50CAN is, at its heart, about leadership. It’s about finding and supporting local education reform leaders who build movements within their states to ensure that every child has access to a great public school. We provide these amazing local leaders with the tools to build powerful advocacy movements, including national-caliber communications and research such as websites, lobbying strategies, policy expertise and social media savvy. By empowering local leaders, we are helping create a true, lasting, effective state-based education reform movement tackling 50 sets of education policy challenges in 50 states.

So, as we officially launch 50CAN to the public, what we are probably most excited about introducing is our inaugural crop of the first four state executive directors: Minnesota’s Vallay Varro, Rhode Island’s Maryellen Butke, New York’s Christina Grant and Maryland’s Curtis Valentine.

Their names above link to pretty extensive, fun bios we put together for them to help you get to know the Fearless Four. One of the questions we asked them was which advocate – in any sphere of life – they aspire to be like. Here’s what they said:

Christina Grant, NYCAN: “I aspire to be like Mamie Till-Mobley: here’s why”

During my third year of teaching I picked up a copy of “Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America.” I think everyone knows the story of Emmett Till and his senseless killing, but hearing the words of his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, truly changed my life. After a devastating loss she could have become an angry recluse or lived a life filled with loss. Instead she became a teacher and believed that though she’d lost a son, she had the power to change lives through education. I walk with that belief daily and her words comprise my life’s mission:

“We cannot afford the luxury of self-pity. Our top priority now is to get on with the building process. My personal peace has come through helping boys and girls reach beyond the ordinary and strive for the extraordinary. We must teach our children to weather the hurricanes of life, pick up the pieces, and rebuild. We must impress upon our children that even when troubles rise to seven-point-one on life’s Richter scale, they must be anchored so deeply that, though they sway, they will not topple.”

Vallay Varro, MinnCAN: “I aspire to be like Mee Moua: here’s why”

I aspire to conduct myself in the likeness of Minnesota State Senator Mee Moua, the first Hmong American woman elected to state office. Senator Moua spent her tenure advocating for policies that affect middle-class Minnesotans, the working poor and young people. Her small stature and booming voice provided leadership and recognition for young emerging leaders across a broad spectrum of social and political issues. Moua secured a historical milestone for Hmong Americans with her successful election and used her post to forge bridges across cultures and nations with her thoughtful understanding and public messaging that one’s political identity can not be separated from one’s personal identity. Those who knew her integrity and commitment to the democratic process look upon her legacy fondly and I’m especially honored and lucky to have her as my big sister.

Curtis Valentine, MarylandCAN: “I aspire to be like Bobby Kennedy: here’s why”

Though the Kennedys are given credit for redefining how Americans view public service, perhaps Bobby Kennedy’s most famous speech was given at the University of Cape Town during the height of the apartheid regime. Highlighting the relationship between apartheid South Africa and the Jim Crow South, Kennedy was able to weave together two societies that had yet to fulfill their social contracts with their citizens. In that moment, Kennedy was the ultimate bridge builder. I admire Kennedy for his ability to be a calming spirit in the midst of tragedy and confusion. In his speech on the night of Dr. King’s death, Kennedy knew he would be the first person to tell a group of African Americans in Indianapolis, Indiana of King’s death and he did so like no one else could. Indianapolis was the only large city in America to not have a riot that week. I also admire Bobby Kennedy for his ability to see the dignity of those less fortunate. During his tour of the Mississippi Delta, Kennedy demonstrated with actions, not just words, that all Americans deserve the best, not just the few. I perhaps relate the most to Kennedy’s most famous quote: “There are those who look at things the way they are and ask why? I dream of things that never were and ask why not.”

Maryellen Butke, RI-CAN: “I aspire to be like Harriet Tubman: here’s why”

Harriet Tubman was an African-American abolitionist and humanitarian during the American Civil War. After escaping slavery, she returned south to rescue more than 70 slaves and bring them to freedom. Through her relationships with antislavery activists and safe houses, the “Underground Railroad” was born. After securing her own freedom, she gave up what she won in order to reach back and save others, with an awareness that none of us is free until we are all free. I believe this principle to my core. Having fought to ensure that my own two children have the best possible educational opportunities, I now want to ensure that every Rhode Island child gains access to those same opportunities.


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