The Educator Fighting to Rectify the Achievement Gap - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Educator Fighting to Rectify the Achievement Gap

The Educator Fighting to Rectify the Achievement Gap

By Isabelle Lee


Because Dr. Danielle Moss is at the forefront of redefining the American education system.

By Isabelle Lee

Even before becoming the CEO of Oliver Scholars, a program dedicated to preparing Black and Latino students for success at top universities and colleges, Dr. Danielle Moss was fighting to make education more equitable. In addition to having almost 2 million views on her TED Talk, “How We Can Help the ‘Forgotten Middle’ Reach Their Full Potential,” Moss is a tenacious advocate for chasing your dreams and finding the limits of your courage. She recently joined The Carlos Watson Show to discuss her career path and her aspirations for a better America. You can find a selection of excerpts below, or listen to the full interview on the show’s podcast feed. 

Career in Education

Carlos Watson: So, tell me a little bit about how you ended up coming to run the Oliver program. Was that something where they came to you or you came to them? How did that come together?

Danielle Moss: Well, I was recruited by the person who’s leading the search, who also happens to be a Swarthmore grad.

Watson: Right.

Moss: And I have spent most of my career in education, really focused on higher education access for underserved communities. So that’s been kind of my shtick. But earlier in my career, I had the opportunity to engage in some partnerships with the Oliver Scholars community, so they were not unknown to me. I’ve always had a deep admiration for the mission and the work as a Black woman who attended an independent school. I didn’t go through a program, just like me and my mom, looking for new opportunities. But this idea of creating a community of support for higher-potential young people was really kind of exciting and compelling. And it’s kind of like a coming home for me in some respects, even though I’m not a product of the program myself.

Watson: And so what made you choose this work? Given that it feels like you had a mother who was thoughtful and empowering, was it obvious that you were going to go into education and higher ed in particular? Or what made you choose the work?

Moss: No, it definitely was not obvious. I really had aspirations to become a college professor, which is different but not completely unrelated. But I took a teaching job in the Bronx after college, and after a very brief stint at Smith Barney, where my cousin worked, I knew right away that finance was not going to be my calling. So my mother convinced me to try out teaching while I figured out what I wanted to do next. And I had a great group of kids. I had a wonderful principal. I was in a parochial school, so I didn’t have some of the bureaucratic constraints that sometimes shape educators’ experience in the city. I got promoted at a very young age to assistant principal, and yeah, I was off and running.

Watson: Interesting. And why did the promotion come about? What was it that you think led to it?

Moss: So it was so interesting because the assistant principal just stopped coming to work one day and there was work that had to be done. I was young and I didn’t have a lot of home responsibilities. So I was happy to come in early and stay late and just pitch in. And one day the principal said, “I know you don’t have as much teaching experience as some of the other teachers in the building,” but we worked really well together. And so she took this chance on me and it completely informed my professional trajectory.

Watson: Wait, so literally this assistant principal … literally, it’s just like, “Peace, I’m out.” Like just didn’t come anymore or resigned?

Moss: I mean, literally, we never saw her again. We tried to send her her last paycheck and she didn’t even … It came back “return to sender.” So I never found out what the story was, but it opened up an opportunity for me that had completely informed how I spent my career.

Advice for her younger self

Watson: If we look back now, what would have surprised young you the most, like that young woman who just got tabbed as an assistant principal, if you were to go back and be able to tell her two or three things? 

Moss: I think that I understood that there is racism, and I certainly understood that there would be barriers, but I still had a sense of limitless possibilities that I feel interestingly enough, the higher I’ve climbed in my career, the more challenged I’ve been by people’s perceptions of me as a Black woman leader. I’ve had some real … I know what it’s like to be undervalued, to be not respected in your workplace, to have your contributions be diminished. And I think I always felt like my intellectual capital was going to be a calling card that can help me to overcome some of that. And sometimes that’s not enough, quite frankly. Sometimes you can be the smartest person in the room and still not get the opportunities. So I would tell my younger self that that’s real. Sometimes when people who look like us are not showing up in ways that we think are supportive and nurturing, it’s because they are exhausted themselves …

And so what I would remind my younger self is that you never know who’s watching. You just … Some of the opportunities I’ve had, I didn’t even know I was on anybody’s radar. When I got my TED Talk, I literally got what I thought was a random email from the head of curation at TED to say, “Hey, do you want to give a TED Talk?” And I was like, “Is there an application I have to fill out?” They had already vetted me.

Watson: Wow.

Moss: We were … It was already at that point. And so how amazing was that? Two years later I have 2 million views of that talk. And it was nothing, I didn’t send in a reel. People ask me, “Did you send in a reel?” No. I was just being myself in spaces that mattered and advocating for my community. And I’m glad somebody noticed.

Watson: Were you nervous giving that TED Talk?

Moss: It was a life-altering experience. And the feedback from people all over the world to say that they watched it, that it had an impact on them, that they started a business or they went back to school — all these things that I didn’t even think were connected to what the talk was about. So you never know who you’re touching. So just, girl, stay on your best behavior.

What is her idea of a better America?

Watson: You have another powerful TED Talk in you about philanthropy. I know I’ve held you a long time, but I still want to ask you just a few more questions. Where do we go from here?

Moss: Yeah, sure.

Watson: What do you see for yourself and for the world going forward from here? We’ve talked a lot about where we are and where we’ve come from, but when you do your own kind of imagining, where am I going to find you in 5 years, 10 years, 20 years? And what country, or what world do you expect to be in existence when I meet you there?

Moss: So many thoughts. This is the hardest interview I’ve ever done. I would say I want a completely desegregated New York City public school system. I want the reality that the Black and brown kids are 60 percent less likely to be identified for the gifted and talented programs, simply because of teacher bias, to no longer be the case. I want the elimination of student loan debt. As we think about the long-term impact of this debt, you could borrow $30,000 and walk away owing $150,000. That’s money that you’re not going to be able to invest in homeownership, in your own children’s education. It’s disproportionately burdensome on Black and brown college students who don’t have the generational wealth that their parents and grandparents were denied access to. So that would be amazing. And I want to see righteous white folks in leadership, and righteous Black and brown and other people of color, BIPOC people in leadership roles. I want to see 50 percent of the sector be led by people of color, as opposed to 16 percent in 2021.

I’ve been on job interviews where the search firm will say to me, “They’re not really ready for anybody who’s not a white male, but this will be good practice for you to be involved in an executive search at this level.” They haven’t seen me. I don’t know if they’ve seen my résumé at that point. Hmmm?

Watson: Wow. And by the way, if that’s what someone’s telling you out loud, you and I know a hundred times more is happening that’s not being said. 

The advice we all need to follow

Watson: If you could have dinner with absolutely anybody, dead or alive, who would you love to have dinner with?

Moss: Oprah … Oprah, every time … My dream is to write a book that gets me on SuperSoul Sunday.

Watson: Your best advice about dreaming fearlessly. A lot of people want to dream fearlessly but are either scared, or they start and it’s hard, or they’re not sure how to do it. What’s the best advice you give people or maybe you’ve received yourself about dreaming fearlessly?

Moss: I heard Hill Harper say this at a conference, and it always stuck with me. “Whatever your highest aspiration is, it’s probably too low. Multiply it by 10 and see where that takes you.”

Watson: I like that.

Moss: I’m definitely … Yeah, I think the older you get, the more realistic your dreams become. And you really got to push yourself to just leap into spaces where you don’t belong. Apply for the job you’re not qualified for. Go for it. Ask for the date with the person you think is going to say no. You have no idea what’s on the other end of your courage.

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