Grisel Maldonado is a social impact driven coach and consultant with a focus on strategic planning, team capacity-building, and postsecondary success. Prior to consulting she founded several education entities that resulted in research-based programs that are now executed across the Chicago Public Schools as well as organizations from coast to coast.
As the founder of Avanza Strategies, Grisel has supported CEO’s and executive teams around the globe to build effective teams, strategic plans, and systems that achieve impact.
Growing up low-income, first-generation college, and raised by Mexican immigrants in the southwest side of Chicago, Grisel has seen first-hand the dearth of guidance and resources that exist for families growing up in similar contexts. Because of this, she has dedicated her career to unlocking the power of social impact organizations in order to shift systems to meet the needs of all communities, particularly low-income, Black, and Latinx communities.
We had the honor of interviewing her about the social impact work she has done and how she envisions the education landscape changing to benefit empower low-income students.
Question: Can you share some of your personal experiences growing up in a low-income, first-generation college, and immigrant family in the southwest side of Chicago that shaped your passion for social impact work?
I was born and raised in Chicago to Mexican immigrant parents that had high hopes and dreams for my siblings and me, particularly when it came to attending college. However, they had limited understanding of what college entailed beyond knowing it would open doors to opportunities.
Growing up in a low-income neighborhood with under-resourced schools meant limited personal support from teachers. This lack of guidance, coupled with microaggressions and a complex education system, pushed me to contemplate dropping out during high school. My family needed money, and school wasn’t helping me find work. So, I stopped going to school until my amazing middle school math teacher, a white Jewish man, showed me how to access opportunities my parents didn’t know about.
He persuaded me to return to school at a time when I had lost faith in it. I remember that he told me that he really believed in me and wanted me to believe in myself in the way that he believed that I could do everything and that he knew we were just in a system and in a society that just wasn’t set up to support students like me.
That pivotal moment shifted my perspective. It made me realize that I wasn’t the problem; it was the flawed educational system. This inspired me to return to school. My tutor’s support, including sponsorship, restored my self-belief, and I’m grateful for meeting him.
Question: How has your background influenced your approach to leadership and decision-making within social impact organizations?
My background, transitioning from a low-income immigrant community to Brown University, has deeply influenced my approach to leadership and decision-making within social impact organizations. I wanted to help students, so I began my career as an admissions officer at Brown, focusing on increasing diversity. Later, I moved to Chicago, working at the Noble network of charter schools, where I helped establish a new school and build its college counseling department. This role allowed me to create a system and a structure that supports every single student as an individual and where we can create the capacity to really be able to pay attention and mentor and support them and also motivate them to think bigger than maybe what they’re seeing around them.
Question: What are some of the systemic issues you’ve identified in the work that you’ve done so far?
There are tons, but racism primarily. We aren’t in a post-racist society and it’s crucial that we recognize that. Additionally, we need to talk about the biases within people of color. It’s the starting point for addressing biases in school systems and mentor-mentee relationships. Naming and categorizing these biases is the first step, followed by taking action to rectify them. This often involves analyzing data to identify disparities in student outcomes based on race and focusing on what we can control: training mentors, teachers, and adults to better support and meet students’ needs.
Question: What are some strategies that you’ve seen that have improved the amount of minorities being encouraged to pursue higher education?
Before transitioning to consulting, my entire career was dedicated to helping students achieve their highest aspirations in college access and success. Much of our work drew on research from the Consortium on School Research at the University of Chicago, which emphasized the importance of starting earlier in a student’s journey.
While high school support is crucial, we also focused on elementary and middle school students. Our goal was to instill an abundance mindset, that the world offers abundant opportunities, and they can shape their futures with the right guidance. We designed curricula that emphasized this abundance of opportunity and addressed issues like racism, helping young students understand that the world’s current systems don’t define their potential; they have the power to change it for the better.
Question: When it comes to the entire educational ecosystem, including the parents, the student, the programs etc., what do you think is the biggest obstacle?
The constant challenge is connecting all stakeholders in education, including non-English speaking parents, especially Latinos. They often miss essential discussions about supporting their children and planning for the future. While information about college can be provided in high school, middle school is equally vital.
Schools strive to improve family engagement, recognising that it goes beyond traditional meetings and involves meaningful conversations, especially in communities less familiar with academic engagement. Students from low-income communities often faced additional challenges. This highlights the need to engage parents and build a supportive team to help students achieve their goals.
Question: Can you share an exciting success story or initiative from your career where you’ve seen progress?
I’ve witnessed significant progress in the field of college and career access. Initially, our focus was on providing students with opportunities for any college in the world. We dedicated ourselves to developing curriculum tailored to students of color, making it relevant and incorporating social-emotional learning to empower them.
Over the years, my perspective has evolved. Now, i’m focused on supporting students in achieving their highest aspirations, not just focusing on any college. We emphasize that any career is possible, and there are various pathways, including ones that don’t require college. However, I still encourage college, especially for students of color, as it’s often the most straightforward route to many careers. Yet, it’s crucial to understand that it’s not the only path, as I’ve seen many in our community feel undervalued if they don’t follow that route.
Question: Looking ahead, how do you envision the landscape changing to better support underserved communities in the future?
We need to actively engage in discussions about AI and technology. It’s a chance for Latinos and people of color to be at the forefront of AI development instead of being on the sidelines. Technology allows for individualized support, which is crucial for student success. However, we must remember the importance of the human element, with mentors who can respond to student needs and provide that personal touch. People are driven by emotions and a sense of connection, and having supportive adults who believe in students is vital.
Black and Latinx communities that face educational disparities because of environmental factors worsened during the pandemic. Many Latino students, for instance, chose to work instead of pursuing higher education to support their struggling families. This emphasizes the need for tailored individual support, especially for low-income and minority students who are disproportionately affected by these challenges, including mental health issues. The reckoning on race, exemplified by the George Floyd incident, has taken a toll on our communities, making support for our youth more critical than ever.
We really enjoyed this conversation with Grisel. We have a lot to learn from leaders like them and continue to create educational opportunities to change the future of young people.
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