We caught up with LEE member and RISE Colorado co-founder Milagros Barsallo shortly after Teach For America announced that RISE was selected as a winner for TFA’s 2014 Social Innovation Award.
RISE Colorado, which Barsallo co-founded with fellow LEE member Veronica Palmer and Tangia Al-Awaji Estrada, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating, engaging and empowering low-income families and families of color to end educational inequity in their communities. More on RISE Colorado’s work here.
Here’s what Milagros had to say:
LEE: How does it feel to win the TFA Social Innovation Award?
Milagros Barsallo: It is really, really exciting… When we found out, we freaked out. We were screaming -- jumping up and down, hugging. We were so excited. We worked really, really hard. The other organizations [that were considered] were amazing. The fact that there were over 140 people that applied shows that there are a lot of folks taking on educational inequity in a lot of really incredible ways.
So it’s such an honor to win. Aside from us just feeling really honored and excited, it’s really a testament to the need we are filling. It’s evident that getting families involved in this effort is no longer a choice or something we can’t do – it’s a necessity.
What we’re also excited about is that it celebrates our leadership. We’re women, we’re young and we’re people of color. And to win something on a national scope goes to show that a lot of valid and important solutions are coming out of the communities where educational inequity is most pervasive, and that we should be working harder to make people who are part of those communities part of the solution.
LEE: How do you think this award is going to help make RISE’s vision a reality?
MB: We think of it in three main ways. One, this is a really big chunk of our budget and help us continue to support our work and support more families. Two, just the opportunity to have people in other places hear about who we are and what we are doing opens up the possibility of us getting connected to people doing similar work. Third, it shows that TFA promotes and values the leadership we bring to the table. We need more people of color as leaders and more people who bring a different perspective to this work. It’s something that we’re recognizing has to be part of this movement.
It also creates a platform for us to show that grassroots change can actually create academic achievement and improve schools. People want to get families involved and there’s a lot of excitement around that. But I also think we still have a long way to go in actually getting people to believe that a parent who doesn’t speak the language, who isn’t as educated, and so on can have an educated perspective on public education. I think we still have a long way to go in terms of mindsets and getting people to really believe that. And having RISE on a national platform is one way to show that families do and can understand that.
LEE: What advice would you give to other LEE members thinking about starting an organization?
MB: The first thing is everyone will tell you this will be a lot of work. But really no one can express to you how much work and what a learning curve it is to start something from the ground up. But at the same time, it is so amazing.
Two years ago, this is something we were just talking about. It was a conversation, an idea. And two years later, we just won a national award for what we’re doing – and nobody can tell you how amazing that feels. Every piece of progress you make feels incredible. You feel proud of yourself. You think, “people believe in me and what I want to do.”
To me, the biggest thing is do something that you will wake up every day of your life and do it, regardless of how hard things get. There are such extreme highs and such extreme lows – they can be in one week or in one day – and it needs to be something you feel totally passionate about. Maybe that’s just what I need, but picking something that truly drives you is really important.
LEE: You’re clearly very passionate about this issue. What drives you?
MB: For the three of us, a big part of the motivation is that this isn’t something that we’re going to try our hardest on and if things don’t work out, we’ll just say “at least we tried.” These are our people and this is our community.” At the end of the day, when our kids leave our schools they are still poor people of color in this country and until we change our schools and a lot of other things, that is going to be the case. This may sound dramatic, but this feels like the life or death of our community to us. There’s not a point in the day when we can turn off the urgency.
LEE: What aspects of LEE did you find helpful in starting RISE Colorado?
MB: For me and for RISE, there are specific things and more general things that have been helpful. When I did the Emerging Political Leaders Fellowship (now the “Public Leaders Fellowship”), it was a really amazing experience. It was a small group, and it was a really amazing way to reconnect with people from all over the country who were so dedicated to ending educational inequity. It was amazing to get to know the fellows in my cohort and say “it’s going to be amazing when you’re a superintendent, or a Senator” or whatever it might be. At the time, I needed a dose of hope and inspiration that I wasn’t getting in my every day. And being with my cohort at EPLF and keeping in touch with people afterwards has provided that for me.
After EPLF, what I have really appreciated about LEE is that it’s like a family. LEE takes you into the family. I’ve gotten an opportunity to connect with people that are doing such incredible work across the country. And when it comes to RISE, even though we are 3 co-founders, it can be really lonely, and having the opportunity to talk to others about what we are doing is helpful.
What I really appreciate about LEE is that, like RISE, LEE is a member-driven organization. In the process of starting RISE, I know there was no shortage of help, resources and a genuine desire to help us succeed. We know that LEE invests in their members and in their members’ success.