Executive Director & Founder, Virginia Excels

Affiliate 757 328 7892 eva@virginiaexcels.org @evacolen

Today, Eva calls Richmond, Virginia home, but she grew up about an hour and a half southeast in Norfolk with her parents, two brothers and a variety of pets—including a sun conure named Bird D. Colen. Eva moved to New York to attend Columbia University, where she majored in Classics and Women’s and Gender Studies and was active in student government.

After a summer in which Eva read Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities and served as an SAT instructor for Legal Outreach, Eva focused her energy on educational equity. She spent her senior year of college interning with Teach For America as a campus campaign coordinator.

After graduation, Eva joined Teach For America as a high school English teacher at the Philadelphia Military Academy at Leeds, where she also started Latin and Creative Writing courses and served as the junior class advisor. Eva left the classroom to join Teach For America’s national recruitment team, which ultimately brought her home to Virginia, where she led recruitment efforts at colleges and universities across the state.

Eva worked with leadership at TFA and in Virginia government to introduce alternative certification legislation in the 2013 legislative session. After many, many hours of organizing community support and lobbying state legislators, the bill passed unanimously, and Eva was hooked on advocacy.

Eva joins 50CAN to focus her energy on creating a comprehensive public education advocacy organization to ensure that all children in Virginia have an equal opportunity to receive an excellent education. Outside of 50CAN, Eva is involved with the Urban League of Greater Richmond, Leadership for Educational Equity and sits on the YWCA of Greater Richmond’s Young Women’s Leadership Alliance. In addition to her bachelor’s degree, Eva holds a master’s degree in Urban Education from the University of Pennsylvania.

I aspire to be like Elizabeth Van Lew. Here’s why:

Elizabeth Van Lew was an abolitionist and philanthropist in Richmond during the American Civil War. As the daughter of one of Richmond’s most prominent and wealthy families, Elizabeth acted against all expectations for her geography, socioeconomic status, race and gender by actively opposing both slavery and war. Unlike other famous Virginians who spoke against slavery, Elizabeth freed all of her family’s enslaved servants well before the war.Using all of her inheritance, she purchased and then freed any enslaved relatives of those already freed by her.

During the war, Elizabeth and her mother risked their own lives not only by caring for imprisoned Union soldiers, but also by orchestrating a spy ring that helped bring down the Confederacy. Throughout it all, Elizabeth and her family faced threats of violence and death. I am humbled by Elizabeth’s bravery, boldness and integrity to act on her convictions in the face of tremendous risk.

Why I love my job:

I love my home state deeply, but the inequity in educational opportunity across Virginia makes my heart hurt. I believe that it is the task of my generation to heal the wounds still festering from Virginia’s history of racial and socioeconomic injustice. I also believe that educational equity is a critical means to achieving that task. Moreover, my work allows me to live out my personal core values every day: equity, hard work, integrity, interconnectedness and community.

I believe deeply that everyone, regardless of political affiliation or identity, shares a common humanity, and I get to figure out ways to build bridges and bring people together to work for the realization of the American Dream.

My connection to public schools:

Although my parents are the products of public schools, they chose to send their kids to private school. They sacrificed so much to ensure that we had the best educational opportunity possible. In Virginia, many parents make the same choice that mine did.

To me, a high-quality public education is a basic civil right. It shouldn’t depend on your zip code. No parent should have to move or make the choice my parents did, and no child’s educational opportunity should be limited if his or her family does not have the means that mine did. As I look to a future in which I have children, this work becomes more urgent.

What I’m bad at:

Saying “no.” I want to do it all! I have some of the worst FOMO (fear of missing out) of anyone I know.

The image that represents why I work at 50CAN:

This is a still from the little-known 1953 Disney short, “Ben and Me,” which tells the story of Ben Franklin and the Declaration of Independence from the perspective of his friend, Amos Mouse. As a child, I absolutely loved this movie and watched it over and over.

As an adult, I realize that, because of “Ben and Me” and its presentation of the founding of the United States, my earliest conception of our government included three key understandings: 1) all people are created equal; 2) government exists to secure fundamental rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and 3) anyone, even a secret mouse friend, can influence our nation’s leaders in a transformational way.

I work at 50CAN and in education advocacy because I continue to hold those three key understandings. But don’t worry, I now comprehend anthropomorphism and recognize that no mice contributed to the composition of the Declaration of Independence.

Image source: toonopedia.com