What does it feel like to walk in a space and own it? It's so hard to imagine. But let me try. I have to start by visualizing other spaces that feel like my own. My home. Yes, I own that space. As a wife and a mother, that's a place where I can be my full, authentic self without fear or judgment. Not everything I say goes, but 99.9% of it does.
But outside of my home, especially in spaces that involve the power dynamics inherent to fundraising, it feels like I have to "cloak up". This invisible cloak is different from the one I have to put on to run errands or even to attend a dinner party (when that was a thing). One cloak is a subtle, added awareness about my surroundings or who I might encounter. The other is weighed down by so many questions and unknowns. Am I accepted here? As my full, authentic self? Or some watered down, digestible version of me? Does my voice matter? Is this person willing to give up power for us to have the real conversation? Will this person take ownership of the role philanthropy has played in perpetuating a system of oppression? 99.9% of the time the answer to these questions is "no".
Weighed down by those unknowns while advocating for students and communities who the system has - based on policies and lack of its willingness to change - discarded and treated like nobodies, is a lot. It's taxing in a way that I have always understood on some level, but now have the words, time of reflection and boldness to say it.
This pandemic is shining a bright light on systemic inequities that have always existed. The disparity between the have and have nots widens with each passing day. The introduction of "learning pods” this fall is just one of many examples of how Black and Latinx children are at even more of a disadvantage. Philanthropy has an important and valuable role to play to right the decades of wrongs that have been done to low-income communities. But it can't do that without interrogating the written and unwritten rules that make or break access to funding. When will being your full, authentic self be enough?
My vision for the future is oddly shaped by my pandemic experience over the last six months. In a strange and beautiful way, it has forced me to lean into showing all that I am, and not the version that people expect to see. To allow people in - literally into my home. I imagine a world where the boundary between home and work is more fluid. I've experienced this at my organization so can deeply appreciate how freeing it is to fully be yourself at all times.
I look forward to the day when I can walk into a room expecting the decision maker to be someone who looks like me...and they do. And we vibe, yes, because our values are aligned, but also because of our total, complete, and unfiltered Blackness.
Elandria Jackson Charles is the Vice President of Development and External Affairs at Blue Engine, an organization that partners with schools to create inclusive, rigorous classrooms where multiple teachers build relationships and differentiate instruction to ensure every student is known and reaches their full potential. Prior to joining Blue Engine, she was the Director of Development at Achievement First.
Before transitioning to nonprofit education, Elandria was an advertising executive and managed integrated campaigns for clients such as Procter & Gamble and “Got Milk?” Milk Mustache. Elandria is a former Education Pioneers Graduate Fellow and serves on the board of Green Generations, an education nonprofit that partners with elementary schools to provide mindfulness and self-esteem workshops. After graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she received a B.A. in Advertising and Spanish, Elandria received an M.P.A from NYU Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.
Her commitment to serving as a bridge between potential and promise for students from historically oppressed communities was fostered through mentoring, first as a Big Sister with Big Brothers Big Sisters of NYC and more recently as the founder of SHINE (Sisters Helping Inspire New Excellence), a girls mentoring group. Elandria lives in Brooklyn with her husband and young son.