International Women’s Day: Leaders Share Candid Advice & Biggest Impact

Advocacy is tough work—and many advocates face the added challenge of breaking barriers for future generations of leaders.

In recognition of both Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, we’re celebrating women leading across the Network. (Of course, this list represents just a small sample of the leaders making history in education reform. Millions of other leading women are pioneering change at all levels of education.)

Here, Network members weigh in on their most significant accomplishments and the advice they wish they’d had along the way.

If you could give advice to yourself as you started out in your career, what would you say?

Maya Bugg, CEO, Tennessee Charter School Center

Speak up, your voice is important; your perspective as a leader of color, as a woman, is not only critical but essential.

If you have a seat at the table, use it or else give it to someone who will.

This means you have to be willing to have difficult conversations. It may even mean that you don’t get invited back to the table—but—you keep fighting on behalf of children and our communities and say what needs to be said, do what needs to be done.

Vallay Varro, President, 50CAN

Never doubt the power of the stories that make you who you are.

I was born in a tent, on a floor of packed dirt, in a refugee camp surrounded by countless others who had fled their villages in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. As a child, I saw an America full of promise through the wide eyes of a political refugee. And because of that, I embraced and recognized the inherent value of an equitable education to the extent that it motivated every career decision I’ve made since: the student became a teacher, political asylum transformed to political activism.

Yet at many points early in my career, whether in the classroom or in a legislator’s office, I felt the impulse to obfuscate my personal history beneath a veneer of what I thought, at the time, was normalcy. As I’ve continued in the work, however, I think often of opportunities to advance our mission that I missed as a result.

Our personal histories are more than a source of our values and motivations; they’re the seeds of our integrity.

The more we feel empowered to tell them and to give others the space to tell their own, the greater our capacity to build the education system—and the country—of our aspirations.

Maya Martin Cadogan, Founder & Executive Director, Parents Amplifying Voices in Education (PAVE)

When I started my career, I thought I had to follow a path. Life taught me that it’s better to follow your purpose.

Never did I plan to go into preK-12 education or to be a founder. But I stayed open to all opportunities and I went where I could use my talents, develop my skills, speak my truth, and stay centered in my beliefs about kids, families, and communities—fully living out my purpose. That’s been a more fulfilling journey than I could have ever imagined.

What change have you helped make for kids that you think has been most impactful?

Amanda Aragon, Executive Director, NewMexicoKidsCAN

Spoken truth. New Mexico’s education system cannot improve if we are not honest about where we are and the ways in which we are dramatically underserving New Mexico’s students every day. I keep this truth at the forefront of everything that NewMexicoKidsCAN does, and in doing so I believe we have inspired a path to a better future for our kids and created space for others to join us in this mission.

We’ve changed the conversation, and while we have a long road ahead, it is an important first step.

Jennifer Bell-Ellwanger, President & CEO, Data Quality Campaign

As a kindergarten teacher, I worked to make time for each student and to make sure that every student counted.

Taking time to learn about each child and seeing where they are every day proved to me that data is the foundation for helping students succeed.

The Data Quality Campaign’s work proves that it’s crucial that teachers have access to, can understand, and have time during the day to use data. Equipping teachers with these skills and resources provides an immediate impact on students and ensures that teachers have what they need to work with students and their parents to promote student success.

Toya Fick, Executive Director, Stand for Children Oregon

I come from very humble beginnings, but I attended a high school with a high graduation rate, full of advanced classes, and plenty of opportunities to chart my own course.

Coming to Oregon, I realized students here did not have those opportunities that helped me take my future into my own hands.

I knew I had to act, and drafting, passing and securing funding for Measure 98 was my solution. The Measure is creating new opportunities in career-technical education, dropout prevention and college level courses at every high school in the state, helping to raise graduation rates, improve outcomes, and ensure every student is supported through Oregon’s equity lens.


PIE Network

PIE Network

The PIE Network connects, strengthens, and catalyzes the work of education advocates across communities, states, and ideological lines to transform education so that every student, in every community can achieve a future with no limits.