Today, The Education Trust–West named me as its next executive director. I’ve been touched and humbled by the congratulations and support I’ve gotten so far, but nothing compares to one congratulatory phone call: a conversation with my Brawley Union High School counselor, Ms. Hardy.

I grew up in an agricultural community deep in the Californian desert, a community full of rich cultural traditions yet dogged by extreme rural poverty. Like so many students today, my high school was under-resourced and didn’t offer all the math courses required for UC or CSU eligibility. We had a wonderful local community college, but I was told it was my only option.

That is, until Ms. Hardy stopped me in the hallway, pulled me into her office, and declared, “You’re going to UC Santa Barbara. We’re gonna make it happen.” And she did. She had me fill out a FAFSA form and got me Pell and Cal Grants—neither of which I knew I was entitled to. And, just like she promised, I enrolled at UC Santa Barbara that fall, the first in my family on both sides to attend college.

It wasn’t easy. I took on an exorbitant amount of debt to get through college while supporting my family. I had to take and pay for a remedial math course — not because I needed it, but because the university “didn’t trust” that my high school had been rigorous enough. (No thanks to that nonsense, I went on to teach graduate-level statistics.)

Now, my family has a long history of fighting for educational justice; they worked to shut down racist and exclusionary schools in the South in the 1950s and 60s. I was the first in my family to graduate college only because when my grandfather integrated Louisiana State University in New Orleans, he was harassed and threatened; he ultimately decided to leave before he was officially enrolled. My experiences were certainly different, but they are linked to that history.

That’s why I’ve dedicated my career to dismantling the systems that so nearly held me back. First, it meant getting my master’s and doctoral degrees. Then, I dove into the world of policy and research, advocating for healthcare access, workforce issues, and power-building. Over the years, I started teaching undergraduate and graduate students and serving on state committees. And I mentor a handful of young men of color who teach me as much as I can hope to teach them. I do each of these for the same single reason: opportunity shouldn’t be based on luck, like it was for me.

I step into this role at a milestone moment: as The Education Trust–West looks back on twenty years of steadfast, fierce advocacy, I look forward as a first-time parent.

At twenty, The Education Trust–West is proud of having spearheaded landmark equity victories from universal financial aid application access to a data portal with vital information about young Californians’ journeys from cradle to career, both only days away from Governor Newsom’s signature after years of advocacy. Those gains stand upon research products like Black Minds Matter: Supporting the Educational Success of Black Children in California and The Majority Report: Supporting the Success of Latino Students in California that have successfully shifted the educational justice narrative. And there’s no more talented, passionate team than the “Ed Trusters” who built that legacy. (In fact, I had to apply three times before I finally landed a job here!) Today, we’re thriving and ready to work so hard that we’ll achieve our mission and close our doors. That’s due in large part to my predecessors Russlynn Ali, Arun Ramanathan, Ryan Smith, and Elisha Smith Arrillaga, all strong leaders and tough acts to follow.

Now, as I think about what’s to come for The Education Trust–West, I think about my daughter. Over the next twenty years, I want to see her thriving in a public education system that nurtures her brilliance and encourages her ambitions. And just as much as I want that for my Ava, I want that for students, your children, for you.

When I spoke with Ms. Hardy earlier this month, she told me she was proud of me–and there’s no one from whom that would mean more. To be honest, the spotlight that comes from an announcement like this makes me a little uncomfortable. There’s inevitably a lot of talk about me and where I’ll take us, but I don’t want to be a leader who’s focused on his own vision. The vision we need is already out there. I see my role as a leader as encouraging and amplifying others’ voices, of cultivating their leadership and advancing their visions. It’s what Ms. Hardy did for me all those years ago; that’s what I intend to do as executive director.

So whether you call yourself an advocate, an activist, a student, an educator, a parent, a tía, a nana, a pawpaw—whoever you are: you are the heart of this movement, the heart of this work. And I can’t wait to continue this work alongside you.

Dr. Christopher Nellum

Dr. Christopher Nellum

Executive Director

Dr. Christopher Nellum (he/him/his) is the Executive Director of The Education Trust–West, a nonprofit education equity organization focused on…

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