Kathryn Bradley is the Director of the Purpose of Education Fund, a collaborative initiative designed to support young people and strengthen their sense of belonging, purpose, and agency. In this interview with Roberta Furger, the Foundation’s Senior Director of Narrative and Strategy, Kathryn shares about the initiative, including the goal of catalyzing a national conversation and accompanying work focused on the role of public education in a multiracial democracy.

Roberta: The Purpose of Education Fund is launching at a time when many are concerned about the durability of democracy in the United States. Can you situate the initiative in this context?

Kathryn: Public schools should be the place where young people learn about and practice democracy. Schools are one of the first and primary spaces where young people are part of a public system and where they experience whether or not they have a role in shaping that system, so it works for them. In the best examples, school is also where young people, through the curriculum, wrestle with pressing issues in the world and in their community. Through action civics projects, for example, they can identify a concern related to education or environmental policies and then explore strategies for addressing it. In these cases, through the school structures and through the curriculum, young people are learning about and practicing democracy. They are developing a sense of agency and shaping an image of themselves as members of a community, whether it’s their school or city.

We know, though, that these experiences are not common for most students. The Purpose of Education Fund seeks to change this reality by reimagining and reasserting the role of public education in promoting civic leadership and democratic participation. This includes creating the conditions for young people, especially students of color, who comprise the majority of public-school students in California, to practice civic engagement and democracy inside and outside of school and school systems. That means expanding who has access to action civics and similar learning opportunities. It also means shifting school practices and culture so that schools are places that invite and promote critical thinking, cultivate youth voice and agency, and create the conditions for young people to feel safe and free to bring their full selves and identities to school. 

Roberta: What excites you about the new initiative? What do you want others to be excited about?

Kathryn: I’m excited that the fund will reach young people in the different places and activities where they spend time. That includes supporting young people and the adults who work with them inside of school, through their participation in youth organizing outside of school, and through creative expression that is rooted in, reflects, and affirms their identities and background.

We aren’t just going it alone. We’re committed to building solid, trusting partnerships with other funders and with the field.

Through this initiative, we can create more opportunities for more young people to engage in the kinds of experiences that lead them to know they have the skills, knowledge, experiences, and support to shape their life and impact their family, school, community, and world. That’s exciting.

How we do this work is also exciting to me. We aren’t just going it alone. We’re committed to building solid, trusting partnerships with other funders and with the field and to draw on different experiences and knowledge to shape and guide this work.

Roberta: How have your own experiences – as a student, a teacher, and an auntie, for example – impacted how you think about this work?

Kathryn: As a student, I saw that educators and community members around me were civically engaged in activities like working at polling stations, engaging in dialogue about democracy, and running before- and after-school programs to support working parents and caregivers. This behavior was reinforced by the adults in my school, who saw and knew me and my family. They asked my opinion and selected me for leadership and speaking opportunities.

I understand now that my opinion was sought out and I was seen as a leader in part because I was a compliant student. Later, as a teacher in the same community where I grew up and now as an auntie to my nieces and nephews, I am motivated to honor young people’s unique interests, personalities, motivations, and approaches to learning as necessary leadership assets that contribute to the fabric of our family, school, and broader communities. All students deserve to have their opinions heard, and to have leadership opportunities. These opportunities can’t be reserved for the students who don’t challenge conventions and norms. I am excited to help create the opportunity for the field to come together and think about how we do school differently, so every young person is heard, valued, and validated and sees themselves as an active contributor to society, because of how the system is designed.

Roberta: How does the work of the Purpose of Education Fund connect to the Foundation’s broader goal of supporting adolescent thriving?

Kathryn: I think of thriving as a state of being that extends across experiences and schooling and continues after high school. It’s an opportunity to explore and believe you have power over what your future can look like. You have the freedom to dream. Far too often, Black and Brown students and students furthest from opportunity are told what and how they need to learn, what they’re going to do, and how to be. At the most basic level, this work is about changing that dynamic. It’s about creating the conditions in which every young person has the freedom to dream, and then providing them with the appropriate supports to actualize those dreams.

Roberta: What are you most curious about with this new initiative and work?

Kathryn: I want to understand what thriving means to young people. What does their school experience need to look like to support their thriving? How do communities support their thriving? Is what we, as adults, think of thriving and agency the same as what young people think? I’m also curious about how we collaborate with young people in honest and authentic ways and how we create shared ownership and integrate what we’re collectively learning into what we’re building. How can we create spaces for learning between schools and out-of-school organizations, particularly around relationship building, which is often built into the programming for groups outside of school in ways that don’t always happen in school. How can strong, trusting relationships between young people and adults be the foundation for everything else?

Roberta: Grantmaking will be a component of your work. What other types of strategies will you employ to advance the Fund’s goals?

Kathryn: Convenings and storytelling will be important parts of the work. I hope by bringing people together across regions, roles, and spheres of influence we can build deeper relationships, understanding, and alignment. Hopefully, new narratives and strategies for advancing an affirmative vision of the public education system will emerge and spread – a vision that is rooted in a belief that systems and communities should be organized to support and nourish young people to bloom and thrive, like beautiful sunflowers.