Nicole Allen – Providence, Rhode Island

Nicole Allen is an activist and grassroots organizer who advocates for open education, the idea of leveraging the free and open exchange of knowledge to improve teaching, learning and access to educational opportunities. She is currently Director of Open Education at SPARC, a global coalition dedicated to making open the default in research and education.

Inspired by the idea of open education as an undergraduate student, Nicole’s career began in 2006 at the Student Public Interest Research Groups, where she worked with students across the U.S. to organize grassroots campaigns on higher education affordability and helped pass state and federal legislation to reform anti-consumer practices by the textbook publishing industry. She also worked on non-partisan voter registration efforts during the 2006, 2008 and 2012 elections.

Nicole joined SPARC in 2013 to develop a program on open education, working with a membership of more than 200 academic and research libraries. Under Nicole’s leadership, SPARC has been a driving force behind numerous state and federal open education policy achievements and also launched a first-of-its-kind professional development program for the growing field of open education librarianship.

Nicole graduated from the University of Puget Sound in 2006 with a degree in Philosophy. She is almost always on the go but is most frequently found between her home in Providence, Rhode Island and SPARC’s Washington, DC headquarters.

Walter Blanks – Columbus, Ohio

Walter Blanks is finishing his senior year at Mount Vernon Nazarene University where he is majoring in Journalism and Media Production. A member of the American Federation for Children’s (AFC) inaugural class of Young Alumni Speakers, Walter is currently an AFC Voices for Choice Fellow.

As a child, Walter had many difficulties in his public school system. He routinely was in detention, his parents were called into numerous meetings to discuss his behavior and the staff had little patience for him. Walter felt discouraged in the classroom and says, “It was very difficult for me to have a sense of purpose.”

After coming home from school one day with a ripped shirt, his mother decided something had to change. Walter went on to receive a scholarship through Ohio’s EdChoice Scholarship program. In his own words, “To say school choice has changed my life would be an understatement and a disservice to what it has truly done for me and my family.”

As a college student, Walter works multiple jobs, including working with AFC. Walter has met with Senators, Members of Congress, Capitol Hill staff and the U.S. Department of Education to advocate for expanding school choice. He has also served as a panelist and speaker on the subject at numerous events on Capitol Hill and around the country. Walter is also very involved on the state level, working very closely with School Choice Ohio and testifying in support of House Bill 200.

Annie Graham – Phoenix, Arizona

Annie Graham is currently the College and Development Coordinator at the Western School of Science and Technology, where she also taught 10th Grade English Language Arts. WSST is located in the Maryvale neighborhood of Phoenix, Arizona, and is dedicated to ensuring that all students are ready for college and career after high school graduation.

As College and Development Coordinator at Western, Annie is building a program to track and promote post-secondary success for every student, most of whom are first generation college students.

Though she was born and raised in Phoenix, Annie earned her Bachelor of Arts in English from Stanford University and her Master in Teaching from the University of Washington in Seattle. She taught 6th and 7th Grade Social Studies in Seattle Public Schools prior to moving back to Phoenix. With experience teaching in district and charter models of public education, she is interested in making quality school options available to all students.

Annie currently lives with her wife and dog in Phoenix, Arizona, where they get to spend free time with family and friends.

Emory Edwards – Indianapolis, Indiana

Emory Edwards is the Outreach Director for EdChoice, a non-profit, nonpartisan organization driven to advance a K-12 education system where all parents, regardless of race, origin or family income are free the choose a learning environment that works best for their family. A creative strategist by nature, Emory uses his 15 years-plus experience of marketing and event planning to inform and build partnerships with community leaders and organizations around educational choice.

Aside from his work with EdChoice, Emory is very active in the Indianapolis community. He currently serves as the President of the Board for the Martin Luther King Community Center. He is an active member of 100 Black Men of Indianapolis, where he has served as the Special Events Chairperson for the past six years and has served as a committee member/mentor for The 100’s Beautillion Militaire program since 2008. Emory is also a member of The Exchange at the Indianapolis Urban League and has served on the Board of Directors for The Madame Walker Theatre. Emory has also served on numerous planning committees and other volunteer roles during his 12 years in Indianapolis.

