Recognizing leaders who center equity, inclusion, and innovation is critical to driving transformative change and ensuring every student has an equal opportunity to thrive within and outside of school.
Diverse, local leaders strengthen communities and inspire youth to imagine bigger and bolder dreams for themselves.
When looking around the education innovation table – who is present? Are there leaders doing work for and with their local communities? Are there leaders doing work for and with students with disabilities and learning differences, specifically? What about leaders who are new to the space or are bringing new, innovative approaches to equity, education, and inclusion? The Educating All Learners Alliance created the New Champions Fund Initiative to identify such leaders and support their work.
The EALA New Champions Program
The Educating All Learners Alliance (EALA)’s New Champions Fund Program is an annual competitive subgrant created to provide unrestricted funding and a one-year mentorship to a leader doing exceptional work at the intersection of equity and students with disabilities or learning differences, including students who are also marginalized, come from underserved communities, or experience poverty. This competitive grant was created to elevate the work and profile of not-yet-recognized leaders who are doing exceptional work but who may struggle to gain recognition in traditional national fundraising and communication efforts. We believe this effort is not just about extending financial capital, but social and human capital.
In 2023, only the second year after the program’s launch, EALA received an unprecedented number of applications. Over 170 leaders from across the nation applied for the opportunity to be named 2023 New Champion to grow their work. For many applicants, this was their first grant application experience. Upon attending the New Champions office hours created to support early-stage grant applicants, applicants remarked on the impact this program was able to provide. For those who had applied to grants before, this was the first program they encountered that could provide feedback on applications not chosen and grow the capacity of the sector. The office hour sessions not only answered their questions on the grant, but also provided space for applicants to meet and hear from other leaders from across the country who are also centering equity and students with disabilities – a first for many in the room.
Meet the 2023 New Champion: Kim Riley
In 2019, Kim Riley founded The Transition Academy (TTA) with a mission to make economic inclusion a reality for youth with disabilities, especially for young people of color who have been historically failed by systems. As the mom of a young adult son who was not adequately prepared to be successful after high school, she designed this organization as a solution to this problem impacting her family and others like hers. She gathered families, teachers, counselors, employers, colleges and universities, Social Security Benefits counselors, and others to form The Transition Academy (TTA), where mostly African American students with disabilities in the Kansas City, Missouri Public School system could participate in actively creating their paths forward beyond graduation and to close the opportunity gap that existed.
In 2022, Riley held the first-ever Greater Kansas City DiversAbility College and Career Fair, a free metro-wide event bringing representatives from universities and employers to help students plan their next steps. In 2023, TTA tripled the number of schools served, exceeding its original target of serving 100 students and their families, and the 2023 KC DiversAbility fair drew more than 400 attendees who met one-on-one with college professionals, job recruiters, social security benefits professionals, and others. TTA has exciting plans for their programming in 2023, including bus tours to colleges and universities and new in-class discovery and job training work. TTA is continually evolving to meet the needs of those being served, and plans to use funding from the EALA New Champions Grant to achieve its ambitious 2023 growth goals.
In an introductory blog on The Transition Academy website, Kim states, “For far too long, parents of youth with disabilities have described life after high school as ‘falling off a cliff.’ These feelings of dread are because the preschool to high school process is easy to follow. But life after high school is a different story. And the systems (i.e. employment, benefits) are confusing. In fact, it seems like you need a secret knock and password to understand what employment and benefits opportunities are available and match you or your child’s interests. We, at The Transition Academy, believe every youth of every ability level deserves the right to live a happy and productive life.”
The Power of Representation
The Transition Academy is the only African American-led organization in the Greater Kansas City Area focusing on improving postsecondary outcomes for youth of color with disabilities.
This kind of representation in leadership matters. In her application, Kim shared how this representation helps strengthen communities and provides opportunities for underrepresented youth to see themselves in leadership roles, inspiring them to imagine bigger and bolder dreams for themselves.
After the print and television media coverage on the impact of the KC DiversAbility College and Career Fair this year, Kim said it was a comment from a 19-year-old African American youth with autism that stood out. According to his mom, he had never experienced people of color in disability leadership. When he saw TTA’s black and brown team, he smiled and pointed to his brown hand and said, “Look mom. They’re black like me.”
A Network of Changemakers
Alongside Kim Riley, both Antoinette Banks of Expert IEP and Nekia Wright of Ujamaa Inc. were named 2023 New Champions Runners Up. Four other leaders were named finalists by the 2023 judging panel: Jillian Moses of The Inspired Community Project, Momi Robins-Makaila of Kamaile Academy, Natalie Tung of Homeworks Trenton, and Luca Guacci of Moran Center of Youth Advocacy.
The EALA New Champions Program goes beyond individual recognition; it aims to build a community of changemakers who collectively transform education and drive lasting impact. The combined efforts of Kim Riley, Antoinette Banks, Nekia Wright, and past EALA New Champions represent a powerful force for equity, inclusion, and innovation in education. We cannot wait to see where the expanding network of New Champions leads.
Treah Hutchings is the Director of the Educating All Learners Alliance at InnovateEDU.