Opeyemi (Yemi) Ogundele and Jazmin Alvarez sat down virtually with Juliet Stipeche to reflect on her career as the Director of the Mayor’s Office of Education, as she prepared to step down from the position.
This is the third of four parts of this interview that will be released over the next few days. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here. The transcript has been edited for conciseness and clarity.
Jazmin: What are the challenges that you face in your position from being in the Director of Education and Houston? What have been challenges in bringing many stakeholders to the table?
Juliet: With the examples that I gave, the biggest things I think are one, explicit bias, two, implicit bias, and three, low expectations.
There's folks conscientiously undermining democracy, public education, viewing people as lesser than. Then there are people that have these preconceived beliefs because of the way they're raised—we all do. There are people that conscientiously want to change, those that remain in limbo, and then those that don't.
Then, I think the system of low expectations is very harmful, and it seeps into one's leadership, one's belief system. Even for myself, I went on a trip with the American Leadership Forum, and we were supposed to climb a mountain. Some people were having breathing problems with the air or acclimating to the altitude, and one person just recently had knee surgery.
I told my colleagues, “Well, maybe we can do a trail for those that can keep with us for a while, and then those who want to continue can continue.” That way, at least we all go together for a while. And for those that are ready to stop, they stop. But then these other folks were like "No! How dare you! We all go together. And when we stop, we stop together." And I was like, "Alright…you're right. Okay, you're right."
That's just an example. I want to care for people in need. It's trying to figure out how you make the appropriate accommodations without limiting the opportunity. But I think the takeaway is, what is our greater vision and hope for ourselves working together? And what can we do when we are inclusive? Houston is at its best when things are at its worst. Why do we have to wait for a crisis or a disaster for our better angels to kick in? Can we not invest when we are all at an equilibrium to make sure that we are truly more equitable and responsive to those in need?
I would also say that we have a very hard time listening. We're stubborn, or opinionated, and we're very self-assured about our own self reliance. On one hand, that's a blessing, but it's also a curse. Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is nonsense when you don't have boots.
I think we have to take our self-assured reliance, spirit of individualism and independence, but also say that COVID has taught us a very dramatic lesson. We are standing together and that we are interconnected. And if we don't help one another out, it will be to our own peril. We will never be as good as we can be.
Yemi: That was such a wonderful response. I definitely resonated when you talked about bringing yourself up by the bootstraps because I hear that so many times. It kind of irks me. I’m aware that some people are able to do that, but it's not the same for everybody. My parents have been trying to pull themselves up by the bootstraps for 20 years. Also, you really did touch on a systemic issue as well.
I want to ask you next: I have been talking to a lot of my teachers, and a lot of them have really felt unsupported and very stressed out, especially financially, during the pandemic. In thinking through some of the systemic problems that we're currently facing in Houston, I wanted to talk about some of the limitations of your office. Are they financial? Or are they bureaucratic? And how have you worked around these?
Juliet: Oh, well I don't have an hour left!
Yemi: I'm just curious! Like, I just want to know: has there been something that you just really, really wanted to do or get done, but couldn't because of the financial or bureaucratic limitations. And just like how you worked around it. Were you able to?
Juliet: I will say this: my office started off as one person, and I was like, “Mayor I can't keep up, I need somebody to help me with the emails.” So I got an assistant. And then it was like, Oh, we can't do enough with no resources. What do we do? And I thought, “Well, the good thing about growing up without a lot of means is that you learn how to do with what you have, right?”
I told myself, "Okay, if I don't have any money, how do I make programs?" Maybe I could get people with money to sit down with me. That way, we can figure out how we can include their money in programs and people in advancing a more strategic direction together. I am not taking away from what you're doing. But I want you to sit down to be a part of a larger coalition.
For example, Hire Houston Youth never received more than $1.5 million from the City, but we were able to get funding from Workforce Solutions, from JPMorgan Chase, from Strada Education Network. All these different investments started coming in when they saw that this was different, right? Some people on City Council were like, "get rid of the Mayor's Office of Education, it's a waste of money, and we don't need Juliet. And she's deadweight, the city's not involved in education, and blah, blah, blah. But then it was like, “Wait a second, she's bringing in all this extra money. She's bringing in these funds.”
I don't know what the final total amount is, but I think I can safely say that in the last five years, we've been able to successfully raise funding and resources to the tune of at least $15 million. That's a lot of money, right? How much money does the Mayor's Office of Education have? They have my salary and the salary of one other person. That's it. UNICEF provided us with funding during Hurricane Harvey, I just talked about the $5 million from Cantor Fitzgerald. During COVID, we were able to bring in CARES dollars, JPMorgan Chase funding, and funding from Workforce Solutions.
We brought in a $4 million, four year grant in collaboration with Baylor College of Medicine, to create the Be Well, Be Connected program to help children with first episode psychosis and bipolar disorder, and they've recently added another diagnosis. That was an example of a collaboration that continued after Hurricane Harvey when we focused on mental health and supports for mental health. Then we saw that this relationship could continue. We applied for the grant together, we ended up getting the grant, and then we were able to hire Jo-Anne Reed, who is the grant coordinator for that program right now with funding from the Houston Endowment.
