Committee for Children Blog

Q & A with Committee for Children’s New CEO

Our newly announced CEO, Colleen Oliver, comes to Committee for Children (CFC) with an education-filled background. She has over two decades of leadership experience gained from directing large-scale transformation efforts in the education and nonprofit sectors. Most recently, Colleen served as vice president of school leadership at the New Teacher Center; a national nonprofit focused on accelerating the effectiveness of teachers and school leaders. Before that, she was executive director of the Sheri and Les Biller Family Foundation, where she oversaw grantmaking in the areas of public education and workforce development. Colleen also served as the chief academic officer for the Partnership for LA Schools, a comprehensive school turnaround organization, and as a senior program officer on the national education team at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Given her background, it comes as no surprise that Colleen has always been passionate about children, youth, and families. We sat down with CFC’s new leader to discuss her vision for the organization, her thoughts on the social-emotional learning (SEL) landscape, and her perspective on our big, hairy, audacious, goal (BHAG).

What are your priorities for your first few months in this role?

First and foremost, I plan to spend time getting to know all of the talented and dedicated staff at CFC. Throughout September, I’ll be conducting a “learning and listening” tour to meet the various departments and teams to learn more about who they are, what they do, and why they’re passionate about our work at CFC. Additionally, I’ll spend time with Jon Reingold, our board president, as well as the other board members to ensure that my goals are aligned with our strategy and deepen my understanding of the board’s processes, protocols, and bylaws.

Second, I know our partners and clients are critical to our success, so I’ll prioritize connecting with as many external partners as possible during the first several months. [Departing Executive Director] Joan Duffell has graciously offered to facilitate many of these introductions, and we’ll be attending several key conferences together in October and early November.

Third, I’m continuing to learn as much as I can about CFC by doing deep dives into the organizational and operational structures that are in place. I will also review all of our current and emerging curricula and innovations, and of course spend time getting up to speed on all the work that’s underway on our impact and reach strategy in order for us to achieve our BHAG.

By focusing on these three areas in my first few months, I believe I’ll gain a deeper understanding of the overall culture of CFC, which is essential for me as I move into this new leadership role.

What’s your vision for CFC and the SEL landscape?

I believe my role as CEO is not to set a new vision for CFC, but rather to help us achieve our already established BHAG of positively transforming the social-emotional well-being of 100 million children annually by 2028. I believe my unique experiences and background will help influence and shape the specific strategies that we develop and implement on an annual basis to ensure that we reach this goal. This will include leveraging all of our current assets and capabilities, as well as providing sufficient resources for exploration of new innovations to further our impact and reach. As a result of this work, CFC will continue to expand its national and international presence as one of the leading providers of and advocates for SEL and overall child well-being.

My hope for the broader SEL landscape is that we at CFC, along with others in the field, will continue to build broad public awareness and support to explicitly call out the need to prioritize the social-emotional learning needs of all children, youth, and adults. By harnessing our collective efforts, we’ll be able to positively influence state, national, and international policy, garner sufficient resources from a variety of public and private entities, and, most important, continue to make a positive impact on the lives of children, youth, and adults.

As you know and have stated, we’ve set an admittedly audacious but achievable goal for the future: to positively transform the social-emotional well-being of 100 million children annually by 2028. What are your initial thoughts on the BHAG?

This audacious goal was actually one of the main reasons I applied for the CEO position. It conveyed to me that CFC is an organization that’s bold and innovative—setting this BHAG demonstrates courage and reinforces that we’re laser-focused on impact, as well as reach. This speaks volumes about the culture of CFC, and particularly highlights the visionary thinking of a highly effective organization. This is extremely exciting to me, and I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to work alongside a talented and smart team to make this goal a reality.

What’s been the driving force throughout your career in education?

I grew up lower-middle class in a rural Midwest community in somewhat of a sheltered bubble. This bubble affected my early years, but it also served as the impetus for me to take a different pathway both personally and professionally in order to focus my core values on service, integrity, courage, and commitment.

My choice of education as a career was rooted in my belief that equity and access serve as foundational principles to guide my own learning and motivate me to take action as an equity-focused practitioner, advocate, and leader. In each of these roles, I’ve searched for opportunities to work in service of children, youth, and communities that have been marginalized and underserved.

Approaching this work with a sense of humility and awareness of my own privilege, I’ve worked to disrupt systems that discriminate against people of color, LGBTQ persons, and those who live in poverty. Obviously, I haven’t done this on my own, but rather have sought out teams, and later developed and led teams that were diverse and committed to social justice. Along the way, I’ve been extremely fortunate to have had great mentors who have deepened my understanding of the power of diversity and inclusion.

My equity journey will never end. I continue to read and study the racial injustices, systemic discrimination, and exclusionary policies and practices that surround all aspects of our culture. As a leader, my driving force will continue to be seeking out opportunities where I can work to remove barriers and obstacles to ensure that underserved children and youth can achieve their full potential by accessing exceptional learning opportunities that lead to successful and fulfilling lives.

Given your extensive education background, what are the top challenges you’ve noticed that educators face, and how do you see CFC helping with those issues?

Now more than ever, educators and caregivers are acknowledging the need for additional resources, support, and training to meet the social-emotional needs of their students. Many of our children and youth face a myriad of challenges on a daily basis. Children and youth are dealing with violence and abuse in families and communities; economic, food and housing insecurity; an onslaught of negative information on TV and social media; racial, immigration status and gender/sexual orientation discrimination; increased bullying; etc. Educators know they can’t solve all of these issues by themselves, but they do recognize that providing students with a strong foundation in social-emotional learning can have a very positive impact on building students’ skills to more effectively deal with these everyday challenges while also supporting their academic success.

CFC is already playing a key role in addressing the challenges that educators face by providing a research-based, high-quality SEL curriculum for early learning, elementary, and middle school students, with additional units specifically addressing child safety and bullying. I believe our policy work is also having a positive impact at both the state and national level by influencing legislation and accompanying funding for SEL. This is an area that I hope to increase in the coming years. And finally, our focus on innovation is critical to ensure that we continue to look for new and creative ways to provide additional tools and resources for our youngest children, older students, parents, and out-of-school-time providers.

Last question: what do you like to do when you’re not at work?

I love to spend time with my wonderful granddaughter, Ellis. She is 6½ and getting ready to start first grade in Seattle Public Schools. She brings me great joy, and we love to read, play games, and just hang out. I also value time with my entire family—husband, Lennie, daughter Erika and her husband Chris, and son Jeff and his wife Joanna.

I also love to read. I try to spend time every day reading and learning about the content of the work I’m doing. Additionally, I enjoy reading to learn about things that are interesting to me personally, and that align with my core values. Some of my favorite books from this past year are Becoming, Educated, American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment, Washington Black, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, The Library Book, The Nickel Boys, One Person, No Vote, Just Mercy, and Small Fry. I look forward to getting good recommendations from the CFC staff!

Finally, I love to walk. I try to spend time every day outside enjoying the beautiful scenery of Seattle, and my favorite place to do this is along the waterfront and the Sculpture Park.