Interview by Sarah Shumick
A self-described “recovering extrovert,” Tasha Booker Fowler now intentionally sets aside quiet time for herself, which she uses to strategize and think big for the nonprofit she serves, City Year Columbus. Utilizing a “near peer” model to support students, City Year partners with high-need schools to support students and focus on increasing high school graduation rates. As an Executive Director with a similar upbringing to many of the students she now works to support, Tasha emphasizes the importance of self-worth stating, “Other people can applaud and celebrate you, but it means nothing if you don’t believe it yourself.”
Give us a brief overview of your organization: City Year was founded in Boston in 1988, by two Harvard Law School roommates, Michael Brown and Alan Khazei, who felt strongly that young people in service could be a powerful resource for addressing America’s most pressing issues. They built City Year with the conviction that one person can make a difference. City Year Columbus was founded in 1994 as one of the first five City Year sites. Since 1988, City Year has grown to 29 cities across the U.S. and two international affiliates in the U.K. and South Africa. At City Year, we believe that every child can be successful through the power of education. City Year partners with public school systems to keep students in school and on track to graduate from high school ready for college and career success. Today, City Year serves 234,000 students in 349 schools across 29 sites, including 7 Columbus City Schools.
How you are innovating in the nonprofit space? City Year is an education innovation organization that is uniquely positioned to help students and schools succeed. We use a “near peer” model of highly selective AmeriCorps members who are between the ages of 18-25, most are recent college graduates and are highly trained. These Corps members work full time, all school year to help students who may be falling behind in academics, attendance and behavior. Our AmeriCorps members help to promote a positive school wide culture and climate.
How is your organization making an impact in Columbus? City Year is helping to influence the graduation rates in Columbus, by creating a laser-like focus on struggling students grades 3rd-10th and schools who need our support the most. Studies have shown that students who are on track by 10th grade are three times more likely to graduate high school. We are serving in the lowest performing schools to help students get back on track, prevent from sliding off track and keep them on track. If Columbus can increase its graduation rate to 90%, the economic benefits would be significant: $6.9 million in increased annual earnings, $180 million in healthcare savings, $93.2 million in increased home sales, and $2.5 million in increased state and local tax revenue. By identifying which students are at risk of dropping out and providing them with individualized attention throughout their education journey, City Year is leading the effort to make these economic benefits a reality, not just for our city but for the generational outcomes for our students.
What makes your organization thrive? Our organization thrives by the people who choose to work and serve here every day. Columbus has a booming economy and a low unemployment rate, so our staff and Corps can work and serve anywhere. I am proud that they choose to serve at City Year Columbus. We also could not do this work without the generosity of the Columbus community. Our investors, sponsors, friends and board members ensure that we have the necessary resources to serve more than 4,000 students every year.
As a leader, how do you come up with innovative ideas, and what helps put those ideas into action? I read A LOT. I read scholarly articles, local business articles, leadership books, fiction, non-fiction, almost anything. I don’t read them cover to cover but enough to spark some ideas. I also find regular quiet time which helps me clear the mind clutter, where I can think big and set strategy. The City Year team is also incredibly innovative. I’m learning to do more listening and let them run with their ideas from concept to implementation. Nonprofit space is prime real estate to try new things if you get out of the way and give your team the space and resources to be creative. City Year Columbus is/or has participated in several national studies that will help shape the education sector’s theories on developmental relationships, social-emotional learning, after-school supports and academic and behavior interventions. We were chosen for these pilots because of our ability to continually meet national impact metrics through our holistic approach to serving the student body. We are proud of the innovative work that will help build the education sector’s next big lever.
Give us a snapshot of your career path—what is your background, and what led you to work in the nonprofit sector? I haphazardly fell into nonprofit work from my early college days working for Nationwide Children’s Hospital. I then followed a former colleague to the Simon Kenton Council of the Boy Scouts where I learned more about the education space and then to the United Way of Central Ohio where I received a crash course in fundraising, community development and I learned more about our community needs and the resource gaps. It was during my time at United Way where I formed my true passion for nonprofit work and for the education sector. While at UWCO, I began a graduate program in Education and earned my teacher licensure and master’s degree in education. I was serving on a committee for I Know I Can when I was asked to become the Director of Development for the organization. After 3.5 years in that role the opportunity to become the Executive Director of City Year Columbus opened and I accepted.
What is the one thing you are most passionate about? Only 1 thing?? Education and the increasing economic disparities.
Who inspires you? People who choose to work in the nonprofit sector. This work is hard – emotionally and physically. Our sector attracts some of the top talent in our community and I’m honored to serve alongside them.
How do you stay motivated? What drives you to take things to the next level? Knowing that so many students rely on our services and we continue to see the needs of our students increase. I want to assure myself and our school partners that I am personally doing all that I can to bring additional resources to our students and schools. I want to think big and ask big for our students and our community. I just want to do my part.
What struggles or adversities have you had to overcome to get to where you are today? I have a similar upbringing as many of the students we serve. I graduated from Columbus City Schools and my background parallels many of the stories of our students. I had to give up the self-doubt and the negative self-talk and tell myself that I belong here and that I am ready to lead. Other people can applaud and celebrate you, but it means nothing if you don’t believe it yourself. I tell myself, our corps and our students, “You are enough,” because we are.
Why do you think people should care about innovative nonprofits? People should care because no one is coming to “save” the people we serve. Innovative non-profits serve communities that often get left behind during times of rapid change and economic growth. We are doing the work that the government used to do – and that the private sector can’t afford to do. We simply cannot forget about some of our most vulnerable neighbors, family and friends.
As a kid, what did you say you wanted to be when you grew up? I just wanted to work downtown and wear high heels!
What might others be surprised to know about you? I am a recovering extrovert. The new term is ambivert. While I enjoy networking with people, I’ve learned to enjoy the quiet of being alone. I really work hard at being an extrovert at this point. If you see me sitting in my car before an event, I’m most likely talking to myself so that I can talk to you!
How can others in the Columbus community get involved with your organization? They can volunteer with us by serving as a mentor to one of our AmeriCorps members, participating in several service projects, serving as a guest speaker during our professional development days or by providing financial support. You can also visit cityyear.org/Columbus to volunteer or to give.
If someone were to ask you what the “pulse” of Columbus is, what would you tell them? The people! Oh and of course the nonprofit community. Our community is only as colorful and as vibrant as the people who make it a great place to live, work and raise a family!