Q&A with our founder, Janet Selcer
As Steps to Success enters its 20th year of leveling the playing field for Brookline students, we are pleased to share this conversation Development and Communications Associate Tom McGrath enjoyed with our founder and champion for educational equity, Janet Selcer.
Having founded Steps in 2001, Ms. Selcer speaks fondly and eloquently about our early days, the impact we have had on the Brookline community, and why advancing our mission remains critical to this day.
Ms. Selcer will forever be instrumental in giving Steps its start and powering us to a place where we can thrive. Words could never fully capture our gratitude, but we so appreciate Ms. Selcer’s dedication to our students and their success.
Can you share some background about your experience founding Steps in 2001?
“There was short grant money to hire someone to bring together the parent population at the Lincoln School. What I found was that people were really far apart from each other, and from each other’s lives, especially among low-income families in the community. It was apparent that there was a lot of isolation there, all of which were signs of income inequality. I worked directly in public housing during my first five years in Brookline, and it was clear that if students and parents weren’t coming to school, then I needed to go to them. So, along with a parents committee, I developed the High Street Veterans Youth Activities Program, in response to parents wanting more activities they could do with their kids. While these developments were serving some basic needs for programming, they were not engaging parents directly with school or their children with school. That connection needed to be developed.
The next step was developing a community-wide coalition, because it was clear that the issues facing kids at the Lincoln School were facing those in the other developments as well. A system-wide effort was needed to close the huge gaps in programming for low-income students and families. The Brookline School-Community Partnership, as it became known, involved several of the principals, some of the guidance counselors, the BHA director, a Public Schools of Brookline (PSB) administrator, social services providers, representatives from the recreation department, and some of the parents from the housing developments. The Partnership decided to focus on students living in public housing, where we felt the need was greatest.
In 2001, we applied for a Gear Up Grant [from the U.S. Department of Education] in a category for organizations working in public housing, and we got it. But the thing about this grant was that it was way more money than we had before, and was initially a five-year grant, so it really changed everything. We were able to hire staff, particularly advisors who are the keys to developing relationships with the students and families and following them along their journeys, start conducting home visits, and began offering more programs, many of which are still thriving today. We really stretched Gear Up’s guidelines. They wanted to start funding in the 7th grade, but we insisted on the 4th grade, following our students through high school. And that is what launched Steps to Success.”
Why commit your energy and career to educational equity? Why is that end goal so important?
“Statistics point to what happens to children with and without a college degree. [The degree] influences earning power and strikes as the key way to end generational poverty, which is the long-term goal. The root of the problem was, and still is, income inequality and everything that comes with that, but combating the problem meant we had to make sure people had a voice and felt empowered to make necessary changes for their children (the students). Many Steps students were identified as special needs, which created an immediate need and raised some flags; only 30-40% of students from public housing were applying to college, and there were no post-secondary alternatives to college, like vocational opportunities, made available to them. The issues were clear, and things had to change.”
When you think back to the early days of Steps, what influences did you have? What, or who, helped shape the direction of the organization?
“I had sort of a ‘pre-Brookline influence.’ Coming from a background in labor and community organizing, I learned the importance and necessity of finding ways to engage a community and its members, as well as the need for a broad-based coalition to deal with a systemic problem. One key influencer I’m grateful for is [former] Lincoln School principal Barbara Shea; she was a force! I learned so much about the ins and outs of education and the value of setting high expectations from her. I often bounced ideas off her for feedback, and she taught me how to get this done, to bring the right people together to move the Partnership in the right direction.”
What kind of feedback or advice did people offer?
“Most folks told me to start small, look for early results, build relationships, and involve the principals from the schools we were working in because that was important for credibility. It was also clear that I had to find a way to measure the program’s success.”
What did you find to be the most critical elements of getting Steps off the ground and thriving?
“I had to get people to realize that there was no silver bullet, and the program had to be comprehensive in a way that spoke to parents and focused on building relationships between all parties. The program absolutely had to be long-term, so that internalized views and perceptions were changed to help students believe, for example, that they were college-material; in other words, we had to break down long-term negative perceptions of students from low-income backgrounds. I also prioritized building trust and making the program open to all students, not just the best and brightest, starting in the 4th grade. Again, it was important for us to start small and go from there.”
What was the biggest obstacle you faced?
“In many ways, prevailing notions about Brookline worked against us. So many folks thought that if they wanted to help solve a significant issue, that they should go to Boston because that was the only area where big challenges existed. This was and is still obviously false, so there needed to be some education about the need that existed and still exists in Brookline to promote equity for students from public housing; basically, we had to get the word out to the community, funders, and the like that major opportunity gaps existed in Brookline.”
What would you say to someone who is thinking about getting involved with Steps, be it as a donor, staff, or volunteer, but not sure if the investment will make a difference?
“These students are worth it. Listen to the stories, admire the resilience, and look at the results. [Steps] is a model for what happens when you give students the attention they need and deserve, and provide life-changing experiences their parents may not have had.”
Do you feel Steps is an important part of the Brookline community? If so, why and how?
“I think one of the most important questions we have to ask, is, who is Brookline? Ever since the start, Steps has changed the attitude and successfully activated the community, never doing ‘business as usual.’ We needed new solutions to long-term problems, and the fact that we’re still here, after 20 years, is a huge accomplishment. To this day, I still meet parents who talk about Steps’ impact on them, their family, or friends. The Brookline community has fully embraced Steps, and that is so important.”
Steps has come a long way since 2001, due in large part to your leadership. However, it’s safe to say that there’s still work to be done. In your opinion, what needs to be done, or needs to continue being done to ensure that educational equity prevails in Brookline?
“Steps has done many things better than others have, like extending its partnerships with colleges (for mentoring), and helping students develop post-secondary plans, especially because the key here is to remember that getting out of generational poverty doesn’t have to happen by going to college. Steps also helps many Brookline students experience their professional “firsts.” Their first internships and paychecks; those milestones are so important and will concretize their future and lead to lessons about money management and dressing for success, among other things. The program should also eventually gain the capacity to extend downward and start earlier than the 4th grade, and even more broadly, bring in students who live in Section 8 housing (outside of the developments).”
Do you have any other thoughts to add before we conclude the interview?
"There’s a lot going on right now, with the pandemic, racial reckoning, and threats to democracy; student activism and awareness is huge right now, so families need more support. It is my hope that, out of all of this, the younger generation has the leadership and knowledge to tackle the issues around us, and Steps plays a big part in that development by teaching its students lessons in leadership and broader world awareness, and giving them agency and a voice on systemic issues that affect them."