Identity, Excellence, and Boldness: Creating a Legacy of College Graduates Ready to Change the World, by Nolan Highbaugh, General Counsel at the KIPP Foundation

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28 Oct 2020

The Knowledge is Power Program (“KIPP”) Foundation was founded in 1994 by Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, two Teach for America members. In 1995 they opened two KIPP middle schools, one in Houston and one in New York City, both of which were among the top performing schools in their communities within five years.

The primary goal of KIPP is to help kids from low-income communities attend and, most importantly, graduate from college. 95% of KIPP students happen to be Black or LatinX, 88% qualify for free and reduced-price lunch and the majority of KIPP students that attend college are the first in their families to do so.

KIPP Foundation Alumnus celebrating college graduation with the whole family

When I started my work for KIPP in 2003, there were eight KIPP schools across the country; today there are 255 KIPP schools in twenty-two states and the District of Columbia serving over 110,000 Pre-K to 12th grade students. Also, when I started, there were no KIPP college graduates – today there are approximately 10,000 and this number is steadily climbing.

As this number has grown, we have learned that this work is not solely about helping kids getting to and through college but also confronting and dismantling the systemic racism that KIPP students and alumni encounter throughout their lives.

Updating the Mission

For example, KIPP’s original logo was “Work Hard. Be Nice.” Last year, we gathered 6,000 students, alumni, families, teachers and school leaders to update our mission. In their stories, we heard a common theme: working hard and being nice did not sufficiently reflect the reality of their lives. Too many of our students work incredibly hard and get into the college of their dreams only to face a massive tuition bill, the need to work multiple jobs, and a lack of paid internships in most career tracks. And once they enter the workforce, they will still earn significantly less than their white peers, remain twice as likely to be killed by police and, now, be disproportionately hospitalized or die from Covid-19.

In a world where our students confront anti-blackness and systemic racism at every turn, KIPP’s slogan needs to reflect the importance of identity, excellence and the boldness needed to create a more just world. Ideally, working hard and being nice is all any student needs, but our country isn’t there yet. Retiring our slogan is a step toward both recognizing that fact and working to change it.

Additional initiatives include: providing intensive equity and racial justice training for KIPP Foundation and school staff to promote racial equity; developing leadership pipelines to encourage teachers of color to become school principals; and, building internal tools to assess school culture to ensure that the children and communities we serve feel valued and honored.

KIPP Foundation alumnus celebrating college graduation in 2019

A Pathway to the Legal Profession

Given the social injustice they have seen and experienced, particularly at this moment in the U.S., there are many KIPP students and alumni who want to be lawyers. As the General Counsel for the KIPP Foundation, many of them call me to ask about applying to law school and working in the profession. I cannot tell you how much I love getting these calls particularly since there were no lawyers in my family to give me the ‘inside scoop’ on topics including: how to approach law school, clerkships, and not settling on one particular practice area too quickly.

I hope that many of the future KIPP alum lawyers will work for and be successful at firms or as in-house counsel. In order for this to happen, they will need to feel like they belong, which means that:

  • They will need to see many people, like them, succeeding at your organization
  • They will need to know that there are people at the firm sincerely dedicated to sponsoring them and evaluating their potential as well as their performance
  • They will need to know that diversity and inclusion are top priorities for the firm’s management team, and that there is accountability for progress

It was a total thrill for me to receive the Chambers & Partners award for In-house Minority Lawyer of the Year at the Chambers D&I Awards: USA 2019 and to give the keynote speech at this year’s North America virtual ceremony. It is great to see how diversity and inclusion initiatives are developing and how collaboration between in-house counsel and firms can play a key role in driving positive action.

Now more than ever we must keep the pedal to the metal on diversity and inclusion work, and make sure you collect data regarding diversity and inclusion progress in the profession. Because, at the end of the day, we measure what matters.

In the meantime, I will continue to look forward to the day when KIPP school alums regularly show up in the new partner announcements for your firms. I cannot wait.