SEF Celebrates 150 Years & Reflects on the Keys to Longevity

Posted: 10/27/2017 2:43 PM
Filed under: 150th, Anniversary

Autumn Blanchard \\ 2017

As we celebrate our anniversary and reflect on the dynamic state of change in education, particularly in the current political environment, we thought it timely to share our insight on the question we are asked most frequently, “What is the key to your longevity?” We believe our answer is applicable for both individuals and organizations who view education equity as a core focus of their mission.


For 150 years, the Southern Education Foundation (SEF), the nation’s first education philanthropy, has been a strategic leader, impacting the most economically challenged region in the nation...the South. Our mission though evolving over the decades has always been anchored in advancing creative solutions to ensure equity and excellence in education for low-income students and students of color in the South. That explicit focus on race and equity in education from cradle to career has provided a compass for the organization to maneuver the ever evolving  education landscape over the decades.  


What our Anniversary Theme Represents For Us

SEF’s anniversary theme Honoring Our Past, Reimagining Our Future speaks to the two-fold nature of our anniversary year as both an opportunity to honor our history and as a launching point into some of our most impactful initiatives yet. It is also an acknowledgement that neither our history, future impact, nor ability to serve our students, occur in a vacuum. We appreciate that we do not occupy this field alone and where those that support and inform our work can benefit from the lessons we’ve learned, we welcome them to do so.


We offer a snapshot of what the last 150 years has offered and share four key insights we’ve gleaned during our tenure that have supported our longevity within the field of education philanthropy.


What Our 150-Year Journey Has Taught Us

Established in 1867 as the George Peabody Fund in the wake of the Civil War to create a permanent foothold for public education in the South, SEF ultimately played a pivotal role in educating newly freed slaves and low-income rural students and their descendants. From inception, the organization has been on the frontlines training & enlisting the talents of teachers of color in segregated classrooms across the region, working to strengthen the capacity of Historically Black Colleges & Universities and Minority Serving Institutions, and supporting leaders such as W.E.B. DuBois through fellowships for both aspiring leaders and school district leaders. Most recently, SEF has traced investments in early childhood education, supported coalitions in advocating for quality public education, and analyzed the implications of demographic changes in the country and disinvestment in K-12 public education systems. Finally, SEF has addressed key barriers to institutional effectiveness and learning outcomes for students of color in higher education.


This work taught us that seeing beyond the challenging realities of our current system is daunting and can threaten to stunt our thinking, dull our hope, and in many cases limit the possibilities for authentic change. Having the benefit of 150 years to reflect upon, and having encountered challenging moments throughout that history, we’ve found that channeling the bold imagination of the very students and communities we serve to power our own ingenuity is a key ingredient to advancing equity-centered systemic change in the South and beyond.


How Our Keys to Longevity Are Meaningful for You?

Some of these keys to longevity were mastered long ago while others we continue to wrestle with, always remaining mindful that if we aim to broaden our impact it’s vital that these be knitted even more deeply into the fabric of both our work and your own.


  • Remaining resilient and responsive to the challenges of the day (Action Orientation)

Challenges in education are as numerous and daunting as other complex societal issues. But, they also come with the added dimension of risk that having generations of children’s futures relying on your decisions brings. This invites debate that can devolve into philosophical conversations alone and ultimately stifle an orientation toward action. In reality, we should all be challenged to take thoughtful action as many children are already missing out on a quality education and subsequently the opportunities they deserve. Undoubtedly, the stakes are high but the reward is of key strategic significance when we consider education’s pivotal role in advancing social change.


  • Placing a premium on coalition building and alignment (Leveraging Partnerships)

Sidestepping opportunities to duplicate the work that others already do well and instead leveraging their work to inform our niche advances a spirit of collaboration rather than competition and moves us collectively towards our common goal. Though our perspectives are multifaceted, strength resides in collaboration. There is value in speaking with a united voice and advancing core priorities such that others who are motivated to assist with our challenges are informed on where resources attention, airtime, money, and human capital, should be concentrated and mobilized to benefit us all. As we encourage individuals to avoid treating education as a business, we must champion this thinking in the field and avoid competing where we can, as we have the common interest of advancing equity for the students we serve and that work can best be accomplished together.


  • Being community informed and student inspired  (Community Informed & Student Inspired)

Striving to consistently ask ourselves challenging questions and positioning ourselves in conversation with the community is vital. They should be informing our work by sharing their desires, challenges, and objectives for their specific contexts so we remain ever sensitive to the communities’ most pressing needs. Additionally, we should be identifying opportunities to amplify their voices so that we all might be energized by the potential in often marginalized communities that deserve to be realized.


  • Remaining future focused and led by our strategic impact (Future focused & Impact Led)

Challenging ourselves to consistently reimagine education and the specific systemic changes that can reasonably be advanced based on the resources we have access to is key; asking ourselves who benefits from our work and to what end  should be the guiding questions for every stage of an endeavor. The answers to these questions should guide the level of resource investment and serve as key motivation for those who carry out the work.


Stay tuned for what’s new as we celebrate our 150th anniversary & learn more about how to engage and contribute to SEF’s work by visiting

  Autumn Blanchard is the Director of Marketing and  Communications for the Southern Education Foundation (SEF), where her work centers on strategic communications, brand development, media outreach, and digital marketing. She served on former president, Barack Obama's 2008  presidential campaign and managed a successful city council campaign. She is a Ronald E. McNair  Scholar Alumni and a Ph.D. Candidate.

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