As a person with much insight into the inequity present in education systems, Karla Vigil has lived her life working towards equal opportunity for every student. Through her recent co-founding of The Equity Institute, she has been able to significantly realize her aspirations for equity in education.
Born in El Salvador, Karla and her family immigrated to Providence, Rhode Island, when she was 3 years old due to the unrest of the Salvadoran Civil War in 1983. She attended The University of Rhode Island while majoring in marketing, and later earned her master’s degree in teaching from Roger Williams University.
“I have a fairly unconventional story,” Karla said. “It started with being part of an immigrant family, the child of a teenage mom, to me becoming a mother at 19. Though my experiences have been uncommon, I’ve come to understand so much and am now learning more and more every day as the mother of three sons.”
ENCOUNTERS AND INFLUENCES
Karla said she became involved in nonprofits right after attending The University of Rhode Island. Those introductory experiences, she said, gave her a deep understanding of the disparities in the education system.
“I first had a real taste of what schools were like in my early 20s. It was then that I realized how misunderstood and inequitable our youth are, particularly underprivileged youth and youth of color,” she said.
Karla left education briefly for some marketing work in Atlanta, Georgia, and there she faced yet another realization after having spent most of her life in Providence.
“I decided to go to Atlanta where I did a lot of marketing. I got really involved with hosting and event coordinating. It was very different from my time in Rhode Island — no one I spend time with today would guess I’ve hung out with Spike Lee and sat down with Gabrielle Union and Tyson Beckford — but that was the Atlanta lifestyle. It was definitely a pivotal point in my life. Not only did I gain a lot of marketing experience, but it was also culturally a shock. Given the amount of Black community that exists in Atlanta, compared with the lack of Black community I’d grown up with in Rhode Island, it was very astounding for me to see. I came back to Providence with a very different mindset,” she said.
After she returned to Rhode Island, Karla said she started working to better her community, especially in education. She began recruiting for The Met School as a high school admissions specialist, but ended up aspiring for a position in the classroom.
“During my time with The Met, a friend of mine said to me, ‘Hey, why don’t you start teaching? You should be in the classroom.’” Karla said. “I’d always had a drive to change and impact, so I then took that advice and got my master’s. While getting my degree, I put a very special emphasis on social justice and multicultural education. It helped me to do some very deep reflecting on the systems that we operate in, the history of our country, as well as the history of education specifically in our country. I was then able to connect what I’d learned to my students.”
Karla said through a program available to her while getting her advanced degree, she was able to work with an independent school. But after that time, she began teaching fourth graders in the public school system. She explained the way in which her experiences in two contrasting schools played a monumental role in shaping her perspective on equity in the education system.
“The independent school I worked in was very wealthy and had a student body that was disproportionately white,” she said. “During that time, I was able to see the different resources that were not provided to public or charter schools, which only fueled my drive to change education for students.”
Karla next took a position in the public school system to be a force of change for students.
“Coming into a charter school, I had studied so many different theories and practices revolving around racial inequity and our education systems, but I then had to become immersed in it and live it out and apply what I had learned,” she said. “People had told me that the first year of teaching was supposed to be my most difficult. But at that time, I was a mother in my 30s with two sons and a Master’s in Teaching, so approaching the leadership in the classroom wasn’t the most difficult thing I faced but rather overcoming the unique challenges of a teacher who is a female person of color in Providence.”
Karla said she attempted to stop the normalized perpetuation of harmful behaviors in the classroom by helping her students recognize stereotypes and appreciate diverse cultures.
“I believe if we’re going to develop students academically, socially and emotionally, it is our duty as teachers to make sure our kids are coming out knowing how to engage with the global community,” she said.
Karla said her active approach for equity seemed unwelcomed in her school and led her to further consider the role of teachers of color in her state and nation.
Karla said she maintained an even more enthusiastic dedication to the cause of inequity in education after her time as a teacher, which led her to the founding of the grassroots initiative EduLeaders of Color Rhode Island in November of 2016.
