Blog | August 30, 2021

A Career of Advocacy

by Shannon Williams, The Mind Trust’s Executive Vice President

I knew if I ever left the Indianapolis Recorder, my professional home for the better part of two decades, it had to be for somewhere that was mission-aligned with my soul. That mission-aligned opportunity came when I learned about a community engagement role at The Mind Trust in 2018.

In my 18 years at the Indianapolis Recorder, we consistently produced socially-important, high-quality reporting in our weekly paper. But the piece that always felt missing for me was that I couldn’t be there to see people reading it. I didn’t get to know how they responded, what actions they took after they read, or what outcomes might result from our reporting. What sealed the transition to The Mind Trust for me was the ability to see immediate, direct community impact through our programs like the Innovation School Fellowship and our community engagement work with Fellows.

I see both of my major professional roles as advocacy work. That’s a passion I get from my mother, who sadly passed away 19 years ago. She was the kind of person whose legacy far outlives her time on earth. I saw her help so many people; she was a real community pillar. And she was fearless, one of the first activists in Indianapolis to partner with a church to provide resources for people suffering from HIV/AIDS even though the disease did not personally impact her. Her modelling a life of service gave me no choice. How could I witness such persistent compassion and not wholeheartedly follow in her footsteps? First at the Indianapolis Recorder. Now at The Mind Trust.

I believe advocacy and community engagement work is often a perspective that education reform efforts have downplayed or even ignored.

Shannon Williams

I believe advocacy and community engagement work is often a perspective that education reform efforts have downplayed or even ignored. Those reform movements, often white-led, don’t always understand the value of relationships and trust-building. I know it’s not always intentional. People can put their heads down and just do the work, full steam ahead. It’s why I believe dedicated community engagement capacity is critical for organizations like The Mind Trust, which is why I’m proud to lead one of our largest teams. It also points to the importance of representation and having a wide range of experiences and backgrounds informing the decisions that will impact the community.

If schools and nonprofits don’t prioritize community engagement work, I think they miss out on making holistic change in students’ lives. How much more could we impact families if the partnerships we engage in and the services we provide are holistic and informed by the expertise of those closest to the problems? I believe if people in education don’t engage with the community, regularly communicating with the students and parents they aim to serve, then they will fail to achieve the outcomes we know our students deserve.

Thinking about The Mind Trust’s first fifteen years, what makes me most proud is our intentionality about helping vulnerable communities and empowering them to lead systemic change. Students, yes. But communities too, through initiatives like EmpowerED Families, School-Community Partnership Investments, and the Go Farther Literacy Fund. We serve people who society’s systems not only ignore, but often oppress. Our work is advocacy for those who our country has historically tried to leave behind. I see this most strongly in our Community Learning Sites. It was a solution built by parent feedback and one that didn’t burden those it was designed to serve because it was parents’ vision that we brought about. We trusted their expertise and used it to shape our decisions.

Looking to the future, our priorities center on three areas: improving academic proficiency, particularly for Black and Latino students; robustly investing in our community in ways that redistribute power; and deepening partnerships with a range of stakeholders to ensure our students have the wraparound support they need to succeed.

The progress we have made by investing in diverse school leaders and creating the conditions for schools to thrive is just the beginning. We’ve set the table. We’ve got the right people at the table. Now, I’m excited for us to accelerate toward an equitable future where everyone in our city can thrive and flourish.

We’ve set the table. We’ve got the right people at the table. Now, I’m excited for us to accelerate toward an equitable future where everyone in our city can thrive and flourish.

Shannon Williams

One of our school leaders we have invested in who really stands out to me is Geoff Fenelus. Geoff founded Promise Prep in fall 2021 on the far eastside. His school is guided by a James Baldwin quote that goes, “For these are all our children. We will all profit by or pay for what they become.” Geoff’s school understands the importance of human investment just like Baldwin did when he said those words.

We are all interconnected. My mother and her tireless advocacy understood that. James Baldwin understood that. And so many of our school leaders understand that too. I’ve built my advocacy on the foundation my mother and so many others like her laid, recognizing that we get the future we work for. I know that every day, working for The Mind Trust, I am making my mother’s freedom dream, my freedom dream, and the freedom dreams of so many people, a little more real.