Take a moment to reflect on where you grew up, went to school, how you spend your free time. This all informs where you give and why you feel connected to your causes. Welcome to Impact Profiles, our new series that’s all about our community, about you. We’re talking to non-profit founders, executive directors, and donors alike about what they care about most and their unique missions.
I recently spoke to Katie Campos, Executive Director of Teach for America Buffalo. In our conversation, we covered her professional history, personal motivations, and unique philanthropic identity. And through it all, she placed an undeniable emphasis on access to and empowering people with information.
“One of my values is a big belief in people’s capacity.”
It came as no surprise, then, to discover that since she was a child, Campos was interested in the news. From a young age, she’d seek out the newspaper, and spot contradictions– why are they saying one thing but doing something else? She had access to information, and it empowered her. Now as an adult, Campos’ philanthropic identity directs her towards education and informing communities. “One of my values is a big belief in people’s capacity,” says Campos.
Before TFA, Campos worked with DFER (Democrats for Education Reform) and later moved home to Buffalo, NY. She used the word “outraged” several times to describe how she felt about the school system and how difficult it was to find information about NY public schools. She wanted to put together why so many classrooms didn’t have grade-appropriate books, why students were graduating wholly unprepared for their grade-level, why the schools were effectively failing. And why more people weren’t talking about it.
She began organizing parents and students to learn about their rights and understand what policies could better serve their schools. Before this movement gained momentum and transformed into the nonprofit organization Buffalo ReformED, Campos would wait outside schools, churches, and talk to parents one-on-one about their experiences.
“Cultivating people [like parents], helps them to appreciate their full potential.” Campos believes that you can steward a community to what they perceive as a challenge and through information, empower them with tools to alleviate it. The ingredients for success here are strong leadership and the principle of “power in numbers.”
After ReformED, Campos served in Governor Andrew M Cuomo’s office as the Assistant Secretary for Education. But Buffalo called her back. She cites “proximity” as the driving force in returning to the city. “The further you get removed, the harder it is to find out what’s going on on the ground level.”
As a leader, Campos adopts these two truths to keep people involved over time: “education is far from where it needs to be, and every time there’s a bright spot, celebrate it.”
There’s a lot of work to do. What gets tricky is the “revolving door” of parents and students, as she put it, cycling through the schools. Because in the years a student is enrolled, they might not see the sweeping changes they dream of, but they can absolutely make progress.
They know and “feel like they’re part of making history.”
I asked her how we can motivate people to advocate for change when they might not see immediate results. “As far as the ‘here’s what I can do today, tomorrow, next week,’ the short answer is… stay informed. Give [people] a number of different news sources. Understand what kinds of questions they can ask their kids about how things are going at school.”
This applies to teachers as well. To reduce the risk of burnout, TFA Buffalo Corps members connect with kernels of goodness and those aforementioned “bright spots” that can be expanded upon. Campos knows that change takes time, but she’s seen first hand the impact this kind of coaching can have on a community and now the TFA Corps members. They know and “feel like they’re part of making history.”
“Every recurring donation, no matter the amount, gives us a boon of confidence…We hold every donor in the same regard.”
So what’s the next phase of involvement and growth? The next generation.
Campos admires the motivation of Millennials and Gen Z-ers. “They have come to expect information at their fingertips. They do their own research. They expect answers and clarity about what they’re involved in.” And she’s optimistic about the impact this age group can have. As Campos expressed, feeling entitled to answers is a good kind of entitlement. As we age, we see how hard it is to push against a system for so long, to see how long it takes to see change, and eventually, we no longer feel entitled to information.
There’s that word again: information. “We need to ensure that the world is changing to meet the needs of this age group. They’re making informed choices.” And transparency plays a critical role. When concrete answers are missing, Campos believes that “‘I don’t know’ is a fine answer as long as it’s transparent.” We can learn together. And it starts locally.
You can start with yourself. Your community. Your city. As Campos learned, proximity does matter. And it’s the people in a community who can change that community for themselves.
“A recurring donation means that your vision aligns with our vision.”
TFA Buffalo offers personalized support for their corps members, building a network of leaders committed to their unique missions and community goals. The website for TFA Buffalo boasts that “in addition to continuing their work as teachers, alumni in our region also have become principals and district leaders, joined local nonprofits, and founded charter schools—all moving to redefine what it means to get an excellent education in our city.” That sounds like Campos’ leadership in action.
Of course, it’s also the wider community that matters. Far beyond the city limits of Buffalo is a community of givers with philanthropic identities that connect them to this city and this mission. So whether near or far from Buffalo, Campos says, “every recurring donation, no matter the amount, gives us a boon of confidence…We hold every donor in the same regard.”
It goes back to the idea of power in numbers. For TFA Buffalo, each donation indicates an interest in the work TFA is doing. “A recurring donation means that your vision aligns with our vision.” And she assures that they keep the community informed about where the money goes. And if you have questions about TFA Buffalo? Ask! The thirst for knowledge and informed decision-making is at the foundation of Campos’ work. This kind of transparency, empowerment, and growth-mindset helps build the habit of giving and an informed community. And that’s the future of change-making.