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IEL President’s Open Letter Shows Direction Forward

IEL President Johan E. Uvin speaks at a podium in front of an IEL logo.

IEL President’s Open Letter Shows Direction Forward

The Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL) finds itself at an important juncture because the world in which it is operating is changing rapidly. The devolution of power and authority to the state and local levels, the erosion of the federal commitment to civil rights, the proposed reductions in federal funding that supports vulnerable populations and community-based innovation, the “dismantling of the State,” the polarization of issues along the lines of ideology instead of country, and the marginalization instead of integration of many subpopulations (based on how they look, sound, pray, love or express their sexuality) are just a few of the many developments that force IEL to pause, reflect, and reposition itself. The promise that every child, youth, and adult will have an equal opportunity under the Law to access a quality education, get a decent job, and make enough to lead a middle class life is at risk unless IEL and many of its partners take different steps.

It is at this juncture that I have joined the team at IEL as its new leader. I have been energized and inspired by the talents and passions of IEL’s board of directors, leadership team, and dedicated staff. And, I am grateful for the strong policy and programmatic leadership that Marty Blank has provided and for his thoughtful work in ensuring that IEL is fiscally sound and financially on solid footing.

In this Open Letter, I wanted to share a little bit more about my values and the things I bring to IEL. I am a great believer in and agent for opportunity for all. My career has been about creating and restoring opportunity at different levels and in different roles and contexts. I have focused on closing opportunity and achievement gaps as a teacher, teacher trainer, researcher, policy maker, manager, and executive in local, state, national, and international contexts in both the public and private sectors. I have increasingly focused my work on finding ways to create high-quality opportunities at scale and have learned that strategic partnerships across sectors are essential if we are to identify and implement solutions where significant educational, economic, and social challenges or gaps exist. These are some of the things I bring to IEL along with a deep commitment to transparency, diversity, inclusion, support, and excellence. I have passion for developing our staff into the next generation of leaders. As an immigrant and new American by choice, I am further committed to assuring that all immigrant and refugee families have a fair and equal opportunity in our society.

I am still learning a lot about the many ways in which IEL is supporting youth, families, communities, networks, and leaders all across the country. One thing I have learned quickly is that IEL’s work is very meaningful and has demonstrable impact. IEL should not only continue but enhance and optimize its work. To make that happen, IEL will start a strategic planning process soon. Below are some initial issues and ideas that IEL is exploring to enlarge its footprint and increase its impact on children, youth, families, communities, and systems. This Open Letter is intended as an invitation for you to join IEL in an ongoing dialogue about these issues and ideas.

Make economic development and community empowerment more explicit elements in IEL’s pursuit of greater equity

Providing access to a high-quality education is important and is one of many steps in creating pathways to prosperity for individuals and communities. Critical links are needed with the economic, workforce, and community development sectors, as well as with health and human services and criminal justice systems. Close collaboration with employers is necessary, as well, if we want youth and adults to have work-based learning experiences and, eventually, good jobs and careers. In this work across sectors and between systems – or what IEL calls cross-boundary work – IEL can be a resource to local networks that use comprehensive place-based strategies to create a continuum of opportunities from cradle to career. In this continuum, IEL’s early learning work and its linkage with elementary education, its community schools work, and its emerging work for early adolescents all have a significant role to play.

Double down on collaborative leadership development in and with communities

Closing opportunity gaps is not just an education issue. It requires grassroots organizing and leadership development, as well as change in how grasstop leaders and systems function in response to community or grassroots voices. It requires leaders from different sectors to work together and create the right policy conditions for family and community success to be possible. This level of collaboration requires unique leadership skills and significant emotional intelligence. These skills can be learned and taught. IEL is well-positioned to build on its expertise in leadership development and adapt its work to grow and groom the next generation of collaborative leaders who are comfortable with and skilled at navigating multiple systems and seeing breakthrough systemic solutions. I have a particular interest in working with communities to grow their own leaders by identifying youth and adults from the community and working with them. IEL can build on a rich history of cross-boundary, equity-driven leadership development with a focus on the whole child. The shortage of leaders with these skills is significant. IEL is well-equipped to alleviate it.

With accelerated growth in technology predicted for the next 3-5 years, IEL as the Institute for “Educational Leadership,” will explore new leadership development models/services to ensure leaders in local communities across the country are well equipped to leverage the potential of technology in addressing inequities in access.

Expand IEL’s research and development capacity to design and test innovative policies and programs for the most vulnerable youth, adults, families, and communities

There is a clear need to further IEL’s work by investing in robust participatory research. One way to think about this investment is the creation of participatory, community-based research networks that simultaneously would answer questions of interest to the community and IEL and its funders and build local capacity in areas where communities see fit. These networks would be anchored in community needs and their agenda would be driven by community voices. A second way is to develop or replicate innovative strategies and tie the testing or replication to IEL’s evidence-building agenda.

Step up IEL’s role in bringing visibility to the issues facing the most vulnerable

IEL has been a non-partisan organization, and I believe it should remain as such. However, the issues facing a growing number of Americans call for IEL to leverage its standing as a credible national intermediary and to expand its current advocacy of effective policies and programmatic strategies for the benefit of our most vulnerable fellow Americans. This group includes working families, young men of color, marginalized girls and young women, immigrants and refugees, undocumented youth and adults, opportunity youth, low-skilled adults, and individuals with significant disabilities or other barriers to employment or advancement. Not to mention our native communities who, with the exception of the pipeline protests, are absent from the public policy discourse. We ARE our brother’s and sister’s keepers and it is our moral obligation to amplify the voice of the most vulnerable and to keep disability visible in everything we do.

Strengthen IEL’s position as a school improvement and workforce development intermediary

IEL has a great opportunity to lead the community schools strategy as a viable – and increasingly proven – school improvement strategy in low-income underperforming schools across the country. As power and authority devolve, state and local education agencies will make decisions about how to address the issues of their lowest performing schools. The community schools strategy presents a viable and sustainable path to excellence for the students in those neighborhoods. There is emerging evidence that this is the case, but IEL will do more to continuously solidify the case statement for this strategy.

Similarly, IEL has significant capacity as a workforce development intermediary working with populations that face significant barriers to employment and advancement. Specifically, IEL is an expert on both policy and program issues pertaining to disability, transition, reentry, diversion, and restorative justice issues. Leveraging IEL’s expertise and additional resources to assist more communities in replicating IEL’s effective programs will be an important consideration in IEL’s planning process going forward, particularly around academic achievement.

Focus IEL’s work in communities where opportunity gaps are the greatest

Focusing IEL’s work on the neediest communities—where the challenges are the greatest and opportunity is lacking or lagging- is an additional strategic adjustment I believe IEL ought to consider during its upcoming strategic planning process.

I welcome your candid and responsible feedback (, and I look forward to working with you to create a continuum of opportunity in every community across the country. As always, I will keep an open mind and will be ready to incorporate changes as suggested and needed in support of greater opportunity for all—not some—Americans.

Johan E. Uvin
Institute for Educational Leadership