Carolina Ramirez’s upbringing in the inner-city education system was far from easy. At nine years old, her father was sentenced to federal prison. This inspired her to pursue a career in law. She attended high school at Washington Irving for Law, which meant that, at the age of fourteen, she was traveling almost two hours each day between downtown Manhattan and her home in Harlem. Every morning, she waited in blocks-long lines to attend classes in that Title I school, where ninety percent of the students were from low-income families, test scores were low, and resources were scarce. Upon arrival each day, she walked through metal detectors and submitted to intrusive body scans, a humiliating experience endured by students, merely to access an education.
Carolina’s reality is far from rare; in fact, it’s the norm for most urban schools serving students of color. Carolina, however, was afforded an educational opportunity through an after-school program geared to equip college-bound students from the inner-cities to compete at the highest academic levels. This program, LegalOutreach, Inc., introduced her to new experiences, expanded her network and honed in on skill building for success.
This all came back to her after college as she taught urban ninth grade students. Carolina noticed the cycle of inequity and thought, “why am I so special?” Ultimately, she concluded, it wasn’t so much that she was special, but rather, simply fortunate enough to pursue a door-opening opportunity. As she met more people outside her immediate circle, an increasing number of new and potentially fruitful paths became available to her.
Carolina now believes she has a moral obligation to move forward the hard work of those before her by augmenting their reach and impact. So, after earning her degrees at Tufts and N.Y.U., she pursued a global perspective of social change which led her to become co-founder of Lead for Ghana.
Carolina Ramirez co-founded Lead For Ghana, helped reform urban educational systems and launched her own photography company - all by the age of 30! We spoke to Carolina about her childhood influences, non-profit work and the launch of her latest venture in storytelling through photography as a means of amplifying causes dedicated to social equity.
Lead For Ghana, a member of the Teach for All network, is based on key principles of leadership development. Although not a new concept, we were told we would never be able to attract and retain the talent needed to survive. I recall the initial disappointment when we pitched our first round of funding. The room was full of executives who stared back at three young professionals requesting their support to change the ways young leaders were recruited and trained for Ghana’s educational sector. They smiled at our naivete and asked us to exit the room while they deliberated. Ten agonizing minutes later, we were told to return next year after we proved that we could mobilize a cohort of top graduates who would commit to teach in Ghana’s remote schools. Of course, this was a circular hurdle as we needed the funding to prove the concept, yet we were asked for proof of concept before funding. This rejection only fueled our passion.
It turns out, we far exceeded even our own expectations. Three years later, I am proud to say that we cultivated a cohort of 190 individuals who are championing education reform inside and outside the classroom to completely transform the education system in Ghana. This experience, coupled with the existing research on equity, leadership and ethics, suggests that today’s young professionals are eager to make a difference and will choose opportunities that allow them to make an impact by rethinking the existing structures of inequality. As Co-Founder, former Chief Program Officer,and current Board of Directors member of Lead for Ghana, I believe universities can develop a new generation of leaders that take direct responsibility for innovating the ways we address socioeconomic and environmental inequality.
At Lead For Ghana, conversations of equity were often relegated to those who are directly impacted by systemic injustices, and/or to spaces of self-selected groups who have an affinity towards addressing inequities. Institutions have an opportunity to establish better civic engagement environments to more widely develop the knowledge, skills and mindset that individuals need towards equity-driven leadership through innovative and intentional programs intended to develop a generation of system leaders. Too few understand their role in the existing reproduction of inequity and teaching the necessary skill sets to drive change. The learning gap is no cause for alarm – it is an opportunity to restructure how we prepare individuals to be active citizens of today’s world and well-informed change agents of the future.
Through these efforts, I learned that I could be a vessel for social reform on a large scale by changing the mindsets of individuals at an institutional level – and that it was time to bring this back home.
I wanted to leverage what I learned in establishing Lead For Ghana by helping individuals closer to home. I was initially attracted to TEP, located in a neighborhood where I did part of schooling, Washington Heights, for its revolutionary approach to social change through education. This was an idea that to which I had dedicated my entire post-graduate career. TEP was founded on the idea that teacher quality is the single most important factor in the academic success of students, particularly of those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
While this concept has been around awhile, TEP’s radical approach to the “how” was, like Lead For Ghana, an idea that others said was impossible. TEP’s mission is to achieve educational equity for disadvantaged students by utilizing master teachers to provide rigorous academics, arts, and athletic instruction. TEP reallocates the public funding it receives as a charter school to pay its teaching professionals an annual salary of $125,000, with the opportunity to earn a significant performance bonus.
The idea worked. As reported in the Wall Street Journal, a rigorous long-term study found that TEP produced major achievement impacts, including test score gains equal to an additional 1.6 years of school in math, with significant gains in science and English. TEP is succeeding in closing the Latino-White academic achievement gap. Originally a 5th through 8th grade middle school, I was hired as Director of Operations to, among other things, launch TEP’s Elementary School campus (grades 2 - 4). I am proud to say that TEP now also serves students in Kindergarten through 8th grade. TEP serves 1,200 students at full capacity across three campuses including our early childhood, elementary and middle school.
Over the last five years, I have launched thriving organizations doing good in the world. I discovered that I have a vessel of knowledge to share with organizations about how to operationalize and magnify their purpose, particularly in the education and social/political arenas. I thrive on leveraging my experience to help individuals and organizations of color launch out-of-the-box ideas.
I am also a creative. With much on pause in 2020, I began thinking about ways to marry my creativity with social good. So, I naturally thought, what better way to amplify these causes than by merging them with my passion for storytelling through photography?
My photography builds visibility of what blackness means. Photos have the power to illicit emotions, which can help change mindsets just as education influences how we think. My photography is another medium in which I can help amplify those stories. Like education, I believe mindset shifts through discourse and dissonance and this is crucial for advancing equity.
I am excited to re-imagine the way we develop the next generation of leaders in all sectors to drive equity on a local, community, and systemic level. We are at a cross-roads, and I truly believe that individuals are at the heart of equity and justice reform. I want to play a role in supporting individuals, organizations, and small business thrive while doing good in the world. So I am launching a Strategy and Non Profit management consulting group, to cultivate and foster missions that change the world. Stay tuned for VISIONS by Carolina Ramirez, we are re-imaging and amplifying doing good!