Keynote Spotlight: Marcia Chatelain

Dr. Chatelain’s interview was made possible by the generous support of her Keynote Sponsor, Design Group International. Enjoy a brief look at some of the ways in which they are working to support NPEA members and others fighting for educational access.

Sponsoring Dr. Chatelain’s Keynote is a mission match for Design Group InternationalOur purpose is to help leaders and organizations transform for a vibrant future.  

If we unpack that mission, what does real help look like? What does it mean to truly transform?  To paraphrase Dr. Chatelain, we can be critical of institutions but empathetic towards people.  The process of how we do that with respect, in a meaningful way, is important:

  • Quite often deep transformation requires an objective partner to walk alongside your organization, board of directors, or leadership team to un-tie organizational knots with strategic planning, fund development, innovation or evaluation.
  • As consultants we know it usually requires deep listening to, and learning from, a broad cross section of stakeholders to ensure we are intentionally inclusive.

Our systems, schools, foundations and universities ultimately serve students and families who deserve the best outcomes. Our team of consultants has a rich history of supporting educational access and success, and we are thrilled to support NPEA though this sponsorship.

To help the NPEA community during the COVID-19 crisis, we are providing complimentary 60-minute consults to NPEA members as capacity allows through April 30.  

How does it work?

  • Submit your request at
  • Schedule a time for phone or video conferencing.
  • You present a challenge and we will help you work through it.
  • Topics should be focused on organizational development and might include fund development, board engagement, pivots in programming, team building in times of crisis, etc.
  • Our time together will be confidential.

We are happy to help in this time of need.

Enjoy the interview!

-Kim Stezala, Senior Partner and Matt Visser, Senior Consultant, Design Group International

In early March, the NPEA team had the opportunity to sit down with Marcia Chatelain, a Provost’s Distinguished Associate Professor of history and African American Studies at Georgetown University. We spoke about her new book, Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America (2020), her work with students on campus, and what challenges in the field keep her up at night. Read the full interview below!

You describe yourself as a proud native of Chicago; how would you say that growing up in Chicago has informed your views as a scholar, an author, and a professor?

It was always incredible curious to be in a city in which there was such hyper-segregation, such a dynamic racial and ethnic diversity. On the one hand, it meant that I had friends whose family came from all over the world, and I was able to enjoy their food and culture. But on the other hand, in terms of how people actually connected with each other, I rarely saw people crossing those lines. And so I think growing up in Chicago made me very aware that diversity without real connection was empty, and I often ask how we can pivot from a politics of representation to really thinking about, “What are the common threads that connect people? How do we keep those threads strong?”

You have a book that just came out in January, called Franchise. Can you give a quick summary for folks who may not have read it yet?

Franchise is the story of how McDonald’s entered African American communities in the late 1960s, and it looks the ways that the government, civil rights organizations, and the fast food industry came together to change the consumer base and the landscape of fast food.

In researching Franchise, what surprised you the most?

How optimistic and hopeful people were about fast food. We live in an era in which fast food is so easy to dismiss as always negative, but from the purview of 1968, in communities that had experienced so much devastation and so much despair, the idea that a food restaurant could be some type of outward symbol of a commitment to progressive and social change was actually very real for the people who experienced it.

You’ve said that the singular impact McDonald’s has had on the black community exposes “how deeply the nation has failed in its effort to treat everybody equally,” and it “reflects how limited outcomes can be when we don’t have robust public systems.” How can the field of education remedy some of those systemic failures?

I think that education can do two very important things:

  1. We can teach students to be critical of institutions, but empathetic towards people. When you have those two qualities, you’re much better equipped to really tackle the world’s problems.
  2. Whether we are trying to work with traditional public schools, private schools, charter schools, or parents who homeschool, we have to understand that at the end of the day, our institutions are only as strong as their capacity to level the playing field.

Most problems that we encounter in educational access are exacerbated, if not caused by, other issues of inequality, including access to affordable housing, opportunities to have well-paying jobs, the ability for people to have health care when they need it, the opportunity to have child care. And our work in making education accessible is also about making the quality of people’s lives better, regardless of how much wealth they have available to them.

