A member of Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney’s transition team has launched an advocacy organization aimed at improving education.

Eva Colen, who advised Stoney on education issues and helped with the creation of the highly touted Education Compact, will serve as the executive director of Virginia Excels, an organization being launched Tuesday. The organization, funded through a Robins Foundation grant in its incubation, aims to improve racial and socio-economic justice in the Richmond region.

Colen held what she called a listening tour around Richmond while feeling compelled to get into education advocacy after seeing the scope of challenges those in education face. So she sought out to change the system.

“As we drive out of the phase of incubation and into operation, we’re looking at creating opportunities for the average person to be engaged in policy change, like bringing families to the table,” Colen said. “Breaking it down to Public Education 101.”

After graduating from Columbia University in New York City, Colen was a high school teacher in Philadelphia before recruiting teachers to high-poverty public school districts. She’s a member of YWCA Richmond’s Racial Justice Task Force and the YWCA Young Women’s Leadership Alliance.

The advocacy organization she now leads brings together her passions of education and social justice.

“It’s an effort to advance justice and equity at every corner,” Colen said. “So it’s not just advocating for policies because they’re easy to advocate for, but specifically advancing equity in our region.”

Virginia Excels plans to focus its initial lobbying on the Richmond area and with the Virginia General Assembly. The organization’s near-term priorities include partnering with community organizations and working to improve the state’s education funding formula.

Colen said education is in a tough spot because of the number of levels of governance, from federal to state to local school boards.

“We’re often not talking about what we intend to be talking about in education. We have so many policies that have stayed the same because we don’t understand them,” she said. “So it’s working to better understand policies to actually find solutions to concerns.”

Virginia Excels was incubated through a $160,000 grant from The Robins Foundation, a Richmond-based family foundation that awards a $500,000 annual grant for an innovative approach to unmet community needs or issues.

Colen’s idea for Virginia Excels was a finalist for the top prize. Fundraising will finance the organization after the grant money runs out, she said.

Kelly Chopus, CEO of The Robins Foundation, said the foundation’s board was looking to get into the advocacy part of education after not seeing all the desired results in programming.

“We’re thrilled that Virginia has this,” Chopus said. “We’re excited to see the opportunities that transform education for all of our kids.”

She added that she likes the customization of Colen’s advocacy plan in creating a loop so that those on the ground in education — teachers, staff and students — have their voices heard by public officials.

“There’s a deep need to address education differently in Virginia, and especially in Richmond,” Chopus said. “Education is the way out (of poverty), and we’ve got to figure out a way to make education accessible and equitable for everyone.”

“We think that doing something like Virginia Excels absolutely could be one of those ways to support kids and their families.”

While the organization has just launched, Colen hopes its focus can soon make direct change.

“If we’re able to do some cool stuff in Richmond that drives equity and justice for kids in schools and then we’re able to scale that through state legislation, we’ll have the opportunity to make a huge impact,” Colen said.

This story originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch

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