Questions and Answers with our New CEO, Dana Peterson
On February 15, Dana Peterson became NSNO’s new CEO. He brings powerful experience, skill, and vision to the role.
Our team has enjoyed getting to know him over the past few weeks, and we wanted you to have the chance to get to know him, too. Below, we share a brief “Q&A” with Dana.
As you took on this role, how did you describe NSNO to family and friends?
I say it’s an education advocacy organization which envisions a future in which every kid can have access to a great learning environment. And the role of the organization is to look out on to the educational landscape and figure out, what are the obstacles for that happening? How do we address those obstacles?
Some of the solutions are about taking some of those obstacles out of the paths of educators. Some of those are about advocating for good policy—identifying strategies that we think can have a positive impact, and asking, “What policy environment do we need in order for those strategies to actually have success?”
Some of it is identifying what might be unique challenges to our school system, but that the school system in and of itself can’t address. We can rally civic leaders, the business community, and other supports to address it.
It’s a uniquely positioned organization to play that role. In New Orleans, in our unique system of schools, organizations like ours can have a really important impact.
You’ve mentioned that your family’s focus on education played a big role in your life. Can you tell us more about that?
I was raised by my grandmother, who had a staunch belief in the value of education for her family. She and my grandfather raised my mother, aunts, and uncles during the Civil Rights Movement. My grandfather had a number of brothers who were part of the great migration, escaping the Jim Crow segregation of the Deep South – but they also really had limited opportunities once they got to those new places. I think my grandparents saw education as a way to unlock opportunity for the family.
I’m the product of that. I benefited from that.
Education really changed the trajectory of my life.
A number of my aunts and cousins went on to pursue and graduate from college. Without them, and one aunt in particular, I would have never known how to approach college. She knew the right questions to ask when it came to paperwork and financial aid, and what to make of the information that had come in the mail. She was a nurse with a busy career and a new family, and she even took a day off of work to go to the university’s financial aid office with me.
It turns out my financial aid hadn’t gone through, and so I had to borrow money and work full time those two first years. College was a different world—intellectually, I had the capacity, but I didn’t have all the supports I needed. I didn’t have the time I needed to study. After two years, I ended up moving to Houston with that aunt, working to gain state residency, and starting my college career over at Houston Community College. I earned an academic transfer scholarship to the University of Houston and earned my bachelor’s degree. That’s how I ended up getting a college education.
Students need to be persistent in order to succeed, but they also need support. I was lucky to find those supports from family and others. It’s incumbent upon us to build that for kids who might not have that.
What are some of the things you value as a leader?
One of the things I value is collaboration. I want to be respectful of differing opinions about how we approach the problems that we’re faced with.
I want to engage people who don’t believe what I believe. We need a space where we aren’t coming in with the belief that I have a superior commitment to education than you do, or you believe you have a superior commitment to mine. I am as committed to this as you are. I value children as much as you do. I want them to have a good experience, just as you do.
I think so many times in this work, certainly over the last 15 years, what I’ve found is that we get to yelling and shouting at each other, like “you don’t care about these kids” and “no, you don’t care about these kids.” And I think that quickly gets you off the rails. There’s no value in that conversation.
What I have found, more times than not, is that though we have different beliefs, or are coming to it with approaches that are drastically different…we all want to make [education] better. Oftentimes, we disagree, but ultimately, that’s what drives us. No one experience is more legitimate than the other….but to the extent that people want to roll up their sleeves and work towards making change that’s going to have a positive impact on the lives of kids, we should. We should figure out ways in which we can work together to achieve that.
On the less serious side, we’d love to share a personal anecdote with our community. This question, in fact, comes from outgoing CEO Patrick Dobard. If you could have a dinner party with anyone in the world, who would it be? What would it be like?
I love cooking. Growing up, cooking and sharing food was an important way I saw love being expressed on a regular basis. My grandmother was a great cook…and one of my favorite things she made when I was growing up was apple cobbler.
So what I would cook for dessert at my dinner party is peach and blackberry cobbler. And I make this great Caribbean meal for my wife, it’s one of her favorite dishes—a pan-seared, garlic herb chicken, with rice and beans, and plantains (I like fried tostones instead but, “happy wife, happy life!”). And also an avocado salad. We’d have great wine, and then that peach and blackberry cobbler.
For the guests, I’d want somebody who’s a chef … somebody who lives and breathes food. I’d be a little intimidated to have them try my cooking. But I’d want them there to talk about their passion for food and I’d want that feedback and that conversation. So, I might say Alon Shaya. I know him through our work together at the New Orleans Career Center. He’s really smart, has a lot of great ideas and deep passion for kids, and I think he’d be an interesting guest.
I also love music, so I’d want one of my favorite artists. If I could go back in time, of course, I’d say I want Tupac at my dinner party. But if not, then it would probably be Sade, although I’m not sure I would actually be able to conjure up any words to say to her.
And I think one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met was Cornel West. He’s super intellectual, but he’s found a way to connect that intellectualism in talking about the blues and the African-American experience in such a way that’s profoundly moving and easy to relate to.
And then I think Miss Wills—my favorite teacher of all time, my eighth grade teacher. She left the greatest impression on me in my early education years. So it would be Alon Shaya, Tupac (or Sade), Cornel West, and Miss Wills.