An Interview with Gislaine Ngounou, Vice President, Strategy and Programs, Nellie Mae Education Foundation
In this interview, Gislaine Ngounou reflects on her leadership trajectory as it has been informed by her Cameroonian roots and lived experiences as an immigrant and a Black woman, and how those unique perspectives have influenced how she moves through the world as a truth teller and freedom fighter.
Gislaine Ngounou, Vice President, Strategy and Programs, Nellie Mae Education Foundation
Bridge Builder. Justice Seeker. Lifelong Learner.
Tell me about your current role?
I’ve been at the Nellie Mae Education Foundation for just over a year and my role consists of 3-4 things: helping to design and guide the implementation of a new strategy aligned to our mission, vision, racial equity principles, core values and goals that the board and staff adopted with community input. I was brought on to develop strategy, determine how to build internal capacity while managing organizational change, and deepen our definition and practice of stakeholder partnerships to be in service to the communities we seek to serve. My work primarily lives at the intersection of strategy design, internal capacity building, and operationalizing what it means to do adaptive work and how to build our own skills and competencies around racial equity. Another piece of the work is working with others to better understand how to shift the roles and power that philanthropy holds in relationship to the K-12 education landscape.
If there was a soundtrack of greatest hits related to your career, what would make the list?
This is an awesome question! I cannot sing to save my life, but I love music and am a dancer.
“Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” by McFadden & Whitehead: It’s Old School and reminds me of the Ghanaian principle of Sankofa of looking back to the past to inform the future. It speaks to self-determination and the power of Black and marginalized people. I love the lyrics which are almost like a Negro spiritual to me. That gets me fired up.
“Something Inside So Strong” by Labi Siffre: Siffre, a South African who wrote the song during apartheid, reminds me that no matter how big the barriers are, our people will always rise up. It resonates as it was a daily ritual from my time working with the Children’s Defense Fund with Freedom Schools.
A daily anthem for me is “Ella’s Song” by Sweet Honey in the Rock. Ella Baker is an inspiration. Her life and leadership in the movement for freedom and liberation inspire my practice. Ella was/is considered a leader behind the scenes, but we know that she was instrumental in strategizing and organizing young people and others during the Civil Rights Movement. She was such a badass. The song, which speaks to “we who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes,” really honors who she was as a person and tells the stories of her values.
Every song India Arie puts out is music to my soul. I think “I Choose” came out when I was in my late twenties and it was so apropos speaking to dreams….how every moment is a choice and deciding in the moment when you reach that fork in the road to be as authentic as possible in everything you do. Another song by her, “Strength, Courage and Wisdom,” are required on a daily basis as part of my personal and professional trajectory.
Work in the social sector can be very personal and linked to one’s values. Can you think of a time when your values were in tension and how you reconciled that tension or not?
When it comes to the social sector, I feel like my values are almost always in tension and I am reminded daily about why that might be the case. At the end of the day, we operate in the USA and we live under a white supremacy context that has shaped and perpetuates beliefs, policies, and practices that are harmful. My own sense of values has been formed at the intersection of being proudly African – I was born and raised in Cameroon – and I have come to love and deeply appreciate identifying as a Black woman in America in sisterhood with other Black people. There is a tension and purpose I feel daily to radically transform the system we live in.
One explicit example is from my time in a school system that was recognized for many of its well-resourced high performing magnet schools, but this same system was also home to schools that were deemed to be some of the most underperforming in the country. The sad reality was that state laws and mandates upheld integration practices that ensured more resources were diverted to certain schools and areas in order to attract suburban families (i.e.: White and Asian) while predominantly Black and Latinx neighborhoods were left grossly under-resourced and blamed for their conditions and outcomes. At times, I had to I really sit and think about my level of complicity in maintaining a system or tale of two cities/school systems to the detriment of my people. I found myself being very vocal and refusing to sit at some tables because the agenda wasn’t focused on rectifying the unintended consequences of what was happening. There were ‘the haves and have nots’ and most of the ‘have nots’ looked like me. I had to figure out how to navigate and strategize in order to create space for honest conversations so that we could get more resources to places that needed them the most.
Can you share an experience in the workplace where you have had to reclaim your time? What was the context? How did you navigate it?
I opt not to sit at certain tables. Without naming the organization explicitly, I worked at an organization where I was the only Black woman in a leadership role. I was often asked to lead learning around social justice and racial equity, which is a skill set I have, but it was important that I position myself to make clear that it’s not the work of one person and especially not just for people of color to lead. I work hard at not being tokenized all the time and even though it still happens and I sometimes go along, it is important that I challenge assumptions made about whose work it is to move people in their understanding and practice of antiracist work. In this instance, I was asked to lead a workshop/training session for our board. Some board members were willing to come to the conversation since the organization had named social justice and equity as values; some board members were resistant.
They asked the only Black woman in the organization to hold this conversation in that space. I was clear that if I do all this work, I’m going to come to it fully and it’s not going to be fluff. I was clear that I was not going to waste my time by engaging in a perfunctory act just to be politically correct; we were going to go there and have the necessary tough conversations. I wore my “Reclaiming My Time” Maxine Waters t-shirt under my suit to the training as a silent act of disruption and resistance to continuing to just exist in the status quo of the culture, but also as a source of fuel and courage.
