Purposeful Q+A: Layla Avila, CEO of Education Leaders of Color

Team_Layla_Avila_de_Romero.jpg

Layla Avila is founder and CEO of Education Leaders of Color, or EdLoC, a new membership organization dedicated to elevating the leadership, voices, and influence of people of color in education and to leading more inclusive efforts to improve education. Layla is driven by a central value, a “belief that our work and education is about really being able to use education to create more thriving black and Latino communities, with a belief that education is a key way of ending generational poverty.” This focus is driven by personal experience and her own education, which “really changed the trajectory for my family.” Her story:

My mother was a Mexican immigrant who had a first grade education. I was raised near the border between Mexico and the US. She believed that the United States was the land of opportunity and that this country would provide many more opportunities for her children than they would otherwise have in Mexico. She came to this country, and almost five months after she was married, I was born. I am very frank about the fact that I am what people call an anchor baby. It was one of the reasons why my parents were able to become legal residents in the US.

Unfortunately, my mom was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis very young. What continued to drive her was the belief that this country would afford her children opportunity. She very much believed that a key to that was getting a good education, even though she didn’t really know what that meant. But she knew that folks who were educated have better lives. She worked in a clothing factory for many years. The folks who were educated – in her mind – they were secretaries. They had taken typing and worked in the air-conditioned room. They were at desks, and they got to sit down for most of the day. She was a presser, which meant she ironed a lot of the clothes that were coming out of the clothing factory. She was on her feet all day out on the factory floor, which tended to be very, very hot because she was amongst all the irons. She knew that education was a way to improve your lot in life and to give you more chances.

My teacher said to me, ‘You have this opportunity after middle school to attend this boarding school. It’s going to give you the opportunity to attend college, and importantly, these colleges that accept you will pay for you to go to their school, because there aren’t that many Latinas who grow up in the hood who get the experience of going to these elite prep schools.’ Even though my mom was in a wheelchair, she was very clear about needing to open up those doors of opportunity. She said to me at one point, ‘I’m not going to tie you down to my wheelchair. If this is what your teachers tell you to do, then that’s what you need to do.’

That experience opened up the doors to college. I was able to make a smart decision about where I would go to college, which meant I left with very little debt. I got a wonderful education, which also opened the doors to graduate school. Within a generation, our lives had completely changed. We went from living on my mom’s social security income to a place where I was in a position to purchase a home. My mother moved in, and we had healthcare for her and for myself. The things that we worried about when I was very little completely changed. We went from, ‘Is she going to be able to make her check, make it through the month so we can actually purchase groceries?’ to a whole different life. That happened within a generation, and it happened because of the opportunity that I had by getting a great education.
Layla Avila at TNTP.jpg

In college and at Harvard’s Kennedy School, Layla explored the connections between income inequality and education nurturing her passion for systemic change in K-12 public education. She went into the classroom and taught second grade in Compton, then she joined to The New Teacher Project, now known as TNTP. She stayed there for many years and really didn’t envision leaving it.

But I also knew that we needed to work to ensure that we could support values-based leadership. It wasn’t enough to work toward excellent teachers when we did not approach it in a way that worked much more closely with communities. I really felt like EdLoC would be an opportunity to really focus on all the people doing this work. Whether it’s system leaders, school leaders, other leaders in the nonprofit sector, how do we create multiple generations of leaders who really approach this work in a much more inclusive way?

One piece of advice that Layla gives to purpose-driven leaders is to consider, distinctively, not just their management style but their leadership principles too.

No one ever asked me, what kind of leader do you want to be? One of the things that I would encourage managers of younger folks and people who are in leadership positions – even folks who are later on in their careers – is the ask them: what are your leadership principles? What is it that drives you? It wasn’t until later on in life that somebody said to me, “Management and leadership are different.” It is going to help you be much more purposeful about the work that you do. It will also help you make decisions about where you want to work, who you want to work for, and how you want to go about doing that work.

Layla encourages leaders to push themselves to do what’s hardest, particularly when it comes to living by their values.

For me, values-based leadership is always aspirational. It’s really hard to live up to 100% of those values 100% of the time because sometimes some of these values are in conflict with one another. Sometimes you have to prioritize one over the other. I hope that doesn’t come off as letting ourselves off the hook. It’s aspirational in the sense that we should aspire to do this all the time, but we also know that there are always tensions in values. If it were so easy to lead according to values, everybody would be doing it.