The Give: Gates Education Advocate Cultivates Partners to Improve School Outcomes
Danielle M. Gonzales, senior program officer for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and a Hispanics in Philanthropy Board member, has spent much of her civil sector career advocating for better education policies. The extent to which she has succeeded, she says, stems from her ability to cultivate relationships. It requires frequent travel and keeping up with a lifetime of contacts for the Albuquerque native, who lives in Washington, D.C., and works for the Seattle-based foundation. It also requires a measure of judicious self-awareness, because of the influence that is perceived to accompany a Gates Foundation job. “It takes a lot of time to get to know people and to gain their trust and reassure them that we’re not trying to be the ‘big bad Gates Foundation, coming in and try to run things,’ that I want to work with them and get their support to help them build the [educational quality] in their state,” she said. “Because of our size, and the size of some of our investments, we can leave a pretty large footprint in the places where we work, and we want to be thoughtful about how we partner.” When she goes into a state, Gonzales said, she tries to get to know who the stakeholders and other players are, and who would be most effective in getting the message across. There are times when it is obvious which partners are the best fit for driving the Gates Foundation’s goal of improving U.S. high school and postsecondary education. Sometimes, alliances are forged in less than intuitive ways, she said. “Sometimes, it’s working with people we serve – teachers, principals and superintendents,” she said. “Sometimes, there are groups of unlikely allies – politicians, law enforcement officials and other people — who can help advocate for students to get a degree beyond high school. And then I take it back [to the foundation] and explain the plan and, hopefully, it gets funded.” Gonzales’ dedication to cultivating professional relationships started in Washington, D.C., where she majored in political science and Spanish language and literature at George Washington University, before pursuing her Master of Education from the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. She served as a fellow from 1999 to 2000 in the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans and volunteered in the Gore-Lieberman Democratic presidential campaign in 2000. Vice President Al Gore’s loss to George W. Bush in the Electoral College vote, despite having obtained a majority of the popular vote, proved to be a hard lesson for Gonzales. “It was a very negative experience for me and really changed my perception of the political process. I was pretty disgusted with the political process and campaigns,” she recalled. So she decided to leave D.C. to teach fourth grade in Brownsville, Texas. Under pre-Sept. 11 border policies, she said, many of her students lived in Mexico and crossed the border to go to school. Being a schoolteacher, she said, “was the most important and the most difficult job I’ve ever had.” She later returned to the District of Columbia to work for a nonprofit, Pre-K Now, which focused on increasing access to, and quality of early education opportunities for three- and four-year-olds. While most of her work was focused on state grants to improve pre-k quality and access for all, she also focused specifically on Latino children. She said that there were claims that Latino adults didn’t care about pre-school or depended on family care-givers to get youngsters school ready, so Pre-K Now arranged research that found that, instead, the main problem was that many Latinos lacked resources. Gonzales then helped develop a Spanish-language public information campaign targeting Latinos. Five years later, in June 2009, she was hired as a Gates Foundation program officer and stayed in Washington, D.C., where in 2005 she had met her future husband as volunteers helping patients get past protestors on their way into an abortion clinic. She currently serves on the board of directors for Planned Parenthood of Metro Washington, D.C. She and her husband, who works in nonprofit fundraising, have two young children and live in the District of Columbia with their pug and cairn terriers.