Now I have Jo-Anne Reed who helps with Be Well, Be Connected, David Castillo who helps with Out 2 Learn, and Laura Cuellar who is my project manager for UNICEF Child Friendly Cities Initiative. Then it's [my assistant] Brandon and myself, who are the only non-grant funded general fund people.
I could have just been like, “Well I don't have any money.” But instead, I was like, “Well let's see what we can do.” We've been able to build and grow. It's hard, it's tiring, applying for grants and begging for dollars is hard. But when it works out, it's really, really good.
That's an example with funding. I wish I could have been able to get even more money. I think we tried as hard as we did, and we did quite well for the limited resources and supports that we have, and we built a lot of capacity.
The other thing is, what do I feel bad about with bureaucracy? It's slow, it moves like molasses, and there are some people that just don't want to change. They're set in their ways. And I guess I'm set in my ways too: I'm going to be aggressively passionate about education and kids. It's hard for me to get off that. I mean I'm going to, right? But that's just the way I'm made, right?
And with the slowness, it's like they say: it takes forever for a cruise ship to turn as opposed to a speedboat, right? But we don't have an infinite amount of time. That's my huge frustration. Advocacy and changing people's mindsets is difficult. The CFCI Convention of the Rights of Children has been very helpful in changing people's mindset at the City. Also, the Childhood and Youth committee has been instrumental in having a committee that is devoted to children and youth. It makes people think about it on a monthly basis, it makes directors answer questions about it on a monthly basis, and it pushes us in ways that the city has not been pushed before.
During COVID, we had CARES dollars, and I was able to successfully argue that families of babies need computers to have access to resources, to apply for aid, to get lessons online, things like that. Opportunity youth, children that are disconnected and not in school and not working need computers too, But except for us being in the city, I don't think anybody would have been there advocating for babies and for opportunity. Because they were thinking that the K-12 system or the post secondary has it covered. And that's not the case.
Jazmin: Yeah, I completely agree. I'm going to dive more into student advocacy and students having ownership of their education and ask: The mission of Shift Press is to highlight ways young people build, influence, and experience power. In what ways has your position as Director of Education elevated students to have ownership and agency over their education?
Juliet: One of the important components of Hire Houston Youth is to connect young people to the larger macrocosm of what Houston has in terms of opportunities. That's critically important for us to say: how do we make it easier for young people that want an employment experience? And how do we make sure that they have a paid employment experience? A young person can go online and search or go and ask people at school, but it's hard.
We wanted to help facilitate making those connections. We talked to a lot of young people and asked: what's wrong with what we're doing? And they were very honest. They were like, it's too complicated, it's too clunky. So we've tried to make improvements. We still need to make improvements, but if we didn't listen to student input, I don't think the program would have been nearly as successful as it was. Young people have consistently been a critical part of the improvement in our system of how we design programs for Hire Houston Youth.
The second thing is, if I hadn't had the opportunity of spending time with young people while I was on the school board, and talking to young people and families in the community of all different ages and backgrounds, they wouldn't have given me the insight into equity and different types of equity improvement program when I was at the City.
The Mayor's Office of Education in particular only has two people, but every summer, we have interns. And it's hard because an intern can only stay with you a certain period of time during the summer, but all the good in that office comes from the interns and the young people that we have met over the past five years. They have helped shape policy, they have helped shape programs, they have given me insights, they have given me counsel, they have given advice.
Uyiosa is an example. He came in and worked with us during the summer, and we continue to allow him to continue to work on his projects. I mean, we're talking now! We worked with Amy and Shift Press during COVID-19. We had the Community Health Education Fellows (CHEFs) interviewed. The CHEFs are young folks that came in and helped us fight COVID.
Recently, Mike Temple, who's the head of the local Workforce Solutions, said that the U.S. Department of Labor came to Houston to look at innovative programs, and they fell in love with the CHEF program. They're taking it to Washington, DC to look at as a model. And now we're looking at it also as a model to build early childhood education capacity. That idea came from the Health Equity Response Public Health Education Subcommittee, and guess who was on that subcommittee? Shift Press.
We also created the Mayor Student Leadership Alliance, the first college and university alliance to speak with the mayor for the mayor's causes and to collaborate and create new understandings of what the student causes are. Mayor has been so gracious and so inclusive of young people. He is a champion for children and youth. I'm blessed to have had the opportunity to work with him. We would have never ever, ever made the strides that we had but for the students and the youth and the children, literally the children that we worked with, to help us make our programs.
Yemi: That drives so home for me because when you mentioned Hire Houston Youth and how you really couldn't have made it as successful as it was without the input of students.
This is the third of four parts of a conversation with former Mayor’s Office of Education Director Juliet Stipeche. Throughout the week, we will be posting parts of the interview.