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Tonia Gilbert

Tonia Gilbert

Executive Director, Upper Room

Addressing inequities in education is Tonia Gilbert’s life’s work but even her organization, Upper Room, is taking a fresh look at how it operates on the heels of a global pandemic that has changed so much.

Q: Why is now the time, and what do we “double-down” on to leverage this moment to take strides for long-lasting change?

Due to the pandemic, all organizations have had to pivot and think outside the box on how to best serve the community in our respective areas. We have found that type of thinking to be good and refreshing. It’s easy to become redundant and continue to serve in ways that are comfortable to us. But in the last two years we’ve been forced to think differently, and ultimately serve differently. We have also collaborated in ways that we may not have done previously.

In the last two years we’ve been forced to think differently, and ultimately serve differently.

This is the perfect time to reflect on what we have done in the past, what we are now doing and what works. I believe we should double-down on the idea of collaborations. In the past we have all worked in our silos, serving much of the same population, and dealing with most of the same issues. We should continue to convene and collaborate with the mindset of what parts of the collaboration were beneficial and how we can do this longterm. 

For Upper Room, we have continued to conduct regular, weekly communication with our collaborative partners and have also discussed other areas in which we can partner in the near future.

Q: For real systems change to happen, how must perspectives, and how we approach the economy and education, shift to meet the needs of an inclusive, equitable economy?

One thing we have learned in the last two years is that our communities have great needs and although there are many organizations wanting to meet those needs, the focus still tends to stay on those more “known” organizations. I believe we need to inform and educate all about smaller organizations that are out there working hard, but don’t receive the same recognition as the bigger organizations.  

Perspectives and approaches need to change in how to reach out to those organizations that do great work but may not serve the large numbers as bigger organizations. By informing those with resources, we can ensure grant giving is more equitable in order to expand and meet the needs of more individuals and families.

Q: Where do you find hope in the work, conversations, and sifts you see happening, and how does that shape your thinking?

Watching the local and national news and listening to our politicians fighting and calling each other derogatory names, it’s easy to become discouraged and have fatalist thoughts about the future of our city and country. However, when we take the time to communicate with our colleagues and actually have conversations with the families we serve, the issues become more intimate, and we realize that our hope comes from each other.  

We recognize that regardless of what is happening on the national scene, in our sphere of influence, our staff are still showing up for work, our parents are still engaged and growing, and our students are still showing up every day to learn. As the pandemic continues and family stresses increase, we have seen shifts in behaviors of our students. But the one constant is our staff and their commitment to love, teach, and redirect on a daily basis. That is where our hope lies. The people. The people who show up every day with a smile and a determined mindset to make a difference in the lives of others. Hope wins every time.

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