“Life is a series of remembered stories.
For black lives to matter, their stories must matter. For their stories to matter, they must be evoked, listened to, heard, understood with compassion, valued as the unique expression of the human spirit that each story is.”
In May 2014, at a dinner celebrating everything Danielle Allen had accomplished just to gain admission to the Stanford Graduate School of Business—every obstacle she had surmounted, every racist or gender slight she had ever shrugged off—she invited seven other soon-to-graduateclassmates. Almost all were people of color. As our energetic and laughter-filled dinner was finishing, one friend asked to use her iPhone to access the Sonos music system.
Soon on the garden patio speakers all around—this is Palo Alto, California in Spring, after all—Beyonce was singing “Get Me Bodied”. Everyone started singing, dancing, laughing: “Queen B!” “I love Beyonce and I love this song!” “Beyonce is an icon.”
The Flight of the Brooks Family: From Slavery to The “Richest” Family in a Poor, Segregated Town
“I started researching my family’s genealogy over a decade ago. There’s a plantation in Whitmire, South Carolina about two and a half hours from my hometown in Monroe, North Carolina, where my maternal great grandmother’s generation lived. There were nine children, most mixed-race: part Black, part white. My research suggests that they were likely fathered by the white owner of the plantation, B.P. Aughtry. That side of my family, the Brooks Family, fled to Monroe, North Carolina in the 1890’s – likely from a life as sharecroppers.
“I was born in Monroe on July 4, 1987, my maternal grandmother’s birthday. I was raised as an only child by my mom, grandmother, and my aunt (from a distance). Almost all of my mom’s family still live within 30 minutes or so of Monroe, now a small city of about 35,000. It’s a more comfortable place for me than other places I have lived. The neighborhood I grew up in has had its share of challenges over time, including drug-dealing and violence, but it’s also a place that operates with a different value set – one that prioritizes community, family, and relationships above all else. It doesn’t matter if I have all the money in the world: If I’m not a good, kind person, my family and community will take me to task.
“As a kid, I didn’t see people who weren’t Black unless we left the neighborhood to go to the grocery store. From an early age, I realized that there were many people in my neighborhood who didn’t have as much as I had in material terms and in terms of opportunities. I got to spend most summers in Detroit with my aunt and so I was considered ‘rich’ by most other kids in the neighborhood. When I realized that there was a whole world outside of my community in Monroe that had access to more than I did for reasons I couldn’t understand at the time, it made me curious to understand why – and, eventually, to try to do something about it.”
The Difference-Maker In My Life: Women Role Model, Mentors, and Advocates
“My grandmother passed away in 2016, but I remember that when I was making big life decisions – about college, my first job, grad school – she would say: ‘This house [the house I grew up in] – you can always come back here, and (God willing) I’ll be here too, but you have to go out and you have to try to make it bigger, better, further than we did.’ Knowing I could always go home helped on really hard days – and it still does.
“My grandmother was my first and most beloved mentor. She taught me how to persist through challenge, and her life was an example of that, raising six children as a widow by cleaning homes of wealthy, white families. My mom was and still is my biggest cheerleader. My aunt, who supported my family from a distance over a 40-year career GM and then Ford in Detroit, is my wisest counselor.
“My first real turning point was in the second grade. I did not do well enough on the test to get into the AIG [Academically Intellectually Gifted Program]. My second-grade teacher, Diane Avery, made it clear to the powers that be that she thought I should be in this program – and she was relentless about it. Eventually, I was allowed to retake the placement test and I got in to the program. It transformed my educational experience in both positive and less positive ways. Much of my education was now project-based, and my AIG teacher from 3rd to 5th grade, Janice Zmuda, is now a friend and confidante. But I was no longer in classes with other Black kids from my neighborhood.
“Though I still didn’t have language for it at the time, systemic racism became really clear to me when I was in high school. I served on a county-wide council and I started to realize, ‘Oh, all the other high schools have more resources. All the representatives from other high schools are white.’ Our high school was the only majority minority high school in the county. Other schools had swimming pools, new tracks, new gymnasiums – all the things our school didn’t.
“My senior year of high school was incredibly consequential to what I’ve decided to do professionally because I realized there’s something fundamentally unjust operating underneath the surface in our society. I had teachers in elementary, middle, and high school who said, ‘You’re bright, you’re a good one. We’re going to help you. We’re going to invest in you.’ And I had friends in my community who were really smart. They innately understood things that took me careful study to understand and they didn’t get that same support. I don’t fault my teachers for that – or any teacher. To me, dependency on an individual’s action or inaction for success is a sign of a broken system.
“I was an extremely conscientious student. I worked hard and I started applying to colleges. I had a Black guidance counselor, Lillian Clark. I came to her with a list of 13 schools and I said, ‘I know I’m supposed to pick six or so.’ And she said without hesitation, ‘We’re going to apply to all of them.’ Ms. Clark was a consistent figure for me in high school – not just helping me sort my class schedule, but also offering me a hideaway in her office when I was overwhelmed or just needed to regroup.”