“EduLeaders of Color serves to bring together a network of educators and leaders of color throughout Rhode Island,” she said. “We hold monthly meetups for people to share their call to action and to have some collective ideation time on how to solve various issues, which have led to very impactful and successful developments on a community level. EduLeaders is still going on, but it is now an initiative of The Equity Institute, which has become the umbrella organization.”
THE EQUITY INSTITUTE
Though EduLeaders of Color was effective in bringing together people in Rhode Island who were passionate about the role of people of color in education, Karla said she and many others felt that there needed to be an emphasis on carrying out work towards the transformation of education systems on a district and national level.
As a co-founder of The Equity Institute with Chief Impact Officer Carlon Howard, Karla said that their founding of the nonprofit stemmed from what they saw as a necessity for true change through action.
“The Equity Institute is an education-based nonprofit organization that works to develop innovative systems that cultivate equitable communities for all learning,” she said.
Karla said the experience of collective change first led to EduLeaders of Color, but ultimately resulted in the founding of The Equity Institute years later.
Though The Equity Institute is a recently established nonprofit, Karla said the work they have been able to accomplish over the past year has been impactful in the lives of many.
“We became a 501(c)3 nonprofit just 11 months ago in December of 2019, but we’ve been able to make great strides over the past year that we’re all very proud of,” she said. “My role currently as the Chief Executive Officer is to build sustainability for our organization, but we have three main facets that are creating considerable impacts every day.
“The first is Learning and Development: We often work towards this goal through our Learning Labs where we’re able to guide educators to think about their identity so they can make sure they’re not including any biases when they’re engaging with students, and, if so, we teach them how to check and resolve those biases.
“The second point that we focus on is Research: One of the main goals of The Equity Institute is to search for, analyze and synthesize information to produce all the ideas and approaches that we have to promote equity in the education system. Research shows us how we know what we do is working. We take an emergent strategy approach as a very results-driven organization.
“The third facet of our organization is Coalition Building: We strive to support and cultivate meaningful interactions between people and promote collective action for equity within the education system. This is where our EduLeaders of Color meetups come into play; we want to galvanize and bring people together so they can determine the unique role they play in this work for change.”
Karla said her drive to advocate for change is fueled every day when the goals of The Equity Institute are realized by changing lives through their programs like the EduLead fellowship.
“Our EduLead fellowship program is a pathway for teacher assistants to become teachers. We leverage the teacher assistants that already exist and help them get their bachelor’s degree so they can be certified to be educators. The main two barriers to people who want to become teachers are time and money, so we address the time aspect with College Unbound, which allows people to have a job during the day and go to school at night. And for the money issue, we supplement and provide scholarships for our fellows to complete the program. Carlon has interviewed people who are becoming fellows, and after telling them we’ll provide them with $5,000, he’s had them cry and show immense gratitude. And it’s not always solely because they needed that financial peace, but because they wanted to be a teacher for so long but they just hadn’t had the access to get there. We’ve had people from the EduLead meetups who say that they got a job or a position on a board because of a connection they made through our nonprofit. Those stories are just another form of data that shows what we’re doing is helping and critical for our community. It shows us moving towards positive change, which brings me immeasurable joy,” she said.
Karla said one of the most important takeaways from her time with The Equity Institute, and from the various experiences of her life overall, is to be open and willing to take part in the unexpected.
“When I felt rejected and downtrodden, my friend said to me, ‘I don’t think you’ve found your home yet — just wait.’ I think about that often, because I had never thought of myself as the leader of an organization, but what I’ve realized is that there’s so much potential in people, and because of those same inequities that I advocate against, those potentials often go untapped. I’ve been lucky to find and start something that I love and believe in, that I didn’t have to compromise anything for. There are so many people that are going through the same experiences as I have, being pushed from one institution to the next and feeling awful and invalidated at the end of the day. And had I not had just the right amount of strength and luck to bring me to where I am today, I’d still be in the same place,” she said.
To people who are struggling to find their place in the world, Karla said: “Remember to always be open and willing to take part in new opportunities. Change is constant, so be like water. The world and its systems continually place obstacles in our way, but don’t give up on what you believe in. Embrace what the world says are failures as lessons, and approach every day as a chance to do the right thing.”
To learn more about The Equity Institute, visit TheEquityInstitute.org