Growing up in Decatur, Georgia, Danielle Stewart came face-to-face with inequality regularly. She lived in a predominantly African-American community, yet attended a majority white independent school. Every day she walked between two worlds; an African-American one that was comfortable and accepting yet lacked resources, and a more white, affluent one that felt socially challenging but provided the academic supports that were essential to her experience.
After high school and college, Danielle came back to the Atlanta region and decided to pursue her Ed.D. in educational leadership with the intention of focusing her research on the experience of students of color in independent schools.
As part of her research, Danielle collected quantitative data that explored the perspectives of minority families and their experiences attending independent schools. This time also spurred something else in her; an idea for a business that would provide a venue for sharing resources and guidance to minority families on how to navigate the independent school experience.
Danielle realized through a lot of her work that “a lot of (non-white) families that either attended or wanted to attend these schools just didn’t know what they didn’t know.” Danielle identified many areas where supports were lacking, including a comprehensive college prep process, supports for the college experience and identification of HBCUs that could be a fit for students. In addition to these layers, receiving schools “didn’t really understand the needs and challenges of these students either.”
The whole experience continued to push her forward and now, through her YouCAN experience, she’s sought to replicate this same idea of resource sharing to level the competitive playing field for families. What started with an idea of doing a college prep clinic began to grow.
“I wanted to do something that I knew could pique interest and have a wider impact,” Danielle says, while adding that personally, “my goal was to do something with purpose and meaning.” And so she started designing workshops for families of color around some of the non-traditional topics and resources that she knew more privileged families had access to and were talking about.
She approached one of the leaders at a Dekalb County public high school about her idea. He listened, but Danielle could tell that he was “dubious.” She recalls this with a bit of a laugh, “I don’t think he thought that there would be that big of a turnout.” He was willing to give the program a chance, and by working together with a local youth organization inside the school, Danielle hosted the first clinic in January 2017. To her surprise, 40 families and students showed up; proof that she was indeed onto something.
More and more, Danielle’s work has been reflective of the need to literally meet families where they are. Working with a growing database of volunteers and organizations, Danielle brings everything from Gavel Club (a public speaking support group for kids) to college budgeting and many other courses in between to families.
The whole operation is mobile, and so Danielle and her team of volunteers will host workshops all across town at any location from a school to a rec center to a grocery store in the neighborhoods of the people who want her help. It’s a different approach than the common experience for many families where a resourced, mission-minded nonprofit might be located in a city center or somewhere else, posing their own logistical and cultural challenges.
Taking this approach is labor-intensive, but it also means that, as an outsider, Danielle has to build a lot of trust and perspective as she tries to identify how to bring clinics to new communities and neighborhoods that she’s not familiar with. The endeavor is layered: as an anchor leader or group in the community drives communication and attendance, she’s canvassing all around the area, approaching people at local grocery stores and asking them questions like “What is on your wish list about what you’d want to see in a workshop?” Or “What do you think you or your child need to get them into college?”
This approach taught her several key lessons. For one thing, it has shown her that “when you really ask the people what they want, you can build towards that vision.” Thus, all of Danielle’s workshops and clinics are formed not around her perception of community need, but around what people tell her is important to them. It’s also dispelled a common attitude about under-resourced families.
Perhaps most interesting in all of this is the relationship Danielle has formed with a local pizza franchise, where she hosts regular meetings with kids and parents about creating a plan for how to get into college. Similar to the high school gathering, it was initially met with some resistance from the local restaurant manager. The manager shared a recent story of a robbery at the store by a local teen, an experience that left her feeling disconnected from the community. Danielle pushed forward, sharing, “we’re actually trying to save more kids so they won’t feel like they have to do what he did.”
Over time the manager agreed, and now, with pizza and conversation, students and their parents talk about how to prepare for post-secondary lives. Already she’s seen the difference—and the appreciation—of again meeting people where they are. One student shared “it wasn’t until I attended (the workshop) that I had an actual plan for what to do once I go to college; I just knew that everyone says you’re supposed to go.”
As we’re wrapping up our conversation about her work, Danielle is already in the car. It’s a Wednesday evening and in the background there’s the scratchy sounds of traffic ripping around. If all her work wasn’t enough already, she has also been volunteering with GeorgiaCAN to work with families to teach them a bit of advocacy around holding schools and school professionals accountable in helping their kids get to the next level. These conversations happen both over pizza and in the communities where these families live.
I remark how much she’s done already to give back and how much she continues to do (she shares an aside that she also works on diversity training for independent schools). “I know, I know,” she laughs as she apologizes for needing to hop off and head to the pizza chat, ”but I just can’t stop.”