Disappointment sucks, while redirection is redeeming.
“I am Danielle Nicole Perry, a proud Delaware State University scholar-leader who believes in getting proximate to the communities I serve. As Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Equal Justice Institute observes in his memoir, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, proximity sheds light on some “basic and humbling truths”.
That was the opening statement of my academic purpose essay, when I applied to the Nonprofit Management Program at Columbia University. I never ended up there, but allow me to tell you why that deviation in plans helped to mold me into the person that you see today. It was a dream of mine to work with marginalized youth and their families and to one day lead a nonprofit organization that seeks to provide support to these families. This can include individuals who are living in poverty, experiencing adverse childhood events, homelessness, incarceration and so on. I remember so vividly wanting to learn what it takes to become a nonprofit executive and to run an organization to help youth and their families overcome various societal barriers (i.e. Poverty, secondary trauma, disinvested communities, underfunded school systems). I realized that for many marginalized groups, nonprofit organizations filled the gaps that the social service or private sectors could not. I dreamed of learning how to run a nonprofit organization to help marginalized groups realize their potential by providing them with educational opportunities, technical resources, needs-based programs and a safety net provided by a community organization that truly cared.
My application for Columbia’s HBCU Fellowship program was not accepted due to a missing component, a nomination letter from my Dean. This made me reflect on how many others are one step away from reaching their goals, if only they were aware of all the steps they needed to get there and if those who were in power advocated on their behalf. Exhausted, anxiety-filled, and eager, I submitted my application to the HBCU fellowship program only to be notified by an admission counselor that I made a mistake in the application process. A mistake that was caught a little too late. After consulting with my chair at Delaware State University and receiving numerous recommendation letters from my professors, I had to inform my support networks that I was no longer eligible to apply for Columbia’s HBCU fellowship program that would permit me to obtain my Masters of Science degree in Nonprofit Management for free. I felt extreme defeat like I have never felt before. Although I was encouraged to submit a general admission application to the university of my dreams, I knew that even if I were to be accepted, there was no way that I could afford to go without the scholarship.
Weeks later, I received a beautiful acceptance letter to the Ivy League of my dreams, Columbia University. I knew that I would not be able to attend because I did not have the money or the fellowship opportunity to supplement the cost of tuition and living expenses in Manhattan, New York. I realized that this moment was only a test of my faith. I knew that my process of (in Michelle Obama's terms) “becoming” would not be cut short because of a moment of redirection. My mentor shared with me in this moment of perplexity, that the letter in the Columbia-blue envelope was a reminder to my inner critic, that I could achieve anything that I put my mind too.
Let me tell you a little bit about the girl who came to know herself and why my heart was pulled in a career dedicated to public service. Growing up, my grandmother, Sarah Ellen Brandon was my everything. Although she only had an elementary school education and lived in poverty as a child, she made me believe in myself and always encouraged me to go to school or in her words, “schoolhouse”. I was a quiet kid, often shy, but my grandma called me “Sasha”. She implied that “Sasha” was my vocal, unruly, and maverick side while “Danielle” was the calm, tender, and gentle side. She could see my passion and while my mother fought cancer during my high school years, my grandma frequently reminded me to serve God first and to never give up. Before my desire to run a nonprofit organization took off, I served in a couple of nonprofit organizations in Baltimore. I quickly realized that the life that I had growing up was considered luxurious to many of the inner-city youth and families that I served in Baltimore. Coming from a two-parent household and a middle-class neighborhood, I did not know what lack or poverty truly looked or felt like. However, I always found myself wanting to help out and I was drawn to the neighborhoods that did not look like my own.
During my high school years when my mom was recovering from her battle with cancer, I began a group called H.O.P.E – it stood for helping other people everywhere. H.O.P.E. focused on raising funds for nonprofit groups by hosting toy-drives, coin-drives, and bake sales. H.O.P.E redirected my attention from the pain of having an ill parent to the joy of helping those who needed it most. Shortly after, I met my mentor Kisha L. Webster, who led an African American Girls Leadership Program at my high school. She pushed me to continue to strive academically and to follow my dreams of going to college. Having been a graduate of the illustrious Delaware State University herself, she took me to meet the president of the University, Dr. Harry L. Williams. Dr. Williams told me that wherever I choose to attend college, that I would get a feeling that it was the right choice. That feeling came soon after consulting God in prayer and receiving a hefty scholarship. I then knew that my collegiate journey would begin at an HBCU—Delaware State University.
At Delaware State University, I found my identity as an African American woman; and for the first time in my academic journey, I felt like I had what it took to be a dynamic leader. Studying social work at DSU fueled my drive to bring change in impoverished urban areas where many African American youth and their families were struggling to make ends meet or had difficulty experiencing upward mobility. A few of my peers told me stories of how they came from some of the same disinvested neighborhoods that I read about in my textbooks and that I witnessed while working for nonprofit organizations in Baltimore. I knew then that it was extremely important for me to take my knowledge that I gained as an undergraduate student and to run to continue my education at an institution that could equip me to become a well-rounded leader.
