a social justice mission in law school could have appeared a bit counter-cultural, but I found myself in classes focused on education law policy with Bill Taylor and poverty and juvenile justice issues with Peter Edelman. I also got a good baptism in teaching while trying to pose as a high school teacher at Duke Ellington School for the Arts, through the Street Law Clinic. That experience confirmed that my calling to education had to be outside of the classroom!
My first professional foray into education came through work in the city’s early charter school movement. I thought of the charter law here as a necessary pressure against what was, then, a perennially struggling and failing traditional school system, and helped to establish two charter schools in the city. I found my way to a national research organization that struggled to build relationships or find entry points to support local schools. The 2007 changes to the education governance structure in DC came as a welcome reorganization of schools and the supports to help them improve. For nearly 35 years, I have coursed my way through non-profit and public systems of education in this city, trying to have an impact on the lives of children who look like me.
I have been able to observe and contribute to the improvements in the system, but I think it is what I learned from the youth who first inspired my calling to the education sector that has been the strongest personal compass for me in every role I have taken on since then. I learned from my ASK kids the importance of being real in every space we occupy. I learned the importance of building deep, authentic relationships across sectors and lines of difference. I learned that trust is not earned automatically, and that it is important to be open and willing to listen and learn from others, no matter their age or station in life. I also know for sure that our children are strong, resilient and wicked smart. We can never do enough to listen to their hopes and dreams for their lives and their communities – and to pour all that we can into helping them become their best selves.
I view my current work as a funding decision-maker at Education Forward DC as a powerful lever for getting students the great schools that they deserve. By now, I care little about the sector or orientation of the schools we seek to build – but only that those schools cultivate excellence and represent the very best reflections of our children, their families and their communities. All of the rich experiences and excellent educational opportunities I’ve been given leave me with the responsibility and privilege to do this work. That I get to do it in this city – with and for the people I have loved for almost all of my life – is a rich reward.