by Patheresa Wells
When Kaila Davis Nsimbi was choosing a career path, she knew she wanted to work in education, with the specific desire to serve young people like herself. Having attended Forest Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bellevue as a motivated student of color, she wanted to empower other highly capable Black and Brown students “to go through those experiences with more boldness and more certainty” than she did. But to do that, Nsimbi said, students of color must be able to find others around them to lean on through the process, to be examples, and to help them navigate — as Nisimbi calls it — “the landscape of opportunity.”
During her 10 years at the nonprofit Rainier Scholars, Nsimbi has achieved — and continues to achieve — her education equity goals. Rainier Scholars fosters the academic potential and leadership skills of hardworking students of color by providing access to academic preparation, career and leadership development, and comprehensive support. Nsimbi’s commitment to helping students develop the skills they need to be community leaders has taken her on a long path with the organization.
Rainier Scholars serves Multi-Generational African American (MGAA), African immigrant, Hispanic/Latino, first-generation Asian, Pacific Islander, and Native American students. About 90% are from families who qualify as low-income, and 90% are from households without a four-year college degree. Nsimbi’s different roles at Rainier Scholars have deepened her focus on community as she has learned to understand and address the problems faced by diverse students. These issues include students struggling to find a sense of belonging and to develop new relationships as they transition through various levels of schooling (middle school, junior high, high school).
From her first position as a middle school academic counselor to her role as a director of placement, and then as program director, Nsimbi has navigated her way through mentoring students, supporting academic counselors, and forging partnerships with other programs, such as the University of Washington’s Doctor for a Day.
In September, Rainier Scholars Executive Director Rafael del Castillo announced Nsimbi’s promotion to her most senior position yet, associate executive director. In a reflection posted to the organization’s website, Castillo wrote that Nsimbi’s “deep knowledge of the program and our scholars and families, along with her strong community roots, will make her an excellent organizational leader, who helps us grow and strengthen our partnerships.”
In her new role, Nsimbi is excited to work with her team on delivering even more support and success to their scholars. One way she is planning to do this is by working to understand the unique challenges the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to both her staff and the communities they serve. For instance, Nsimbi is aware that to provide the best level of support, they must create “”a container for collaboration and creativity”” in a remote environment.
The pandemic led Rainier Scholars to develop a remote learning model, and it taught the organization to communicate better with its families to meet challenges. It did this by checking in more, talking about emergency needs, and strengthening the program’s attentiveness to students’ and families’ other needs. For example, providing devices for students engaged in remote learning was one of Rainier Scholars’ first priorities.
Nsimbi feels Rainier Scholars must continue to adapt, learn, and grow as an organization. She is proud of how Rainier Scholars pivoted during the pandemic to provide solid, enriching programming to students through online learning. Recognizing and addressing the needs of diverse students has been a goal of Rainier Scholars since its founding in 2000. For over two decades, the scholars program has built a more equitable society by expanding education as an opportunity and growing its capacity to serve diverse students.
On June 2, 2021, Rainier Scholars announced a new partnership with Tacoma Public Schools. Nsimbi said this partnership developed out of a desire to support more Black and Brown students, particularly African Americans. According to U.S. Census data, Pierce County has the largest Black population of any county in the state. Rainier Scholars is committed to serving MGAA students and their families, because they benefit the least from the possibilities that come with a college education in the United States. Nsimbi also applauds Tacoma Public Schools for the work the district has already done to serve students of color, with programs such as Highly Capable Opt-Out, universal PSAT/SAT testing, and associations with college access organizations.
Partnerships with schools, including the one Nsimbi attended, are crucial to the success of Rainier Scholars. When speaking about such collaborations, Nsimbi said the goal is to “work ourselves out of a job.” Rainier Scholars currently works with schools in Seattle, Highline, Renton, and now Tacoma. She said her organization’s goal isn’t to swoop in and solve all the problems but to assist folks and “provide a new resource or pathway.” Nsimbi hopes schools and districts will see that the work Rainier Scholars does is replicable and “that there is a demand and appetite for advanced/accelerated programming for kids of color if you provide wraparound support and additional content.”
Working with school districts to make systemic and institutional change for educational equity is the goal. Nsimbi said the continued need for community organizations like Rainier Scholars is apparent right now. Still, she envisions a day where there are no barriers to accessing educational opportunities. Nsimbi believes the families she serves are her neighbors and that their success is directly connected to a better future for us all. That’s why she and her team at Rainier Scholars are so entrenched in their mission to advance equity in education and create a more equitable society.
Editors’ Note: A previous version of this article misspelled Nsimbi’s last name in the last paragraph. This article was updated on 11/05/2021 with the correct spelling.
Patheresa Wells is a Queer poet, writer, and storyteller who lives in SeaTac, Washington. Born to a Black mother and Persian father, her experiences as a multicultural child shaped her desire to advocate for and amplify her community. She currently attends Highline College in Des Moines. Follow her on Twitter @PatheresaWells.
📸 Featured Image: Kaila Davis Nsimbi (Photo courtesy of Rainier Scholars)
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