Alumni Spotlight: Nakeisha Neal Jones, Public Allies DC

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Nakeisha Neal Jones is the Assistant Vice President of Public Allies National Programs and the Executive Director of Public Allies Washington DC, a nonprofit organization committed to diverse, equitable, and sustainable leadership. Nakeisha graduated from the McCourt School of Public Policy in 2002 and worked as an Executive Education Associate with the Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership (CPNL). We spoke with Nakeisha about her experience at McCourt, her role at CPNL, as well as her hopes for the future.

CPNL: What was your experience in the McCourt School of Public Policy, and how did it prepare you for your career?

Jones: At the time I applied to Georgetown, I was trying to decide whether I wanted to do international or domestic work. Georgetown felt like a place where I could explore both. During my first year at Georgetown, I took a course called The Nonprofit Sector in Various Nations taught by Virginia Hodgkinson. I studied the country of Ecuador while in that class, decided to travel there during the summer, and found an organization where I wanted to intern. One day, I was having dinner with a friend from McCourt whose cousin and friend happened to be visiting from Ecuador. I told them about my plans to travel and work there. They started laughing. Then the friend said, “My dad is the president of that organization.” After that connection, everything else fell into place to make it possible to spend 10 weeks in Ecuador the following summer. This story illustrates the experience I was seeking at Georgetown. At the end of it all, I accepted a fellowship with the District of Columbia after I graduated, which resulted in my current focus on domestic work.

Something I really appreciated about McCourt was the quantitative focus of the program. I do not consider myself a lover of math or statistics, but I really appreciated the framework that a background in quantitative analysis gave me. I had one professor who would mark students down if their analysis wasn’t in plain language. “What’s the purpose of research that can’t be understood by those who can benefit from it the most?” I never see myself running regression analysis again, but I know that the program sharpened the questions I ask about data. It influenced the way I engage with researchers, manage programs and think about evaluation. I am really grateful for that perspective.

CPNL: As an alumna of the McCourt School of Public Policy and an awardee of the John Thompson Jr. Legacy of a Dream Award, you are a very important member of the Georgetown community. Recently, Georgetown has reaffirmed its commitment to pursuing racial equity and confronting their history with the legacy of slavery. As an academic institution, what conversations do you think need to be happening regarding anti-racism and racial equity? 

Jones: The first thought that comes to mind is an undergraduate experience when I proposed a project that focused on how the media influenced black women’s perceptions of themselves. My professor was a graduate student who completely discounted the idea. My younger self knew that something was wrong, but I decided to pick another topic. Yet whenever I think of that experience, it makes me angry. I know that this didn’t just happen at one predominantly white institution (PWI). Many people of color at PWIs are having similar experiences because the people who are teaching don’t know any better. I hope that Georgetown and other universities are training everyone in teaching roles to affirm student experiences and not discount them.

Georgetown is one of the largest employers in the city. It’s also important to look at university and community relationships on all levels, including staff. I hope that Georgetown is reviewing data about hiring, retention, and advancement across all roles, from maintenance to faculty to administration. If evidence of bias is found, I hope that systems can be restructured to have different outcomes. I am proud of the very hard and public work that Georgetown has been doing to reconcile with families of slaves who built it. We should celebrate that and acknowledge that there is more work to do.

Lastly, I hope that the university will help make it possible for more students of color to receive degrees without student loan debt. Student loan debt continues to rise for all students, but debt is even higher for people of color and limits their choices after graduation for those who graduate. Many others rack up significant student loan debt and don’t earn degrees. The university can make decisions that impact Georgetown students and have influence on larger systems that are impacting students of color nationally. We need to look at the impact that student loans are having on a lot of young people, but more specifically people of color and how it limits their choices. Georgetown and other universities need to realize that they have significant power and influence and they need to consider how to use their position to impact systems that need to change.

CPNL: Marginalized communities are often left out of important policy conversations that affect them directly. What do you think it will take to increase diversity in graduate policy programs and bring marginalized voices to the table?

