This Q&A is part of a series highlighting the work of Black education leaders in partnership with the 1954 Project.

When she was a senior in high school, Nicole Lynn Lewis held a stack of college acceptance letters in one hand and a positive pregnancy test in the other. Five years later -- despite immense financial and emotional challenges -- Lewis walked across the graduation stage at the College of William & Mary with her daughter. 

Lewis, founder and CEO of Generation Hope, knew her success story was rare. Since 2010, she has worked to ensure economic mobility for other parenting college students through mentoring, tuition assistance, and wrap-around services. The organization’s two-generation model also provides an early childhood program to ensure the children of its students are ready for kindergarten. 

Because of this innovative work and proven impact (Generation Hope’s graduation rates for Black parenting college students exceeds the national average), Lewis was recently recognized as one of five Luminaries by the 1954 Project, a Black-led education philanthropy initiative to fund diverse leaders. Giving Compass recently spoke with Lewis about her work and future plans. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Generation Hope: Breaking Down Education Barriers and Creating Economic Opportunity for Teen Parents
Lewis with her daughter at her college graduation.

Q: What inspired you to launch Generation Hope?

I started at the College of William and Mary when my daughter was a little under three months old. I was surrounded by other students who had resources and family support, but didn't have the responsibilities of being a parent. How do you pay for diapers and a textbook? How do you find affordable child care and feed both you and your child? I was also going to a predominantly white institution where very few students looked like me. I was an anomaly on campus, but it was also completely transformative to get my college degree. After college, I was looking to volunteer with an organization that was focused on teen parents and college completion, but none existed. By this time, I was working for a major insurance company and getting my master's degree in social policy from George Mason University. I was living proof that college can change things for a young family and I wanted others to have that same success, so I launched Generation Hope.

Q: How is Generation Hope helping create a more equitable education landscape in the U.S.?

Our work is really racial justice work because teen pregnancy disproportionately impacts communities of color. 

Less than 2% of teen mothers get a college degree before age 30. We’re ensuring that more parenting college students are actually getting that post-secondary credential. Those are really Black and Brown students, who for the most part, are invisible on college campuses. They're not getting the services, the support, and the resources that they need to make it to the graduation stage. Our systems are just not set up for them to succeed and thrive. We’re trying to ensure that these parents and families are moving out of poverty and experiencing economic mobility in communities that have been highly racialized.

Q: What are the biggest challenges you see that children of color are facing in the U.S. education system? Also, what are you hopeful about?

The population that we serve is among the most likely to fall through the cracks of our education system, from early childhood to K-12 to college. Many students don't even make it out of high school because people write them off. We need educators and administrators who see the potential and encourage all students to complete their high school diploma, get their GED, and go on to a postsecondary credential. 

The stigma that surrounds teen mothers and fathers is incredibly damaging and influences the lack of support that is out there. We're hoping that we can help people begin to think differently about this population and see that this group of students has incredible potential and ability to not only change their communities, but also our world.

Q: What solutions do you see for reducing stigma?

We have to stop perpetuating the myths around teen pregnancy. Most of us believe that our highest teen pregnancy rates are either right now or in the last 30 years, but when I got pregnant in the 1990s, they were actually on the decline. I remember the messaging around teen pregnancy at the time, and it was about political agendas and shaping people's perceptions about who deserved support and who didn't deserve support. 

Another stereotype that contributes to the stigma is that teen parents are lazy and unambitious. But when you do this work every day, you see some of the most hardworking, dedicated, passionate young people who are highly motivated to get their college degree in part because they have children. 

Our job at Generation Hope is to educate people and help them understand the facts. Teen pregnancy is a complex issue that's wrapped up in the way that we support communities and the ways that we don't support communities. A lot of it has to do with racial bias. 

Q: Tell me about the 1954 Project. What results do you hope to achieve with this additional support and funding? 

We plan to build upon our 10-plus years of boots-on-the-ground work to address the systemic barriers that our students face. We're launching a technical assistance program for colleges and universities to help them better serve parenting students. We'll also be implementing a policy and advocacy agenda driven by student parents. The agenda will focus on policy change in the D.C. Metro area, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, as well as federal policies like more funding for campus childcare or financial aid reform. Our students will be at the center of this work, helping to voice their experience and how policies affect their day-to-day lives. Lastly, we're going to be looking to replicate our direct services model outside of the D.C. region. So this amazing support from the 1954 Project will help make those big, ambitious goals come true and hopefully inspire other funders to get behind this work.

Q: How can donors help reimagine the education landscape and better support Black education leaders in the U.S.?

 I would encourage donors to think holistically about education and education support. It's not just about what is happening in the classroom. It's about the whole student and their lives -- making sure they can even get to the classroom and that they’re not sitting in a classroom hungry.

Sometimes teen parents’ needs might not fit into a traditional category for support. That's why it's critical to invest in leaders who are proximate to the community, who know these populations, and have a good sense of what their needs are. Black leaders are at the forefront and many of us have the lived experiences of the students we are advocating for. We're making sure that those non-traditional approaches are out there, but we're not getting the funding to implement them. Seek out those leaders and give them the flexibility with their dollars to do what needs to be done in the community.

Q: Final advice for donors, in particular for the growing field of Black education philanthropists and allies that the 1954 Project seeks to bring together? 

Philanthropy has an opportunity to change the way it's been doing things to create real transformation for our Black and Brown youth, in particular, and for all students. We need to make it easier for people to move out of poverty and overcome racial oppression. Invest in social entrepreneurs and give significant multi-year contributions.

Lastly, Black women-led organizations have a really hard time raising funds to advance their solutions -- they receive less than 1% of foundation giving. The pandemic has disproportionately impacted Black and Brown women so this is a moment for us to think of ways to uplift and invest in women leaders of color who are proximate to the community and are often the last to get funding.