While empathizing with those who took a chance on a franchise, you critique black capitalism because it “presupposes that the world will operate in segregated communities.” What areas of the educational field suffer from the same challenge today?

When we talk about access, we have to think about Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous quote about warning people not to rush into ‘integrating into a burning house.’ And when we think about the solutions to the problems of inequality, what we’re trying to do is leverage existing resources in order to make opportunity available for more, rather than trying to consign it for fewer and fewer people, or to maintain the status quo.

And what I’ve learned from looking at people who put a lot of their hopes into fast food franchising is that that model of generating wealth never addressed people who were left behind. But the thing that’s so amazing about education is that at its best, it takes everyone into consideration. When we have schools that work for people, we never have to sacrifice anyone – because no one is left behind.

  You’ve done a ton of interviews and speaking engagements in the past few months since Franchise hit shelves. What’s one question you wish someone would ask that just never gets asked?

No one ever brings up this idea, which I challenge in my book, that there was a ‘Golden Age’ of black food access; the idea that people were eating healthy, they were living off the land, and then fast food came and ruined everything. And while fast food has exacerbated the issues of health disparity in the United States, it certainly wasn’t the beginning. So I wish people would ask me a little bit about what food access people had before the entry of fast food into inner cities, because then I could talk about how one element of the civil rights movement was access to good quality groceries in communities; there was a pre-story of struggle that had nothing to do with fast food, but was instead about food inequality.

Franchise covers a wide array of the ways a McDonald’s franchise could support black communities, ranging from community meeting spots to your personal example of a sponsor for black Quizbowl tournaments. If you could highlight one aspect as important or meaningful to you, what would it be?

For me, McDonald’s meant a lot because it represented my independence as a kid. I worked at a very young age, and to be able to pay for my own McDonald’s was a sign of my own growing up. And I think that for many young people, who are testing those boundaries of being able to make decisions on your own, fast food plays that role for them in a lot of ways. And so for me, coming from a family with a mom who worked multiple jobs in order to support us, going to McDonald’s wasn’t only just quick, efficient, and cheap, but it was also our time together. And so, the fact that McDonald’s is kind of at the center of feeling connected with family is something that, no matter how critical I am of fast food franchising, will always be a part of my life.

Is there anything else that you would want somebody from the NPEA community to know about the work that you’ve put into Franchise?

People who are concerned about access to food are very similar to the people who are interested in educational access, insofar as sometimes, we think the answers are only about that one issue. We can get ourselves into the habit of thinking, “If we get children the right opportunities at the right schools, then everything should proceed from there.” But one of the things I’ll talk about in my keynote that I really, really understood better as a result of this book, is that opportunity is not stability; just because people are able to meet one need, it doesn’t necessarily resolve the tensions of the other needs. But what opportunity does provide is a chance for you to have more options on how you resolve some issues.

Your bio talks about your work in starting #FergusonSyllabus. As the topic of culturally responsive curricula gets more attention, what advice do you have for those trying to bring this work to their schools or programs? What lessons did you learn? What challenges did you have to overcome?

I think the thing that I discovered through #FergusonSyllabus is that no one wants to feel alone in the teaching process. Teaching is kind of strange because it’s something that we do by ourselves in front of a group of students, but we need to know that we are in solidarity and people are in solidarity with us.

A lot of people are more skilled and have more insights than they think, but I realized people didn’t know how to use their academic or their disciplinary expertise as a way to intervene in a complex conversation about race. Someone from the sciences might say, “Well, I’ve got nothing to say about Ferguson.” And I could respond, “Well, what do you have to say about tear gas? What can you say about its chemical compositio, about what it does to a person’s lungs when they inhale it?” Because for that person, that’s their conversation about this moment: what happens to people when they rise up and tear gas is deployed. There are lots of conversations about race, but for so many people, they don’t understand that the way they think about things engages them in a conversation about race.