Emory earned his Bachelors of Business Administration from Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia. In his spare time, he enjoys spending time with family & friends and traveling. Originally from Albany, Georgia, Emory currently resides in Indianapolis with his wife Chantelle and their two children, Emory Michael and Cadence.

Evy Valencia Jackson – Denver, Colorado

Evy has worked in the Colorado education space since 2011. In her most recent role, she served as a fellow with Gates Family Foundation. As a fellow, she assisted with the launch of Blue School Partners, the local quarterback organization. At Blue School Partners, Evy was responsible for the development of a community engagement and advocacy strategy to grow great public schools in Denver.

From 2015 to 2017, Evy served as a Senior Policy Advisor for Governor John Hickenlooper, where she provided policy and legislative analysis, communications guidance, political strategy and general support on issues related to education and human services. In that role, she facilitated the workforce and education cabinet working group and led key “cradle to career” priorities for the administration.

Evy has served as the Colorado Commissioner for the Education Commission of the States and as an appointee to the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children. She currently serves on the board of Rocky Mountain Prep in Denver.

Evy was born in Chihuahua, Mexico. She immigrated to the U.S. at a young age and has made Colorado home since the mid-’90s — before it was cool.

Shaundraya Hersey – Memphis, Tennessee

Shaundraya Hersey was born and raised in the small town of Marks, Mississippi—but spent several years of her childhood growing up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Memphis. She is a dedicated wife and mother and it is because of the love and support from her husband, daughter and other family members that she has been able to pursue her longtime goal of using the law to improve public education. She currently works as a legislative clerk with Shelby County Schools where she hopes to begin her legal career after graduation. While in law school Shaundraya has participated in Street Law’s Alternative Spring Break and Advocacy Camp and she has been a member of BLSA and AWA.

Before law school, she spent seven years teaching secondary Language Arts and Social Studies in her home state and in Tennessee. She worked tirelessly to inspire her students to always give their best and she developed innovative and structured lessons that pushed them to move beyond the required standards. While teaching, Shaundraya also served as a mentor to developing teachers and worked with these young professionals to help develop their craft and improve their areas of refinement.

Shaundraya spends her free time volunteering with education policy and advocacy organizations in Memphis. She is the President of the Parent Transformation Team for TennesseeCAN and a member of the Stand for Children Tennessee Election Committee. Shaundraya enjoys reading novels and poetry, attending sporting events, decorating parties and events for friends and spending days at the park with her family. She holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Southern Mississippi and a master’s in education from William Carey University.

Michele Mason – Newark, New Jersey

Since taking over as executive director of the Newark Charter School Fund in 2016, Michele Mason has worked diligently to ensure that every student in Newark is enrolled in a great school that prepares them for college and their future careers.

By elevating the voices of parents across the city and working collaboratively with charter and district school leaders, city officials, businesses and community organizations, Michele and the Fund have led the continued evolution of a high-quality charter sector that increases public-school choices to meet every family’s needs and accelerates systemic change to the benefit of all.

Among her accomplishments are working with the charter sector and Newark Public School district to promote equity and widen opportunity by creating a parent-friendly universal enrollment system through which a single application can be used for almost all charter and district schools and the establishment of the New Jersey Special Education Collaborative targeted at improving services to students with special needs in Newark and across the state.

Much of Michele’s effort now is devoted to helping the sector navigate the return to local control after more than two decades of the state running Newark’s schools.

A New Jersey native, Michele is a longtime advocate for high-quality education options throughout the state whose experiences ignited a fire to support, inspire and enable kids who deserve the best opportunities possible. Prior to joining NCSF, she served as deputy director of JerseyCAN, a nonprofit organization that connects education leaders with the information they need to enact policies that will make great schools available to all New Jersey children.

In 2002, Michele became the first director of college placement at the KIPP Academy in the Bronx, NY. She spent the next 10 years as a counselor supporting first-generation, college-bound students at KIPP and other institutions, including two years as director of college access and success at Newark’s North Star Academy. She also spent two years leading the alumni affairs team at Teach for America – New Jersey, where she was charged with motivating and inspiring almost 1,000 TFA alumni across the state.

