Abolition, Education, and Philanthropy: Reflections on our Virtual Learning Opportunity for Grantmaker Series Fall 2022

January 26, 2023

Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Director of the Center for Place, Culture, and Politics and professor of
geography in Earth and Environmental Sciences at The City University of New York, has stated,
“Abolition is not about the absence, it is about the presence.” This definition is one of many
learnings through the “Abolition, Education, and Philanthropy” series through Forefront’s
Education and Equity group. The Forefront Education and Equity Group plans programming for
both philanthropic and education nonprofit partners to educate ourselves and others on policies
and practices that create and perpetuate disparities in educational outcomes so we can promote
equitable policies that build an education system that serves all, with an emphasis on
racial/ethnic and class equity. The group is co-chaired by Fanny Diego-Alvarez, Grand Victoria
Foundation; Sonia Mathew, Robert R. McCormick Foundation; and, Brandon Thorne, W.
Clement & Jessie V. Stone Foundation.

Recognizing the importance of connection and shared learning in this unprecedented time in the
field of education, a group of twenty education funders in the Chicagoland area committed to
coming together between November and June to discuss, analyze, and learn how we can
collaboratively envision a better system to support the educational well-being of Black and
Brown students. Grounded in a peer learning experience, participants were able to build
community and trust, grapple with pressing and complex questions, and identify challenges in
our systems and solutions that are coming from the communities most impacted.

The first session on November 12th, 2021 grounded the group in “Framing a Need for
Abolition in Education.” This opening session created an understanding of the historical
context for our current model of education, defined abolition in education and explored
necessary conditions for thriving schools and philanthropy’s role in advancing these conditions.
David Stovall PhD, who is a Professor in the Departments of Black Studies and Criminology,
Law & Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago engaged in a powerful conversation with
Education and Equity co-chair, Fanny Diego-Alvarez, Director of Learning and Leadership
Development at the Grand Victoria Foundation.

The second session on February 4th, 2022 explored the “History of Policing in Schools.”
Participants also examined the relationship between policing in schools and the criminalization
of Black youth and how policing has manifested into a widely used practice despite its having
negative impacts on schools and their communities. Judith Browne Dianis, Executive Director
of the Advancement Project provided the historical context that transitioned to a rich discussion
moderated by Ashley C. Sawyer, Senior Attorney at the Advancement Project with Maria
Degillo, the Youth Director of Communities United and Voices of Youth in Chicago Education
(VOYCE) and Xanat Sobrevilla, an organizer with Organized Communities Against Deportations
(OCAD). Both Maria and Xanat discussed how communities have responded to policing
practices through organizing and advocacy efforts and also addressed how local campaigns
such as #copsoutofcps, #defundcpd, and #erasethedatabase relate to school safety for Black
and Brown students and the larger abolitionist movement. A key question that participants left
with from this session was, “What does it mean to dream of new ways of being that make our
students feel safe?”

The third session on March 4th, 2022 focused on “Building healing-centered and culturally
affirming educational spaces by and for Black and Brown communities in Chicago.”
Sarah Karp, an Education reporter with WBEZ moderated a panel with Jitu Brown, the National
Director for the Journey for Justice (J4J) Alliance and a 2015 Dyett H.S. Hunger Striker, Patricia
Buenrostro, PhD, Assistant Professor of Education at Lake Forest College and a 2001 Little
Village Hunger Striker and Tiffany Childress Price, a CPS Teacher and North Lawndale resident.
The panel illustrated school transformation efforts that have recognized community wisdom and
assets, the need to expand school-based resources and emphasized how school buildings can
be hubs of learning and healing for communities. Together, panelists affirmed that it is essential
for us to center the well-being of young people and ensure that all young people have the
freedom to determine their own futures.