So I think the thing that I really, really appreciated was the opportunity to help people make those connections, not based necessarily on their personal opinion, or even trying to tell people how they should be teaching. What was really valuable was often just asking, “What can your teaching do to broaden this moment?”

You held a podcast called Office Hours, where you with students to discuss issues that are important to them. How often were you surprised by what students bring up to you on that podcast? How did you try to address students’ needs and follow up with something after something’s been shared?

I loved Office Hours; I loved the opportunity for students to be the experts and to tell me something, because what I realized in my teaching was that so much about the relationship between students and teachers is a kind of invitation: when I teach a history class, I’m inviting students to care about something that’s important to me. But as educators, I don’t think we carve out enough time to have students give us an opportunity to share something that’s important to them.

And what I learned from Office Hours is that students have a deep desire to let us into their lives in ways that are sometimes subtle, and sometimes really explicit, but are ultimately opportunities for them to share with us and teach us. And when we give them that opportunity, it just improves the quality of the relationship.

I’m also surprised that students, whether they appear super or seem really shy, are all struggling with some aspect of the higher ed experience. And whether they’re a fifth generation or first generation college student, I think we have to remember that all students have needs. We can’t get too distracted by the appearance of confidence, the appearance of privilege, or the appearance of preparation; we have to see all students as people who really need us to be present for them.

That’s a great segue to one of our fun questions about what is your favorite podcast. And you’re absolutely allowed to plug one of your own. But what is your favorite thing to listen to?

I listen to so many podcasts in a week, it’s kinda bananas. But some of my favorites:

  • There’s a podcast called, ‘Again, With This,’ and it’s two friends reviewing every episode of Beverly Hills 90210 – all nine seasons of it. It’s hilarious: two very bright people talking about television. And as someone who really likes television and sometimes, I like the fact that I can listen to smart people talk about television. Sometimes I’m made to feel embarrassed by how much I like TV, but part of the reason why television is so important to me is that I think it’s where I learned a lot of things to make up for a lot of social capital that I didn’t have. So I’m a big believer in TV.
  • There’s another one that’s a true crime comedy podcast called ‘True Crime Obsessed,’ where they review different true crime documentaries that I think is really funny.
  • Last two, both of which I’ve been on. The first is called ‘Historians on Housewives,’ where historians talk about episodes of different Real Housewives shows, and it’s hilarious. And the history on it is really good.
  • And then the last podcast is called, ‘These Are Their Stories,’ and it’s a podcast about Law and Order. I’ve done two episodes of it and I find it incredibly funny.

You’re also part of the Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation Working Group at Georgetown. Can you tell us a bit about this work? How do you even start to approach something with such a wide range and scope? 

So my time on that working group really opened my eyes to the fact that, for so long, we’ve only thought about universities good institutions because they provide people with an education and they’re factors in social mobility. But at the end of the day, I had to contend with the reality that universities are complex institutions: universities sometimes undermine human freedom, they sometimes aren’t always acting in the interests of the public good, and at times, they’ve upheld some of the most nefarious elements of our society.

And seeing that was really good for me, because it helped me take a broader look and ask myself, “What does it mean? What does it mean to be at a university? What does it mean to have this career?” So I really appreciated the opportunity to take a critical look at academia as an institution, and to really struggle with that. I also think that the work helped inspire other institutions, which is really exciting to see, and I loved being part of a community that’s really shaped by each other’s choices, and to see the different directions that other institutions took in that kind of work.

If someone were reading this whose institution might not have such a working group, do you have any advice that you might give to someone who would try and get that work started at their own institution?

Before starting this work, you have to have a code of conduct, a kind of ethical understanding of why you’re doing this. What do you hope to accomplish? What does it mean when there’s pushback? What are your plans for next steps, depending on how this is received? You also have to be very aware that a lot of these initiatives originate as research projects. Pivoting a research project to a racial justice project is really hard, and you have to be really aware of the fact that in tracing people’s family origins to enslaved people on a college campus, you open up a lot of people to some vulnerabilities about themselves and their identities. It’s hard work and it’s worthwhile, but you really have to be thoughtful and intentional about how you want to execute it.

