Friday, February 24, 2012

The Insider: Danielle Moss Lee, President and CEO of Harlem Educational Activities Fund

Our latest Insider is an education veteran, possessing significant experience in curriculum development and program design, and a commitment to expanding educational enrichment opportunities for underserved students.

Meet Danielle Moss Lee, Ed.D., President and CEO of Harlem Educational Activities Fund (HEAF), a comprehensive, non-profit, tuition-free supplemental education and youth development organization that serves high-potential, under-resourced public school students throughout New York City, particularly Harlem, Washington Heights and the Bronx. The students served by HEAF lack opportunities to reach their full potential. They face lower societal expectations, limited knowledge about the path to college, and a dearth of quality programming, among other obstacles: an opportunity gap.

Under Dr. Moss Lee's leadership, HEAF has increased its enrollment, retention, and participation among students, expanded its outreach in the community, and increased an already impressive record of college attendance among its graduates. HEAF’S track record includes a 100% graduation rate, 98% enrollment in four-year colleges and universities, and 95% complete college within six years.

She has also led her staff in expanding the curriculum to include non-traditional elective courses, broadened students’ service in the local and international communities, and increased student participation in pre-college summer programs resulting in student travel opportunities to Africa, South America, Europe, and Asia.

In recent years, the New York State Education Department, Harvard Business School Club of New York, Bank of America’s Neighborhood Excellence Initiative, New York Coalition of 100 Black Women, and New York City Comptroller John C. Liu have recognized Dr. Moss Lee and HEAF for leadership in the field of college access and innovation in the social sector. She is frequently called upon to facilitate discussions and present on leading-edge education and nonprofit practice by groups that have included the National Middle Schools Association, Black Agency Executives, Johns Hopkins University CTY, Time Warner, Bloomberg Radio, and Black Women for Black Girls.

Read on to learn how Dr. Moss Lee began her career in the nonprofit sector, how HEAF has accomplished a 100% graduation rate, and advice for those working with and mentoring today's youth.

Education: B.A. in English Literature and History with a concentration in Black Studies from Swarthmore College; M.A. and Ed.M. degrees from Teachers College Columbia University, where she completed her doctorate in Educational Leadership; Graduate of the Institute for Not-for-Profit Management Executive Level Program at Columbia Business School and completed the Harvard Business School SPNM program for non-profit executives.

Previous positions: Assistant Principal of the Grace Lutheran School, Assistant Executive Director of the Morningside Area Alliance, Director for Community and Parent Partnerships at The After-School Corporation, and Director of the CTY Goldman Sachs Scholars Program of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth.

Congratulations on your ten year anniversary at HEAF. How did you get your start in the nonprofit sector? Why did you choose it as a career?

I actually fell into the nonprofit sector as a result of wanting to make a difference in education but not seeing the public sector as the best way to make the kind of contribution I was seeking. Despite having grown up in a neighborhood where youth development and after-school programs were always available, I hadn't really considered the nonprofit sector as a career track until I started working with young people in and out of the classroom.

During your tenure, you've expanded higher education and community partnerships that include Bronx Community College, Columbia University, and the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth. What steps did you take to ensure these partnerships were successful?

The best partnerships grow out of developing strong collegial relationships and having a desire to partner with organizations that share your philosophy about what young people need, how services should be delivered and what quality looks like. We don't partner because external stakeholders put pressure on us to do so. We pursue relationships that have young people as the center of the collaboration and that help us to expand learning and youth development opportunities for them in measurable ways.

Nationwide, there is a high dropout rate among African American and Latino students. In contrast, 100 percent of HEAF students graduate from high school. How has your organization accomplished this? How can we better encourage youth to stay in school and graduate?

It may sound over-simplistic, but I think HEAF does a great job at really creating an environment where failure is not a part of the discussion. We assume that each student can and will graduate from both high school and college. We've made it socially unacceptable not to finish high school and go to a four-year college. Not only do we expect them to succeed but their friends at HEAF expect them to succeed. There's a lot of positive peer pressure to get it done. And we don't see high school graduation as the end all be all. I've said at many high school graduation celebrations that I'm proud when you finish high school on time, but if you really want to impress me and the staff at HEAF, graduate from college on time.

Dr. Moss Lee (center) with HEAF students.

What is your greatest career lesson you've learned?

The more you put young people at the center of everything you do, the less you feel the need to justify your decisions. I'm trying to be a champion for those who can't always speak for themselves. At HEAF, we're not afraid to ask ourselves at planning meetings, at evaluation meetings, in discussions, "How does this directly benefit our young people?" And we know how to walk away from things that don't put young people at the center of the work.

What advice do you have for those working with and mentoring today's youth?

Be authentic and be appropriate. Kids can spot a phony. They can also spot someone who's trying to hard. Be yourself. Be a good listener. Mentoring isn't always about sprinkling your idea of wisdom on some poor unsuspecting kid. It's also about learning for the mentor. Finally, remember, you're not a friend - you're a living, breathing example of what's possible in the world. It's okay to have boundaries and to set high expectations. Young people will respect you more in the end.

Share a success story.

Most kids come to HEAF with a parent. But, a few years ago, a young lady showed up at our program by herself. "The guidance counselor gave me several brochures from programs that say they help kids get into college. I've reviewed the material and I'm going to go with HEAF." We said, great, and asked when we could meet her mother. She told us that her mom was going through a lot and wouldn't be able to come and complete the application and interview process. We were so struck by her determination, and her work ethic (she used the money she made from her after-school job to supplement her family's income) that we decided to forego the usual process and admit her immediately. She was shy, cautious and reserved, but the staff took an interest and brought her into leadership positions and she shined.

By the time she began college, she had more scholarship money than she knew what to do with. But, she struggled that first semester because she was working more hours at the retail job she'd had in high school. After much coaxing, we convinced her that the payoff of a college degree and the financial opportunities it would open would be worth the immediate sacrifice she'd make by giving up the job. She found a job on campus and maintained a stellar GPA. When she needed extra cash, we let her work in our admissions office and gave her control over the hours she worked there. She's graduated now and started a very lucrative position in a banking institution. So many young people in New York City are hungry for something more, something better. HEAF takes the puzzle pieces of motivation, aspirations, academic ability and social development and puts them together in a coherent way so that kids reach their full potential.

Learn more about HEAF by visiting

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