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This Q&A is part of a series highlighting the work of Black education leaders in partnership with the 1954 Project.
What could another version of post-secondary education look like that would provide students of color with a pathway toward social and economic mobility?
The Marcy Lab School, co-founded by Reuben Ogbonna, exists to answer that question. The school serves students without four-year college degrees who come from historically underserved communities. The impact? Graduates go on to earn more than $100,000 per year writing software for fast-growing companies and nonprofit organizations.
Because of this inspiring work, Ogbonna was recently recognized as one of five Luminaries by the 1954 Project, a Black-led education philanthropy initiative to fund diverse Black leaders. In the following Q&A, Ogbonna shares more about The Marcy Lab School and offers advice for donors.
Q. What inspired you to create The Marcy Lab School?
After spending 14 years serving students of color — along with my co-founder Maya Bhattacharjee — in the Atlanta, Ga., and Brooklyn, N.Y., public school systems, we witnessed firsthand our former students with limitless potential slip through the cracks of higher ed. High standardized test scores and college acceptance rates failed to translate to economic mobility for our city’s most promising students. We were dismayed by the pervasive failing college promise that left our students and their families in life-altering debt and faced with other seemingly insurmountable barriers.
So we came together to build and now lead Marcy Lab out of our shared commitment to overcome economic inequality and a belief that our students, and honestly all students, deserve better. The Marcy Lab School offers a new post-secondary experience without the financial burden and is rooted in our founding mission of creating lifelong economic mobility for historically marginalized young people.
Q. How is your organization helping to create a more equitable landscape for education in the U.S.?
We create alternative pathways to high-growth technology careers for young adults of color to unlock the generational economic mobility that has historically only been associated with a college degree.
The curriculum of our year-long, tuition-free Software Engineering Fellowship is two-fold: Fellows dive into the fundamentals of software engineering and computer science while also engaging in Leadership and Development seminars, focusing on civic studies, race and identity development, financial literacy, and professional fluency. Our students are reading James Baldwin, Beverly Tatum, and Michelle Alexander and discussing the important and pressing social issues they see in their communities.
If we’re doing our job right, Marcy Lab Fellows are not only gaining transferable technical skills that will set them up for a long-term career in tech, but they are also growing as individuals, becoming equity-minded leaders on the job and in their communities. And when considered nationally, there is no doubt that replication of a post-secondary model like Marcy Lab is possible. We see ourselves as one contributor within a growing ecosystem of impactful organizations that can bring equitable practices to the classroom and the workforce.
Q. What do you see as the biggest challenges facing students of color in the United States today? What makes you optimistic?
The challenges I witnessed my students face firsthand are some of the most pervasive hurdles for young learners of color. The universal message to my students was that college was the best, if not the only, solution that would help lift them and their families out of poverty and into the middle class. This message carried with it an incredible personal burden and weight, but also a material burden, as Black households disproportionally carry more student debt than their white peers. With an average loan default rate of 32% for Black students and a graduation rate of 34% and 28% for Black and Latinx students, respectively, it was clear that our post-secondary system was failing to deliver on its promise of ROI, as well as the other aspects of college that all young people seek: Community, support, academic relevance, and career alignment.
However, what makes me optimistic are the shifts and evolutions occurring within the business community as companies move away from degree requirements and toward skills-based hiring, which has unlocked the potential for organizations like Marcy even to exist. It’s incredible to see the expansion of an ecosystem of equitable, post-secondary pathways propelling high-achieving students of color into wealth-generating careers without a four-year degree but with the earnings to break cycles of poverty in just a single generation.
Q. What results do you hope to achieve with The 1954 Project's support and funding?
Since 2019, we’ve worked tirelessly to validate our program model. Undoubtedly, the impact and change our Fellows are creating in their own lives, for their families, and within the greater New York City tech community is proof that, yes, it is working. So with success on the program side, we now have the opportunity and support to build organizational and operational resilience, investing in the leaders who will continue to drive this work forward and the storytelling that will engender trust and credibility with our closest stakeholders. What’s exciting to note is that this work is well underway and will only propel forward thanks to the generous, unrestricted support of The 1954 Project, support that is often deemed radical for earlier-stage organizations.
We are ensuring our existing and newly appointed leaders, such as our Director of Communications and Marketing, Director of Instructor Learning and Development, Head of Growth and Admissions Strategy, and Chief of Staff, are positioned for success with the right amount of support, professional development, and mentoring.
We know that we want to become one of New York City's top post-secondary options for young adults of color, as well as be a thought leader in the landscape of higher education, each of which will require an immense amount of earned trust in our work. For example, within our first six months of investing in a partnership with Whiteboard Advisors, a mission-driven communications and public relations firm that supports organizations working to advance educational equity, and having a Director of Communications and Marketing on our full-time staff, we obtained placements in The New York Times and CNBC. And just as we had hoped, this investment in our messaging and storytelling has already led to more than $50,000 in additional funding and led to inbound hiring inquiries for our current Fellows.
Q. How can philanthropists help reimagine our education landscape and better support Black education leaders in the United States?
Philanthropists can help reimagine our country’s education landscape by identifying the individuals closest to the work, trusting them to lead, and accelerating their ideas, serving as the nation’s “R&D” for some of education’s most pressing problems. In particular, trusting our nation’s Black education leaders who are on the ground, philanthropists have the opportunity to seed some of the most impactful solutions to lift the most deserving students of color out of systems that inherently were not built for them. By supporting these educational movements, rather than small, siloed pockets of impact, philanthropists can serve as great connectors, facilitators, and ecosystem builders, effecting tremendous change for our young people across the country and helping to reshape broken systems.