“I’ve been so blessed and lucky to find incredibly giving mentors and strong advocates all along my journey. And so that has made it less hard – and a less isolating experience than it otherwise might be. I strive to bring that kind of comfort to others now as a manager, mentor, and advocate.”
My Path to Success: A Self-Guided, Experiential Education
Danielle was awarded the Morehead-Cain Scholarship, a four-year, fully funded educational experience at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, with summer stipends and access to prestigious summer internships and travel experiences. With criterion modeled after the Rhodes Scholarship that take into account leadership, character, scholarship, and physical vigor, the Morehead is intensely competitive. Danielle also chose the Morehead over admissions from each of the 12 other schools she applied to, including Harvard and Yale.
“I know many in same position might have made a different choice. Carolina and the Morehead-Cain offered me an educational experience that was much broader than academics. It was the only scholarship offer I received that was based solely on merit, and it kept me in relationship with the community where I grew up. I promised myself I’d get to Harvard eventually, and I did.
“To win the Morehead-Cain scholarship, you needed to receive your school’s nomination, your county nomination’s, and the region’s nomination, before getting invited to Chapel Hill for a final interview. When I got my school’s nomination, the mom of one of my best friends at the time, who is white, barged into the school and into the cafeteria, and got in my face and asked me if I was really sure that I wanted to go to Carolina, or to college period. It was a traumatic experience to say the least. When I got the Morehead, one of my now longest-standing mentors and the first Black Rhodes Scholar from the South, Robyn Hadley, came to present it to me. My entire graduating class and their families gave me a standing ovation as I accepted the award, except my friend’s family, who did not stand up.”
“At Carolina, the Morehead-Cain class I joined was 42 scholars among about 3,600 entering freshmen that year. I quickly realized I had so much to catch up on. Both academically, but also in terms of experiences outside of the classroom. I spent a summer working at an investment bank in New York City, another at the U.S. Embassy in South Africa, and another teaching in Austin, Texas. I decided to study public policy and economics, focusing on inequities in housing, economic opportunity, and education that impacted communities like the one I grew up in. As a young adult, I was building the framework to describe and explain (in macro and micro terms) what I knew from experience. I was trying to understand, ‘Why are things this way and what can I do about it?’ Toward the end of college, I came to the conclusion that education was the issue I wanted to focus my energy on – at least initially.
“After a few years working in education, I applied and began dual degrees at Stanford Graduate School of Business and Harvard Kennedy School. For me, Stanford GSB was a place that asked, ‘Who do you want to become and how can we help you get there?’ And HKS was filled with people who were just as passionate about other social issues as I was about education. While each experience proved transformational from a skill building and networking perspective, each also came with challenges. It was an every-day study in the extremes of privilege. There weren’t many other Black students, let alone Black, and certainly not Black women from the South to commiserate with and to process the significance of the opportunity in parallel to those tiny, biting microaggressions which occur when my difference was studied and examined by others rather than valued.”
The Olivia Pope of Education And Philanthropy: Creating Pathways for Others to Succeed
“As a college junior, I received the Truman Scholarship, which created a pathway for me to live and work in DC after graduation. I got the opportunity to work at DC Public Schools during a period of rapid transformation. I worked on the school innovation team and so got to see a variety of efforts from ideation to full implementation.
“Much of the work I did during my time at DCPS was funded by a major local philanthropist, and I came to further understand the potential of philanthropy as a positive tool for social change while working on various projects for New Schools Venture Fund during grad school. Since I graduated, my two partners, Alex Johnston and Mike Wang, and I have built an advisory firm: Building Impact. We help philanthropists and change agents become more effective through advising, coaching, and convening. Our work is really about being the change you want to see and understanding that social change requires deep engagement and sustained movement-building.
“Essential to doing my work well is my ability to operate with a dual consciousness – one that allows me to recognize and understand intimately what’s happening in communities most impacted by issues like inequitable education and to translate that through the lens of politics, business, and policy to clients and others who haven’t lived those experiences. It’s a burden that I have tried to make into a gift.
“The biggest compliment I’ve ever received professionally was when a school board candidate in Nashville a few years ago called me the ‘Olivia Pope of education and philanthropy.’ Olivia Pope, the main character of the former ABC show Scandal LIVE LINK photo?, is a fixer, a bridge builder, a negotiator: she has a flair for jumping into a crisis situation, reading the room, figuring out what needs to be done to resolve a problem or at least start to move things in a more positive direction.”
“As I continue my current work and think about what other challenges I’d like to take on, I see the role of bridge-building as the core of whatever I do. While I came from a relatively poor family and I’ve faced much adversity along my journey, I’ve also had tremendous opportunities and support, starting with three little women – my mom, my grandmother, and my aunt. I see no option but to continue to leverager whatvantage I’ve built by standing on their shoulders and those of others to create more equitable systems for others. If it doesn’t work out or I get into too much good trouble, as my grandma said, I can always go back home.”