In 2014, the Black Alliance for Educational Options awarded Michele a yearlong Bailey Sullivan Leadership Institute Fellowship as part of a program that prepares and advances the skills of educational leaders to serve as passionate and effective advocates for change. Michele serves on the boards of the Newark Education Trust, New Jersey Charter School Association and on NJPAC’S subcommittee on Arts & Education. She is a proud auntie, Philadelphia Eagles fan, and Newark resident.

Michele received her bachelor’s degree from the College of William and Mary, where she was a four-year letter winner on the varsity soccer team. She has a master’s degree in education policy and management from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education and an advanced certificate in nonprofit business management from Washington University-St. Louis.

Michael Phillips – Baltimore, Maryland

Michael Phillips is the Senior Pastor of Kingdom Life Church (KLC), a non-denominational congregation in Baltimore, Maryland. Under Phillips’ stewardship, Kingdom Life has grown into a thriving faith community brimming with passion for social justice. Dedicated to revitalizing urban decay in West Baltimore and beyond, KLC touches lives through more than 50 outreach ministries. From stocking food pantries to mentoring small business owners, their mission is simply this: Helping People to Live a Better Life!

Leading by example, Phillips has become a champion for education reform. He currently serves on the Maryland State Board of Education and the board of Green Street Academy. He is the chair and co-founder of Faith Leaders for Excellent Schools and the board chair of the nationwide education advocacy organization, 50CAN. Phillips is driving a national dialogue on education reform because quality education is a moral obligation that our country cannot afford to ignore.

Kathleen Quirk – New York, New York

Kathleen Quirk is chief of staff at New York City’s Partnership Schools. In this role she supports a network of urban Catholic schools as they focus on academic rigor, character- and values-driven education, operational effectiveness, and school culture. Previously, Kathleen consulted across corporate, government and nonprofit sectors with Cambridge Leadership Associates (CLA), a firm started by Harvard Kennedy School faculty. Kathleen was Chief Operating Officer at CLA, focused on management operations and growing the business.

Kathleen has worked at the New York City Department of Education as Special Assistant to Chancellor Joel I. Klein and later in the Office of Accountability. While with the NYCDOE, she managed the 2006-2007 district-wide winning application for the Broad Prize in Urban Education and worked closely with the governing body, the Panel for Education Policy. Kathleen previously held positions at the University of California Berkeley and at an elementary school in West Oakland, California.

Kathleen was awarded a Forté Fellow Scholarship as she completed her MBA at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, was a Coro Fellow in Public Affairs in New York City, a member of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from the College of the Holy Cross. She remains an active alumnus of the Coro Leadership Center and she is a founding board member of Ascend Learning and network of charter schools in Brooklyn.

Luke Ragland – Denver, Colorado

Luke Ragland is the President of Ready Colorado (ReadyCO), an education policy organization based in Denver. ReadyCO is the leading conservative voice for education reform in Colorado. The organization supports conservative education reform champions and advocates for the needs of students and families. During his tenure at ReadyCO, Luke has helped author and pass numerous policies that expand school choice and improve taxpayer accountability. He is a regular commentator on political and policy debates across the state.

Prior to joining ReadyCO, Luke served as Vice President of Policy at Colorado Succeeds, a coalition of business leaders focused on improving the state’s education system. He led the organization’s legislative, judicial, and policy strategies, all aimed at expanding choice and opportunity for Colorado’s students. He also served on the state’s Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) Hub Committee, which was tasked with writing and submitting Colorado’s ESSA plan.

Previously, Luke practiced complex commercial litigation at a law firm in Denver. He represented Fortune 100 clients in a variety of business disputes in state and federal court. He also spent time working in the White House, where he authored policy and political briefs for President George W. Bush and other cabinet-level officials.

Luke serves as board chair for Colorado’s statewide charter school authorizer, which oversees 41 schools across the state. He received his undergraduate degree from Colorado State University and law degree from the University of Colorado. Luke is a fourth-generation Coloradan who grew up working for his family’s logging company in rural southwestern Colorado. He currently lives in Denver with his wife and daughter.