The fourth session on April 1st, 2022 discussed, “Supporting School Leaders and Districts
to Build Thriving Schools.” This session explored how school leaders have implemented
innovations to build thriving schools as well as additional supports that are necessary for
sustaining school leadership. Allison Tingwall, the Executive Director of Principal Quality in
Chicago Public Schools, emphasized how to cease harmful practices in schools and how
leaders need to be supported in their own learning and professional development. Maureen
Kelleher, the Senior Writer and Editor at Brightbeam served as a moderator for a panel that
included Superintendent Minerva Garcia-Sanchez from DeKalb CUSD 428, Tai Basurto, a
former Chicago Public Schools principal that now serves as the Director of School Leader
Development in the Department of Principal Quality in Chicago Public Schools and Cynthia
Nambo, a Leadership Coach that supports many school leaders in the district. Panelists shared
a variety of abolitionist and holistic practices as school leaders, including tapping into the genius
of their school communities, employing equitable grading practices, and supporting culturally
responsive school leadership.

The fifth and final session in the series was facilitated by Hilda Franco from Convivir, LLC.
Through her facilitation, Hilda helped create a space for participants to reflect on “Abolition and
Philanthropy” and whether the pairing co-exist and how the series’ learnings could affect the
grantmaking practices of participants (and their respective institutions) moving forward. A few
reflections from this discussion that highlighted some key takeaways on the roles of funders in
this work include:

● Education for liberation means engaging students in the love of learning and using it to
develop as people, but this is not how schools are currently designed. This means
significant structural changes are needed for liberation.

● Everyone in this group has experiences they can share with others that could contribute
to liberation. Working to find ways to share that knowledge can be important.

● Abolition can mean going beyond incrementalism, thinking about how the education
system needs to be transformed, and moving clearly in that direction. The old system
needs to die, so how can participants help it die while building the new system?

● Breaking down silos to allow better communication and coordination, along with
relationship development, can help increase the pace of change. Relationships of trust
are not easy or fast to build, so the work to make them should start soon.

● Finding space for liberation work in the schools is important, as is working in navigating
relationships with people who aren’t yet ready to move on an abolition path. Those
relationships need to find a way to move with grace but also firmness when change is

● Black and Brown families and their communities need to be part of the decision-making
processes involving education, and their voices should shape how children in their
communities are educated.

● Students, parents, and teachers should all be asked how they experience liberation, and
that should form the basis of education policy.

● The intersection of power, ideas, community, resource, and policy needs to be examined
for how power can be leveraged to bring people with lived experience into policy

● One critical ongoing question will be how to affect spaces people in this group don’t
control, and how to make progress with people who do not want to move. Those can be
large sources of inertia and frustration. One way to deal with that is step by step—work
on your home, your family, your workplace, and your block, and move from there. The
connections built to other people can lead to significant change.

● Philanthropy’s primary tool is money, so people in the sector need to look at building a
space for their institutions to contribute. Partners also may need a space to heal, so
looking at how to make that space could be worthwhile. Some people in the
philanthropic sector need to be able to bring their whole selves into the workspace,
including having the time and space to heal from trauma.

● Principals may also need support to have time to reflect and to feel safer. They might
also benefit from the chance to shape their jobs to their talents and desires so they can
be the leader they need to be.

● The nation has been through a series of traumas without time to heal. Trying to do
liberation work while also dealing with and then healing from these traumas is a

While each participant engaged in their own unique way, there was shared agreement that if the
harmful policies, practices, and systems in education that disproportionately affect Black and
Brown students were “absent,” there would be more opportunity to build the equitable systems
our communities deserve. Those that are most impacted by policies and practices -the students,
parents and educators – should be considered the experts in creating the innovative solutions
that will address our most pressing educational challenges. Communities are not waiting for
philanthropy to swoop in and save them. They are building a new world every day. Our role is to
find them, shine the light on them and FUND them. This supports creating a legacy of joy and
healing in Chicago’s Black and Brown communities.

This final session served as an opportunity for participants to explore where and how they’ve
grown their thinking around the concept and practice of abolition and what it means contextually
within education systems. It also provided the opportunity for participants to reflect on their
experience in the series and think about the impact it may have had on them as individuals,
grantmakers, and empowered individuals working in philanthropic institutions.


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