In all my years of working to bring better school choices to families on Chicago’s South and West Sides, it’s always blown my mind that people don’t take the time to listen to what these families have to say about their own kid’s education. Well, one guy who understands the importance of it is Daniel Anello. Daniel is the CEO of Kids First Chicago, a local nonprofit that works with families to get the best education possible. I talked with him recently about that work and his path toward education advocacy.
How did your childhood shape your views on education, especially around issues of race, class and equity?
My parents were inner city teachers and from early on it was clear to me and my two brothers that college was a destination, not an option. As an interracial couple who met and lived in Newark in the ’60s, my parents often talked to us about civil rights, justice and the importance of education.
I grew up with 50 miles of trees across the road in the distant backwoods of a tiny mill town in upstate New York of 2,000 people. We were the only Brown kids in a fairly poor, all-White community, and as much as that usually was not an issue, it was apparent we were different. My first bus ride made that evident when a boy sang the N-word to me the whole way to school, which where we lived was a 45-minute commute.
In many ways, being mixed was not an option for me or my brothers, as we were defined by our environment as the Black kids. When I check a box today, I check Black. Not because I don’t take pride in being German, or Italian, but as a reflex to that conditioning from my childhood.
As a kid, I remember wanting to get out to see more of the world and to be exposed to diversity in ways I couldn’t find in our small town. Education was the key to that opportunity. What I didn’t realize was how unprepared we were.
You transitioned from the for-profit world to nonprofit. Why?
I do this work for my two brothers. All three of us struggled throughout our college experiences due to a lack of preparation. For my oldest brother Shane, his struggles in a tech school with little support, far from home, had tragic consequences for him. In many ways, I feel like we flipped a coin on life, our outcomes determined by which college brochure we picked up. We both selected randomly, never considering what wraparound supports a school might provide, or what would be necessary to get us through given where we were academically.
I ended up in one of the top liberal arts schools in the country, a place where my scores were far below the average, but that would provide every support to make sure I made it through. My younger brother would follow me there four years later, face his own challenges, and benefit from those same supports.
We ended up going to a place that takes chances on kids like us and doesn’t let them fail. My older brother ended up in a place that didn’t have those same resources, and going first meant he would make mistakes from which I would be able to learn. It breaks my heart, but it’s why I am in this work now.
I spent 12 years in the private sector wondering why selling shampoo or deodorant even mattered. Sure, it’s more complex than that, but it became evident to me that I wanted to help more kids prepare for and transition into college. When an opportunity emerged to jump into this space as a career, I took it. The last eight years have been an incredible journey.
Your organization recently changed its name to Kids First Chicago. Why and what’s your vision for Kids First Chicago?
Our work looks very different today than it did when we were New Schools for Chicago.
We restarted the organization after nearly a two-year hiatus, and we had an opportunity to approach education policy differently.
My professional background was in consumer packaged goods, where you never designed anything that didn’t have the eventual consumer touch it, taste it and experience it many times prior to final production. The product testing was rigorous and you ended up developing a much better product for the consumer. Unfortunately, we rarely do that for the education “consumers,” the families and communities we intend to serve. We design and develop, and routinely impose policy and education solutions on communities.
Sometimes that works, but many times there are unintended consequences and we end up harming the people we meant to help in unforeseen ways. Often, our inability to listen stems from a political ideology or viewpoint that isn’t based in the reality of these families. I think that is a huge miss on our part.
Our work at Kids First Chicago is anchored on what families have told us in focus groups and our daily interactions that they want for their children’s educations. We empower parents to identify, navigate and demand quality public school options for their kids. With parents’ help, we shape education policy to better support their families. And we improve middle-performing schools, creating better opportunities for kids across the district.
What do you think is the greatest challenge in bringing that vision to fruition?
As an organization that has reinvented the way we do things, we have a lot of ground to cover in earning the trust of those we hope to aid—families and communities. That has been a major focus for us since our relaunch and the thing I care about most.
Unfortunately, we also have to circumvent the distraction of ideological organizations who spend an inordinate amount of money and energy fighting to sustain their preferred worldviews rather than what parents and families are saying.
To truly empower families to lead, we have to arm them with complete information, support to develop and implement their visions and advocate for the changes they want to see. We need to be deferential and just get out of their way. That also takes time, which is challenging in that many of the organizations eager to foster positive change in schools want to see that occur within a timeframe that doesn’t align to the realities of how communities figure these things out for themselves. We routinely wrestle with those tensions.
What’s the most rewarding part of your work?
Working directly with parents and their kids, supporting them in their search for great options and helping them advocate for the changes they want to see. It takes considerable time and in my role I do it far less than I would like to, but it is incredibly rewarding to help someone resolve an issue that is burdening them right then and there, and help them realize they aren’t powerless in their ability to make things better for their kid and others.