BABE #252: RACHAEL TUTWILER FORTUNE - President, Jacksonville Public Education Fund
As President of the Jacksonville Public Education Fund, Rachael works to support Duval County schools through research, strategic planning and civic action. As a Jacksonville native with a rigorous background in government, nonprofit, district and school-based education roles, she hustles tirelessly to cultivate quality, inclusive learning environments to equip students with tools for success. Her long list of accolades includes being selected as a Presidential Management Fellow and afforded the opportunity to serve as a program officer at the United States Department of Education during the second half of the Obama administration. Did we mention she’s also a loving wife as well as mother to a 17-year-old son and two-DAY-old baby girl?!
Hometown: Jacksonville, FL
Current city: Jacksonville, FL
Alma mater: University of North Florida; Stanford University
Degree: Political Science, Education Policy and Leadership
Very first job: Waitress, Ruby Tuesday — Jacksonville Landing
Hustle: President, Jacksonville Public Education Fund
Babe you admire and why?
I admire our nation’s former first lady, Michelle Obama, because she is a phenomenal leader, dedicated mother, excellent wife and unapologetically herself. She epitomizes elegance and grace, even under pressure, and is not afraid to speak the truth. She uses her platform to make a difference for children and youth, people of color, and women and girls. She is authentically herself and not afraid to share complex components of her personal story, because she understands that everything she went through to become the woman she is today can help inspire and empower the next generation. She lives by the mantra, “when they go low, we go high.” She often provides such principled wisdom to help make us all better people. Locally, I admire Nina Waters, the President of the Community Foundation for Northeast Florida. She leads by bringing people together to tackle some of the most pressing issues in our community. She is an effective bridge-builder and a role model to many women and newer executives like me. She gives generously of her time each and every day to help our community become stronger. I am one of so many people who have benefited from her wisdom and example.
How do you spend your ‘free’ time?
I typically spend my free time doing something fun with my family, playing with my adorable cat, Berri, watching my favorite musical television shows (the Voice, Dancing with the Stars, the Four, World of Dance, etc.), volunteering with church or otherwise in the community, or cuddling up with a good book!
Favorite fictional female character? Why?
I adore Wonder Woman. She embodies compassion, strength, fearlessness, perseverance and self-confidence.
Current power anthem?
As a forever Whitney Houston fan, her song “One Moment in Time” still gives me life!
If you could have coffee with anyone in the world, who would it be?
Michelle Obama or Oprah Winfrey
Tell us about your hustle, providing an overview of your job and roles.
I was recently appointed the president of the Jacksonville Public Education Fund (JPEF) after moving back to Jacksonville, my hometown, just under two years ago. I initially moved home to serve as executive vice president, and I am honored to have been trusted to permanently lead JPEF after effectively serving as interim president for the second half of 2018. At JPEF, we work hard each day to power the potential in our community to achieve excellent outcomes for local students. This work is deeply personal for me, as I am a product of our local public schools and I grew up living in Jacksonville’s low-income communities. Each day I hustle to make sure local students who remind me so much of myself are supported by leaders in and around quality public schools who prepare them for the opportunities they will find on the other side of their K-12 schooling. My hustle also includes loving a wonderful husband, being mom to a brilliant 17-year-old-son who is now a junior in high school and carrying my second child, a daughter, who I look forward to welcoming to our world in March!
What does your typical workday look like?
I am an early riser, so I start a typical day around 5:30 a.m., doing my daily devotional, revisiting my daily priorities, eating breakfast and getting myself ready for work and my son ready for school. I leave home in enough time to drop my son off to school safely, while hopefully avoiding any traffic into town. At the office, I may meet with the superintendent of Duval County Public Schools or a school board member, other public education provider, community advocate, passionate education leader or donor. During these engagements, I may connect stakeholders to JPEF’s independent analysis of facts and information regarding public school quality as well as opportunities to get involved or act in support of best practices. I may also work from the office to support my colleagues in delivering on our program strategy and/or to connect with JPEF board members as they help lead and support our work. Throughout the day, I try to carve out a little time to read about leadership and education best-practices and reflect on implications for our organization’s work. Some days, I sign checks and “thank you” letters to our supporters in-between board committee and staff meetings. As the workday winds down, sometimes my passion for the work compels me to put in a little more effort before heading home. My husband picks up our son from school and I meet them at home where we have dinner together and a family meeting to strategize around family priorities that need to be tackled. I’ll turn in by 9:30 or 10:00 p.m. on a typical evening and may attempt to make progress on the book I’m reading that week.
Have you always had a passion for education? Where does that stem from for you?
My unique path began in high school as an honors student when I also became a teen mom. Having a child at an early age gave me personal experience with some of the struggles our students face, and also gave me confidence, because I saw I could be a great mother and still accomplish great things in my career. I at once became driven to seek positive change in my community and the world. I didn’t initially know how I’d make a difference, but I knew I wanted young people who came from low-income communities like me to be afforded every opportunity to grow into the best versions of themselves. After college, I began working as a teacher, and in my students each day, I saw myself and I saw my family. After such a robust teaching experience, I knew I’d found a cause I’d dedicate my life to. I knew I wanted my son (now 17) and my daughter (now in the womb) and every child of their generation and the generations to follow to have access to the very best educational opportunities, so they could maximize their potential. I knew I had to play my part to help make that possible.