Jones: I have some places to start and some questions. More universities should fully fund the education of students who are underrepresented. At the same time, programs must support the success of students from underrepresented populations by addressing faculty representation, understanding barriers to completion and having strategies that mitigate those barriers (some systemic). It’s also important to build relationships with underrepresented communities. How can universities meet the research, volunteer or other needs  of organizations that serve underrepresented communities? How can community voices be directly engaged in the process? What will it take to build lasting relationships?

CPNL: Public Allies’ mission is to create a just and equitable society and the diverse leadership to sustain it. What does diverse leadership look like in the nonprofit sector, and why is it so important for sustainability?

Jones: Jones: I have been connected to Public Allies for a long time. I was a Public Allies AmeriCorps member right after college. It gave me an opportunity to do work connected to my natural interests, learn more about systems, and connect with an amazing community that is now life long.

At Public Allies, we value nontraditional leaders. We believe that people who have experienced challenges in communities can lead to solve them. We want our leaders to have a seat at the table and continue to widen it.

Many nonprofits serving black and brown communities don’t have leaders representative of the populations served. Sustainability makes me think of solutions that will last. It’s impossible to have lasting solutions without community insights from participants, community leaders, frontline staff and staff leaders.

CPNL: What is one significant challenge you have faced as a leader in the nonprofit sector?

Jones: I thought about a lot of challenges, some related to being a woman of color. What I settled on was self-care. During my first year as an Executive Director, I had lots of conversations with other leaders. I always asked what they would do differently in hindsight. One person told me that she would take more time off. She waited for the work to slow down, but it never did. She was incredibly successful in the workplace, but she regretted that she didn’t prioritize other areas that were important.

I have always chosen work that I care about, and boundaries have always been a challenge. Those boundaries have been more challenging in work cultures that expect staff to work endless hours because we’re helping others. Over the past year, I have struggled with leading Public Allies while parenting full time, caring for family members and grappling with the pandemic and overt racism.

Yet this time has given me an opportunity to clarify my priorities, reflect on my leadership and practice self care.  I love the word practice, because there’s always an opportunity to learn and get better. The Public Allies curriculum  is based on 10+1 Leadership Actions that are important for social justice leaders. The +1 is a thread of self care that’s important for rejuvenation, healing and renewal. I try to encourage everyone that I meet to join me in this practice.

CPNL: You were fundamental in creating the Nonprofit Management Executive Certificate Program at CPNL. What was the vision for the Certificate Program, and do you think it is still relevant today?

Jones: It can be challenging for university centers to sustain themselves. We were looking to share insights that helped nonprofits gain tools for doing their work better and generate more financial support. Policy and advocacy were distinguishing factors.

The Center’s leadership allowed students to participate in interviews for the first director of the Certificate Program. We were down to two final candidates. One had significant experience with revenue generation. The other candidate was Dr. Kretman. She emphasized the importance of connecting with communities. All of the students loved Dr. Kretman. We were excited that she was hired.

The Center is an example of doing good and doing well. There are so many local community leaders who have benefited from the certificate program. Whenever I hear someone talk about the benefits, I smile and think about the role that I played to help get it started.

Policy and advocacy remain relevant today. In this moment, it can help organizations understand how to uniquely contribute to recovering from the pandemic and racial justice. I hope that the Center will be able to offer support for many more organizations during this time.

CPNL: Next year, the Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership will celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary. What is your hope for the future of the Center and McCourt?

Jones: My hope for the Center is connected to my last response. I hope that McCourt as a whole continues to use its influence to connect research to practice. I am not sure how the school is looking at  anti-racism and systemic change. I hope that McCourt embraces anti-racist practices and leads in ways that the university and educational peers can learn from. 

Stronger alumni programs and connections would also be great. Encouraging alumni to engage during reunion years or other regular activities could deepen the work of the Center and McCourt.