Cancer Strikes Again, But So Does Purpose
A year before graduating from Delaware State University, my grandma fell ill to cancer and died within two months of her diagnosis. Although I was crushed by the events, I realized that my grandmother Sarah Ellen Brandon would want me to continue pressing toward all of my dreams. Dreams that seemed so huge for an eight-five-year-old woman who grew up in the projects and never got a chance to pursue higher education. Although my original dreams were cut short due to unforeseen challenges, I was accepted to the University of Maryland Baltimore – School of Social Work. I would soon return to Maryland and begin working again in the city where my love for nonprofits and macro social work began.
My mentor, Kisha L. Webster at the time allowed me to come to work at her nonprofit organization in Baltimore called Greenmount West Community Center Foundation and there I received consultation from the Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations (MANO) and learned from the experts on what it took to run a successful nonprofit organization. After coming to the University of Maryland, Baltimore, I took a course on nonprofit-resource development and was required to connect with a nonprofit organization to help develop a fundraising plan. After connecting to an executive director of a nonprofit organization by the name of Heard through a family friend, I began working with an executive director named Jane Hess Collins. After having an excellent experience during the class and working with Jane Collins, she later asked me to become her Director of Development. As a Director of Development, I wrote grants and raise funds, which were geared to assist marginalized adults in Alexandria, VA through the offering of art classes. Under Jane’s Collins leadership, I was able to learn what it takes to build a nonprofit organization to assist marginalized groups and to use a nonprofit platform to advocate for those who do not have a voice.
A-HA! Moments Along the Way
As an Americorp Summer Vista, I was placed at Westport Academy in Baltimore City and tasked with leading a summer literacy program. When pulling up to the school on the first day of the program, I saw three minor children outside of the school by themselves with the youngest child being 3 years old age. I was quickly concerned about why the kids were outside the school two hours before the start time of the program. This was strange to me, but I decided to use my voice to ask the necessary questions versus passing immediate judgment. After asking the kids why they were outside without an adult, they explained to me that their parents had to go to work, and they were waiting for the program to start. I thought to myself that this was outrageous, but I quickly realized that my idea of what was normal was not a shared idea among Baltimore city youth whose parents were dependent on summer programs like the one I was leading. I quickly remembered a statement that I was taught at Delaware State University, “I am because we are”, so I realized that this was my chance to extend myself to help those in need and to gain insight into what the needs of the community were. Did the community need childcare or summer programs that started earlier, so that parents can get to work on time?
That same day, I remember those same youth that was sitting outside, not having the means to get home or the money to catch the bus as they say they normally would. With the permission of the program supervisors and the parents, I gave the kids a ride home and informed the mother that the children needed a ride to and from the program or they could no longer attend. Due to transportation challenges, I ended up never seeing those children again for two years until one day they popped up at Greenmount West Community Center Foundation. The same kids that I dropped off after a summer program were getting the support they needed from a nonprofit organization that supported both the youth and their families.
This is the story of communities working together to support each other. Together we are stronger, and it does not matter what socioeconomic status you come from, race, age or walk-life, you can help! We all can make a huge difference in each other's lives if we take a moment to lend a helping hand and to invest in local nonprofit organizations. These are the lessons that you can learn by immersing yourself in a new community, by hearing their stories without judgment, and this is the type of on-the-ground lessons that the classroom cannot always teach you.
This is not just my story; this is our story. This story serves as proof that anyone who feels as if they do not have the answers to solving complex societal problems can help to be a part of the solution. This can encourage everyone to make sure that kids like the ones standing outside of Westport Academy have programs and resources in their communities that can support them and their families. This is our opportunity to work together to make sure that we can support each other by providing monetary, in-kind donations or volunteering time to our local nonprofits. We can strengthen our communities in many different ways, by first not allowing life’s ups and downs to silence our voices and by remembering that we can be a part of the change by simply giving. Small, grassroots, community organizations possess the power to assist marginalized families and to strengthen communities as a whole too!
Story of Now
It is never enough to just be smart, but we must use our “smarts’ to move us towards a better future. When we are working in communities where challenges are present that we did not face in our own lives, do we judge and condemn those who are not like us? Do we make excuses like not having enough education or the resources to help out when we see those in need of a helping hand? Do we turn the other way when we go into communities that might not look like our own? I realized along the way that small steps can make a dynamic change. To help marginalized youth and their families, we can invest money in local community nonprofits that seek to provide communities with the critical resources they need. There is power in small, grassroots, community organizations that can help to address some of the larger systemic problems like poverty, racism, lack of community resources and so on. I call on all social workers from various walks of life, community members and state and local leadership to truly learn the communities that they operate in and to support the nonprofit organizations that work to advance these spaces.
If my silence could speak it would tell the world that on-the-ground experience is enough to take the small steps to make a difference in your community. Although my plans for learning how to run a nonprofit to help marginalized youth and their families took an alternative route, I was able to learn what it takes to help these youth by working in the communities, donating small seeds to local- community-led grassroots organizations, and planting seeds into spaces that care. I did not learn nonprofit management at an Ivy League Institution, but I was able to learn from executive directors who are in the communities making a difference. The small steps that we take to make a difference in the lives of others are grand. We must be willing to listen, give, and have the zeal to push beyond what we may perceive as "closed doors".