How have your past professional and academic experiences prepared you for the work you do today?
During my undergraduate studies at the University of North Florida, I fell in love with the public sector, while learning to advocate for and with others. My leadership began within the African-American Student Union, which led to my candidacy to become the second African-American woman elected as UNF’s student body president. Immediately following graduation, I became an elementary school teacher through Teach for America - Jacksonville’s charter corps, and learned about root causes leading to educational disparities. After teaching, I transitioned to the Jacksonville Public Education Fund and set out to mobilize the community for the improvement of public schools. From there, I transitioned to Stanford University’s Education Policy and Leadership program, then served as an Education Pioneers fellow in Oakland Unified School District’s Quality, Accountability and Analytics Department for a summer. Next, my family and I moved to Washington, D.C., where I served at the U.S. Department of Education during the second half of the Obama administration. Finally, I served as senior director over the GradNation campaign at America’s Promise Alliance before returning home to help lead the Jacksonville Public Education Fund. Having served in government, nonprofit, district and school-based roles, I currently draw upon the significant professional and academic experiences I’ve had at all levels of the education system.
How would you describe your leadership style?
As a leader, I strive to show up authentically and collaboratively each day. I surround myself with passionate, positive and brilliant people determined to work hard to achieve our shared goals. My collaborative leadership style results in a focus on connecting and aligning the team of talented leaders I serve with, so everyone’s expertise can flourish and contribute. I believe together we can achieve and have achieved far more than any of us can individually, as we pursue our organizational goals.
How do you prioritize and manage your workload and various responsibilities?
Creating a to-do list that clearly prioritizes goals and related tasks, and regularly referring back to that to-do list; Setting deadlines for myself that help me stay on-track and making progress against major deliverables; Knowing my peak performance time. I am a morning person, so I tackle things that require the most brain power during the early a.m. I typically save the more mundane tasks for late afternoon or evening hours; Protecting time to think and get reorganized. I block time on my calendar when I need to deeply dive into strategic planning or clearing the clutter; Delegating effectively tasks that don’t require my attention and where I have a capable colleague who could easily and more efficiently take the leap; Setting calendar reminders for things that may be deprioritized for the immediate term, so I don’t forget to come back to them at a later date/time.
What’s your biggest career milestone?
I am honestly humbled by every step I’ve been able to take in my professional career. Based on the statistics surrounding people who look like me, who come from where I come from and who have been through what I have been through, my career and my life should not be where they are today. If I had to highlight one career milestone I consider big, it would be the sense of accomplishment I felt after being selected a Presidential Management Fellow and afforded the opportunity to serve as a program officer at the United States Department of Education during the second half of the Obama administration. I had the privilege of working on the president’s major education initiatives (Race to the Top, ESEA Flexibility, School Improvement Grants) and I gained national perspective and insight into the innovative work happening in states across the union. It was huge for me to be a part of such a major moment in the history of our country, going to work each day for our nation’s first African-American president.
How has being a woman of color affected your professional experience? What can we do to create more equal, uplifting (and well-paying!) spaces for women of color in your industry?
Being a woman of color, who happens to be 30-something and pregnant, causes me to reflect on how these intersectional identities impact how people experience my leadership every day. Fortunately, for every limiting voice I’ve encountered over the years, there have been just as many (if not more) affirming voices encouraging me to go on and do what I have been uniquely designed and purposed to do. I believe it is up to each and every person to play their part in eliminating the impact of bias and to advance fairness and justice in our community and society as a whole. Specifically, we must evaluate the tables we sit at and consider whether they are inclusive enough, thoughtfully raise tough questions about why they may or may not be and then develop and implement policies and practices that work in opposition of long-standing systemic oppression and inequity. Women and people of color must be supported to speak their truths, and we as a society must appropriately value and learn from the lessons that can be derived from those experiences. Those who don’t identify as women or persons of color are necessary allies if we are to create a more equitable society, so we must embrace the opportunity to build greater awareness, develop a shared vocabulary about the challenges we face and deploy equity ambassadors from a wide array of backgrounds.
What’s the gender ratio like in your industry? Do you see it evolving?
Women serve in the education industry disproportionately more than men. However, the women’s leadership gap is as real in education as it is in any other industry. This sobering truth also applies to the nonprofit workforce. Women often serve in the nonprofit sector, but when it comes to the highest rung of the leadership ladder, women are more scarce. Though we’ve seen considerable progress over the last century, I’d like to see it evolve even more and faster. I am encouraged that in Jacksonville, we now have our first African-American (and first African-American female) full-term superintendent of schools. In our community, as social sector leadership transitions to the next generation, many people from historically disenfranchised groups, including women and people of color, are filling vacancies. Perhaps the most encouraging sign of this shift is the public stance people have taken in recent years on women’s issues and the significantly larger number of women we now see serving in elected office across the nation.
Career and/or life advice for other babes?
Show up as your whole self every day. Use wisdom about what to share with whom (and when), but be comfortable with your own story and in your own skin. Every aspect of your journey has prepared and qualified you to do that thing you are called to do. You do a disservice to yourself and the work when you are not able to lean into the fullness of who you are. Both the beautiful and more challenging aspects of your journey have prepared you for purpose.
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