What do you see as some of the biggest challenges facing the field of education access and success today? What keeps you up at night as you think about this work and what needs to be done?

I think that we have to be really careful that access doesn’t become a ‘trend’ of higher education; we’ve certainly seen enough of those over the years. We have to make sure that history of educational access is clear, so people know that this work has been happening for a really long time. And we have to make sure that we don’t become wedded to the idea that there’s only one successful way for a first generation student to emerge, or to attend school. We can’t lose sight of the many diverse ways in which people get educated and people succeed.

We have to acknowledge that some of the challenges for first generation college students are real and the solutions might disrupt our fairytale notion of education. So I think that keeps me up at night is that we’ll find ourselves in a moment where caring about first gen students is just a trend that we pay lip service to before people move on to the next trend in higher education.

Thinking about how hard it is when a student arrives on a campus where they might be the only person that looks like them, either on the inside or on the outside… what have you felt works best to support those students, to not just survive but thrive on these institutional campuses?

Being as transparent as humanly possible about everything – about the ups and downs of the experience, about ways that I’ve changed that I’m comfortable with, and  about ways that I’ve changed that I’m uncomfortable with. I always say to students when they’re trying to be supportive or trying to be a mentor that you have to explain every step.

In our first gen class, we had senior students who were mentors, and they would say things like, “I got an internship, and -”, and I say “No, no, no – we gotta rewind the tape. What’s an internship? How did you hear about it? When you applied for the internship, what did you need to do? How did they pay you? Did you have to sleep on someone’s couch, or could you afford it? Did you have to dress up or not dress up? Was there free food at the internships, so you don’t have to worry about lunches?” I walk everyone through every single step because what I have found, access-wise, is that it’s very easy for us to talk about the wins and the accomplishments, but if we don’t explain to students how those pathways work, then we might as well not have told them anything at all.

What book are you reading right now?

I am reading a very interesting book called You Never Forget Your First by Alexis Coe [Link]. It’s a biography of George Washington that is very funny and really looks at why so many presidential biographies of George Washington only want to valorize him, rather than offering a rich portrait of the first president.

What’s your favorite work-life balance tip?

Find some joy every day. For the people trying to level the playing field and really trying to fight the good fight, it can sometimes be so draining. So, whether it’s texting an emoji to a friend, tweeting a GIF, whatever you need to do: prioritize centering joy in the small moments, because that’s what’s going to sustain you in the long haul.

When you do really need to disconnect and recharge and unwind, what do you do? What’s your favorite way to do that?

I love TV. I watch The Bachelor, I watched Love is Blind (it was bananas), I just finished Bojack Horseman on Netflix. I give my heart to reality TV and people always say, “How do you have so much time to watch TV?” And I say, “You know what, it’s like working out – you prioritize it.” If I need to get up early so I can watch television, I will get up early to watch television.

How do you find time for everything? 

I wake up super early, and I have an incredibly supportive spouse, and I try to make the most out of every day that I have. I tend to prioritize being busy with the things that really, really make me happy: the time with students, the time when I can learn new things, and my time watching TV.

What is on your desk right now?

Oh my gosh, everything’s on my desk. Two copies of Franchise, some 1099 forms that need to be scanned to my accountant, some lip gloss, a coupon for DSW because I need new athletic shoes, and thank you cards. I write about 5 to 10 Thank You cards each week, because so many people wonderful people have hosted me, especially on the book tour. My desk is just filled with stuff.

Is there anything else that you would want folks coming to the conference to know about you?

I’m just so grateful to have been really shaped by people who cared about access, and through scholarship programs or fellowship programs or mentorship programs… even to this day, I really count on programs and people that are really concerned with changing the landscape in higher education. And I’m just really proud to be invited to a gathering like this, because those are the experiences that have been so fundamental to my success that I really have no idea where I would be without them. I’m really grateful for the opportunity to be in community with all of you.

Visit Dr. Chatelain’s website to learn more.

Check out this recent New York Times book review learn more about Dr. Chatelain’s newest book, Franchise (2020).