What’s your approach to self-care? Are there any rituals you use to survive and thrive?
I am a work in progress when it comes to self-care. This is important because I have learned some lessons the hard way through burnout and health challenges. I’m proud of how over the last few years I have leaned into my love of music and dance to ground myself. I love rhythms that stem from my people…live drumming or music that has rhythms and lyrics that speak not only to the pain and resilience of our people, but also to our beauty, brilliance, and joy.
My faith is really important to me. I try to create space and time for prayer, silent reflection, and expression of gratitude. I started a gratitude practice a few years ago and wasn’t really committed to it but realized that when I pause to do it that I am filled with love for people in my life and that I can also appreciate the struggles that come along and help to build me into who I am and who I continue to become.
Spending time with my loved ones, family, friends, and the magical circle of sisterhood in my life. I feel a strong connection with the women in my life probably because I was raised by a strong mother, aunts, and grandmothers, and I also have female mentors that have been instrumental to my development. I have been incredibly blessed to cultivate a network of sisters that allows me to survive and thrive, speak truth and pour love into me when I feel depleted, and I can do the same for them. I am also learning to embrace the notion that therapy is self-care and I’m committing to getting myself to therapy this year so I can have space to take my mind beyond what’s available to me in my personal life.
How would you describe the type of ancestor you want to be and why?
I felt this question deeply. Honestly, I don’t necessarily stop on any given day to think about the kind of ancestor I want to be. Because of my identity, I’ve had the experience where I am a bridge between two cultures…where there are love and challenges in both. The type of ancestor who was a bridge builder. The type of ancestor that my future lineage and future generations remember as someone who was really committed to her God-given purpose, even in times of great fear…the type who modeled what it looked like to live my truth and live life to the fullest even when everyone does not understand. If it feels true and grounded in respect to self, history and culture, then yes, it’s okay to be authentically you. That I was true to myself and committed to my God-given assignment on earth. The kind of ancestor who did good work which sounds so generic, but doing good work leaves the world a little bit better so the struggles they must fight are just a little bit easier. With each generation that is a question we have to consider. What is my work and what does it mean to do it really, really well? What do I want to leave behind so my people after me can continue to progress, get free, and thrive?
What advice would you offer other Black women trying to develop or amplify their voice and become better self-advocates?
Shirley Chisholm said, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” As Black women, we need to unlearn some of the conditioning we have received – patriarchy, colonialism, navigating white feminism – that we have internalized as a way of being sometimes in order to survive and remain safe. As for advice… Step out of comfort and speak your truth. Do it strategically and speak up despite fear because what you have to say is valid. We must get better at advocating for ourselves and make demands. Power concedes nothing without demand.
Some ancestors have modeled the way of bringing a chair in a way they cannot continue to render you invisible. I recognize that a level of luxury and privilege comes with saying what I am offering. I am in a leadership role where I can take certain risks that other Black women may not have. For some Black women the starting point may be to start with a regular practice of identifying what it means for you to live as a fuller version of yourself and then take small (and then large) steps to make that happen. The pace at which we come to our fuller versions is personal and contextualized. The more we bring a folding chair, the more we can expand the table so more Black women can have seats at the table. For those of us in various forms of leadership, my advice is to figure out how to bring more folding chairs and rebuild the table to be self-expansive and make room for others. I am also reminded of a recent quote by the phenomenal Ayanna Pressley when she told her hair story: “I am not just here to occupy space—I am here to create it.”
If you could change the social sector in a way that would benefit, lift up, or affirm Black women, what would that change be?
This is connected to my last answer. I’m often asked by people who aren’t Black women what can we do to have more Black women in leadership roles and how they can be an ally or co-conspirator. In We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom by Bettina Love, she writes about moving away from being allies to being co-conspirators; people who can leverage power and put their bodies on the line so that they have as much or maybe more to lose when the time comes. We need more co-conspirators who are ready and willing to go all the way when it comes to agendas that center Black women’s experiences and needs.
A co-conspirator in affirmation and the upliftment of Black women is someone who makes sure that Black women have real positions of leadership not as tokens, that we sit on boards, are cited and given credit for the tremendous work we do locally, nationally and globally. Co-conspirators understand that the world wouldn’t function without us in it and instead of feeling threatened by who we are and what we do, they join us, elevate us, protect us, clear the way for us to lead our collective liberations, and compensate us in fair and equitable ways.
In the public education system, we are now waking up to the invisibility that Black girls, youth and Black women have faced. We have for some time now begun to react and respond to the stats and realities about Black men and boys, though there is so much more to be done. Elevating the invisibility and challenges of Black girls, youth, and women in schools and other segments of the social sector is an opportunity to affirm, lift up, and do better.
- I am not sure about how long it would take us to radically change the social sector, therefore, Black women cannot wait. I am encouraged by individuals who are organizing in small and large ways to push movements to affirm Black women and give them the resources needed to thrive and be brilliant without having to pay for it with our lives because the daily work we do is exhausting on so many levels. I am inspired by my friend Annice Fisher and what she is building with The Bee Free Woman. To me, she is just one example of what happens when we create more opportunities to lead – get out of way and let Black women lead. There’s a role for everyone in the fight for social change but history and current day have taught us that Black women lead and organize others in ways that lead to our collective liberation.