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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.
Only 42% of Black students and 49% of Latinx students earn a degree after six years of entering college, compared with 68% of white students; and only 16% of students in the bottom income quartile earn bachelor’s degrees by their mid-20s vs. 62% of their wealthier counterparts.
Beyond 12 is working to close these education gaps. The tech-enabled nonprofit was founded in 2009 by Alexandra Bernadotte and uses digital coaching to support students and data analytics to provide insights to education administrators to help them better prepare and support their students for college success.
Because of this inspiring work, Bernadotte 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, Bernadotte shares more about Beyond 12 and offers advice for donors.
Q. What inspired you to create Beyond 12?
My parents immigrated to the United States from Haiti when I was three months old, leaving me in the care of my beloved grandmother, Mommy Claire, in order to secure a better life for me -- which they knew started with a high-quality education. I was eventually reunited with my parents and younger sister in inner-city Boston and, with their unending support, worked diligently to gain acceptance to Dartmouth College. Like many first-generation students, I struggled during my first year. I withdrew from my village because I didn't know how to discuss my struggles without acknowledging that I might fail them and their sacrifices.
With support from my family and the help of incredible mentors, I graduated in four years and eventually earned a graduate degree from Stanford University.
The challenges I faced during my college years planted the seed for what I wanted to do professionally: build a movement to ensure other first-generation students wouldn’t struggle as I had.
Q. How is your organization helping to create a more equitable landscape for education in the U.S.?
To earn a degree that will allow them to change their economic and personal prospects, historically underserved students need and deserve greater support that can help them maintain the momentum that has gotten them into college in the first place. This is where Beyond 12 comes in. We aim to close the college degree divide between historically underrepresented students and their peers. We focus our efforts on Black and Latinx students, first-generation college students, and students from under-resourced communities.
Through a digital platform that combines: coaches who work with students virtually while they are in college, a campus customized mobile app, and an AI-powered analytics engine, Beyond 12 helps institutions provide their students with the academic, social, and emotional support they need to succeed in higher education, paving a path for their economic and social mobility.
We envision a world in which every student has the opportunity to earn a post-secondary degree or credential that allows them to provide for their families, contribute to society, and break the cycle of poverty for the next generation. When our vision is realized, a student’s race, zip code, and parent’s level of education will no longer predict their college graduation outcomes or their future success.
Q. What do you see as the biggest challenges facing students of color in the United States today? What makes you optimistic?
Today, students of color do not have equitable access to high-quality schools and education options, the impact of which is compounded the more time students spend in our education system. In many ways, this is the same challenge students of color have always faced – navigating a system that was not created for them and functions just as it has been designed: to open the path of opportunity for a select few and close it for many others.
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed and exacerbated the systemic racism faced by Black and Brown communities, resulting not only in inequitable health outcomes but also in profound economic uncertainty. Consequently, college enrollment and persistence rates have dropped, particularly for Black and Latinx students. These challenges represent lost economic mobility for young people and their families — and potentially the progress of an entire generation.
Our students fuel my optimism. Through their activism, they are removing the barriers on their college campuses that prevent them and other first-generation students from succeeding. Our students are prepared and eager to end the degree divide between them and their peers; lift themselves and their communities out of poverty; and change the way our higher education system engages and supports all students.
Q. What results do you hope to achieve with The 1954 Project's support and funding?
We recognize that to truly achieve educational equity, we have to do more than prepare our young people to succeed in the education system as we know it. We have to inspire them to question, deconstruct, and help build a new one — one that is specifically and intentionally designed to center the needs of historically underrepresented students and deliver equitable outcomes for all students.
We aim to both scale our coaching platform to ensure that as many Black and Latinx students as possible earn high-quality degrees in the current system and activate our students to catalyze a movement to redesign our higher education institutions so they are more accessible, affordable, relevant, and just.
We hope to work with The 1954 Project to help us scale our reach to serve one million historically underrepresented students annually by 2030 while also helping us catalyze a movement for educational equity led by college students themselves.
Q. How can philanthropists help reimagine our education landscape and better support Black education leaders in the United States?
- Listen, learn, and co-create - Leaders who are in closest proximity to a challenge have demonstrated that they are best suited to design its solutions. Listen to Black leaders to better understand the challenges our communities face and, consequently, the solutions that will be most responsive to our needs.
- Make big bets - Systems change is not a $25,000 endeavor and yet Black leaders are often asked to achieve outsized impact with limited capital. Make big, repeatable bets on Black leaders, and invest enough capital to allow us to dream, build, fail fast, learn, and scale.
- Acknowledge and confront bias - Why are investments in Black leaders with the same accolades, reputation, and results as white leaders often considered more “risky”? We will not fit the mold to which you have become accustomed because it is likely we are the “first.” Hire Black investment leads and invest in Black-led philanthropic intermediaries who are creating new rubrics because they recognize the unique perspective and value we bring to the work.
- Accept a new power paradigm - As entrepreneurs who have often lived in our constituents’ shoes, we are designing solutions to address oppressive systemic racial and social inequities. We are offering a substantial social return in exchange for your investment. Therefore, accept the fact that we come to you as equals, standing and not kneeling; a mutually beneficial relationship to address some of our society’s most pressing challenges.